Designed to grow

Deborah Silver’s three companion businesses fill the niche for specialty landscape and garden services.

For Deborah Silver, one idea in the garden leads to another – and one business as a landscape design/build firm has led to another two complementary ventures that work symbiotically.

Deborah Silver & Co. designs and builds high-end landscapes – Silver sees the work as garden sculpture – and her store, Detroit Garden Works, offers a collection of fine garden wares. Finally, Branch Studio is where handmade garden pots, planters, furniture and structures are manufactured.

“Having a wide range of services means that anyone who is truly interested in gardening or landscape can find something that is either of interest to them or helps them in their own landscape,” says Silver, who founded her design/build firm in 1986.

Her first client was Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, Mich., an account that sustained her business through its first season in 1986. “I had one truck two guys, some machinery – that was it,” she says.

The landscape business grew from there, mostly by word of mouth during a time when face time wasn’t an online pursuit. And Silver had worked on Mackinac Island and other key projects while working for another firm, so when she went off on her own, the clients followed. “I had met a lot of clients and people in my capacity at this first landscape job, and I suppose that the exposure to these people made such an impact that they tried to find me after I started my own business,” she says.

After 10 years of running the business from home, she outgrew that space, despite the setting on 5 acres in a fairly remote neighborhood in greater Detroit. She acquired a 10,000-square-foot building on an acre of property, and that room to grow prompted the launch of Detroit Garden Works. Six years later, and following more growth, Silver moved to an even larger facility, 30,000 square feet of building space on 7 acres of property.  With an extra building on the land, she opened her manufacturing division, Branch Studio.     

“So as my companies grew, then I had to have place for them,” Silver says. “That was sort of the springboard to adding another division or another service.”
Creative counterparts
Silver studied fine arts in college and supported herself as a painter, creating watercolor works and drawings, for several years before going to work in the landscape industry. This cultural influence is evident in her landscape designs, the garden wares curated in her shop and the custom products that are fabricated at Branch Studio.

“I love the landscape, the design of the landscape and the installation,” she says. “If I’m on a brand new project and I have machines running, I just think that’s wonderful. But I also like the diversity, being able to be involved in a store, making sculptures for interiors. I love the holiday, and I love the spring – so the diversity of the work is what appeals to me the most.”

A passion for beautiful, interesting things in the landscape and a love for season’s change is evident at Detroit Garden Works, which made Martha Stewart Living’s 2011 The Garden 50 – a compilation of 50 favorite products, projects and places inspired by the world of gardening. 

There, you can find containers of all kinds, antique garden ornaments, specialty plants, sculpture, furniture and more. The variety is extensive, but the selection is carefully honed. 

“If you want a fabulous garden antique from Europe, we have those things,” Silver says. “But we also have a lot of items with style and interest that are great looking and reasonable on price.”

For instance, Detroit Garden Works sells fiber pots ideal for starting a container garden collection and expanding one’s plant palate. The simple pots ordinarily used for nursery stock can be dressed up with galvanized steel stands. “It’s a very inexpensive way to make a decision to invest more money (in plants),” Silver says. 

“Great design is not so much about money,” she continues. “It’s about a look.”

Silver’s buyer for Detroit Garden Works has an eye for choosing items that are just right for the store, she says. “He can look at the most ordinary object and think, ‘That would be really great looking in the landscape.’”

The see-it-like-it-buy-it effect is huge. That’s why Detroit Garden Works closes its doors every January 15 until March 1 – they’re open by appointment or by chance. During that time, the shop gets a fresh coat of paint, every item is removed and the space is cleaned out completely. “We redo every display on an acre and 10,000 square feet before we reopen,” Silver says. “Everything is fresh, all the relationships are fresh, there are new ideas about putting this with that. That’s what people get excited about.”

Meanwhile, diversity extends to the customer base of Detroit Garden Works, which has expanded in a vast way thanks to online sales. Plus, the retail center serves clients locally that are interested in Silver’s designs and garden style but do not hire her for landscape design/install services. “Because I do all of the design and drawing for my landscape company – and that’s what I like – there is a limit to how much work I can do,” Silver says. “The store is a way for me to still reach people with the design aesthetic I think is important.”

Seasonal bustle
December is the second busiest month of the year for Deborah Silver & Co., following May, the start of spring. The holiday surge of business is thanks to a robust décor service that Silver offers clients, from winter containers to interior design to outdoor lighting.

“There is nothing more forlorn than a pair of pots sitting empty on a front porch all winter,” says Silver, relating the inspiration behind this business. She began filling Detroit Garden Works with cut greens, twigs, natural branches and other materials, both real and artificial, to fill those pots during the cold season. And her people grew very skilled at fashioning container winterscapes for clients.

“The holiday business grew out of my shop – I wanted to be able to tell clients who were buying a great pot that they had other options besides planting it for the summer,” Silver says.

The holiday business keeps Silver’s employees working year-long, which is another bonus. “I like employing full-time people, and most of our people have worked for me for 10 years or more,” she says. “At a certain point, you want to offer people you really value fulltime employment.”

Silver enjoys decorating for the seasons, and for occasions that may last only an evening. Her relatively discreet event business – she decorates about 10 sites per year – fulfills a passion to transform a space using cut flowers and sculpture. “I like building props because that is just an offshoot of sculpture, and I’ve always done that, but I limit these (event) projects to the time of year when I can really handle it,” she says. “Sometimes the landscape business is just so busy that I can’t (take on event clients).”

Keeping the business right-sized is important to Silver. She appreciates the nimble nature of her operation. And while extensive in the way her businesses serve clients locally and beyond, all efforts are focused on a design aesthetic that is purely Silver. “I would not want to own a company so large that it takes an act of Congress and 55 meetings to decide you’re going to sell Halloween themed items,” Silver says. 

Part of continuously feeding her passion for beauty in the outdoors is maintaining an ability to be spontaneous. “I work with a very small group of people that have great imaginations, and they are lively and very caring about what they do,” she says. “The interaction is inspiring.”

This is one of three stories that appeared in Lawn & Landscape's Business Builder e-newsletter. To continue reading about how Deborah Silver has grown her three businesses:

Sustainable success: Fiscal conservatism helped these Detroit companies thrive during the worst of the economic downturn.

Inspiring words: Deborah Silver explores landscape ideas and pulls customers in with her blog.

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