Planting Containers For Fall

fall-container-arrangements-4If you read this journal of mine regularly, you know that in addition to my passion for landscape design, I am a devoted fan of planted containers. Part of that attraction has to do with an interest in the containers themselves. Whether it be an antique urn, a mid century concrete planter, or a re-purposed galvanized barrel, beautiful and interesting containers endow a garden with the personality of the gardener in charge. A great container is a sculpture that happens to provide a home for a collection of seasonal plants. A container planting is a one season only, miniature version of the landscape.  A statement about the the garden in real time. I am very interested in how gardeners express themselves in a container planting. Any gardener that takes the time and trouble to plant containers every season is a gardener who has my interest. How so?  I am a fan of any devoted and serious effort in the garden.  I plant my pots differently every year. That is the fun and the challenge of container plantings. Will I like this years crop of pots better than last year’s? That short three month window will tell. Not having to live with this collection of plants for longer than a season means I am more likely to feel free enough to experiment. The landscape is much about developing a relationship that is deep, wide, and long standing. In contrast, a container planting is a celebration of the season at hand. The joy of the moment. I have a whole season to reflect on what I have done, without any worry about the future.  A container planting is about being present. They are a perfect foil for the landscape, which is as much about the years as it is about the effort.

fall container arrangementsGiven that the fall season is dead ahead, we have begun planting containers for fall.  We frequently construct centerpieces for the pots from natural and dried materials. It is not only of visual interest to include harvested materials, but those materials help to provide scale and volume to the container arrangements. At the center of every centerpiece is a bamboo pole. All of the materials are attached to that pole with zip ties.  That stake gets pounded down into the container when it is installed.  The pole driven deep in the soil is what keeps that centerpiece aloft, and perfectly vertical.

fall-container-arrangements-8Fresh cut broom corn is a staple in our fall pots. Sorghum vulgare is a very tall coarse growing plant that somewhat resembles corn. The plant is largely used in the production of corn brooms and whisks. The seeds are arranged on panicles about 20 inches long. Once the seed is removed, those wiry panicles are used in the production of brooms. Corn brooms are sturdy, and long lasting. But the cut stems of broom corn, thick with mature seeds, adds a lot of color and textural interest to a fall arrangement. Over the course of the fall, the birds will feed on the broom corn stalks in our arrangements.  I like this. The stems and seed heads are quite heavy, so we anchor tall centerpieces to 3/4″ thick bamboo poles.

fall-container-arrangements-6We use lots of other materials for these fall centerpieces. Fresh cut millet, preserved millet, preserved eucalyptus and all manner of dried materials can all be built into a fall centerpiece. We are just as likely to shop the garden, or the field at our landscape yard for branches, the dried perennial seed heads of hibiscus, acanthus, and echinacea, and maturing weeds. The shop carries a great variety of materials that can be incorporated into a fall container.  Though the fall signals the beginning of that time when the garden goes dormant, the fall harvest is a time to be celebrated.

fall-container-plantings-30These centerpieces were made for a client that wanted something that would last the fall and go on throughout the winter season.  The yellow twig dogwood is exceptionally long lasting, but for a fall arrangement we needed to strip off the leaves.  Preserved eucalyptus will last outdoors for months without deteriorating.  The white berries are artificial, but convincing even in close proximity. What got planted at the base of this arrangement in the fall did have to be changed for the winter. Her interest was in a pair of front porch pots that would be inviting beyond the summer season. We were happy to oblige.

fall-container-planting-2015-6The orange berries from the American bittersweet vine are vibrant, and so appropriate to the fall season. These woody fruiting vines can loosen up a static arrangement.  If we use bittersweet in a fall pot, we add it to the centerpiece after it is installed. Some elements in fall containers ask for a last minute addition. Every airy gesture made at the last minute is the most personal gesture. Personal gestures in the garden are remarkable.  Those I have seen, I remember.

dsc_4905Not every fall centerpiece has to be yellow, orange, red and brown. A fall color scheme can take its cue from an architectural feature, or the preference of the gardener. This client had a particular love for rainy fall days.  This is our interpretation.

fall-container-arrangements-2Another client with small children makes every effort to engage her children with nature. For her, we combine a simple centerpiece with pumpkins on a stick. Container plantings are personal. A garden with personality is much to be admired.

dsc_4793A fall container centerpiece can be simple or elaborate. It can be a combination of fresh and dried materials. A hydrangea topiary you have had in a pot all summer can do duty in the fall season. It can be a fistful of weeds from the lot next door. It can be anything you wish. The important thing is to endow your garden with a personal expression of the season. It is a world of good to answer the close of the gardening season with beautiful fall containers. The fall centerpiece is the first part of that seasonal gesture. What comes next in that pot is up to you.

fall-container-arrangements-7whitewashed ladder branches and orange millet

dsc_4898broomcorn and preserved eucalyptus

sat-1layered centerpiece with broom corn and preserved and dyed black eucalyptus

sept-26-2014-2fall centerpiece with fresh cut broom corn, caramel preserved and dyed eucalyptus, and dyed banana stems

fall-container-arrangements-3sticks and stems

ladderbranch centerpiecePlanting fall containers are a favorite part of my designing life in late September and October.

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Letting Go

containers-mid-september-7By mid September, change is in the air. As much as I would wish that the summer would persist past Labor Day, it never does. The summer season falters right on cue. The blazing heat generated by the summer sun is waning. The sun is lower in the sky. The garden is cooler. The night temperatures are a little chilly. We are beginning to get a little rain. The plants in my containers are beginning to look like summer is coming to a close. The petunias which have been sulking all summer are sliding headlong into decline. Any thin leaved foliage looks pale and unhappy. The bloom on any container plant is more sparse. The showy oregano blooms in the driveway pots have matured and turned brown. I am lucky for the licorice and nicotiana that has come on strong with the cooler weather. The big thick leaves of the alocasia have not gotten the message yet. They still look great. It is just about time to think about letting go.

containers-mid-september-6The upkeep of my containers is a summer long pursuit. The watering required by our very hot and dry summer was just about a full time job.  The driveway garden took a long time to water, as there are plants in ground there too. Once the plants became root bound, their need for water was insatiable. I watered. And watered again. Ordinarily, looking after the pots is generally a pleasure. The maintenance is relaxing. A plant that is unfairly crowding another may need some pruning back. Some flowers need dead heading in order to keep blooming well.  Old leaves mature, and need to be removed. Other plants need to be headed back to promote better flowering. Or staked. Most of this is fiddling, and not really work. But once the season begins to turn towards fall, I quit most everything except the watering. My last act was to cut all the flower stalks off the nicotiana mutabilis.  They had mostly gone to seed.  And I knew they would come on again once the weather cooled off. I favored more flowers over seed.  Why do I quit fiddling?  What I do to manage the plants is about what I think they need.  What plants do when left to their own devices is always an education. Plants grow at different rates. Some tolerate crowding while others do not. Some grow much bigger than expected. Others languish. How every plant in a container adjusts to a lack of intervention from me is interesting to watch.

containers-mid-september-9For whatever reason, nicotiana seedlings by the thousands appeared in the driveway in June. I have never seen this happen, not in 20 years. I have no explanation for this, beyond the fact that the nicotiana mutabilis started going to seed early – I suspect from the heat. And I was watering a lot. But these seedlings did not necessarily look to be mutabilis to me. Pulling them out of the bricks would have been no small amount of work. In spite of my propensity for order, it seemed like a better plan to just be grateful that I had all those volunteers working this garden. Any plant that wished to grow in the driveway this summer was welcome to do so.  Of course the most robust group of seedlings were those in proximity to the water draining out of the pots.

watering volunteer seedlingsI eventually took to watering them on purpose. Buck would sit on the deck so we could talk while I was watering in the drive. He had a lot of questions about why there were so many weeds in the drive, and my reason for watering them, but I waved him off. If I had set out to grow nicotiana in the brick, I am sure my efforts would have been an utter failure.  No doubt nature was in charge of this event. For some reason, conditions were perfect for nicotiana seed to germinate.

containers-mid-september-3The very first seedling to bloom was nicotiana alata lime – a cultivar which I am growing in the ground this year.  I never got a chance to take a picture of it, as I accidentally ripped the plant out of the brick dragging the hose over it. Dang it all.  If you are a gardener, you know that any plant you kill is a burden to be born by you alone. Anyone else would yawn.

nicotiana langsdorfii

The next to bloom was nicotiana langsdorfii, which I have not grown in these pots for at least 8 years. It could be my letting go in September many years ago resulted in seed that has laid dormant in between the bricks for years, only to be induced to sprout for some unknown reason this June. I suppose it could be that the frequency of my watering kept the sand between the bricks moist long enough for the seed to sprout. Nicotiana langsdorfii, from whence did you come?

containers-mid-septemberUp close it is easier to see how the letting go is creating a new dynamic. There was no reason to remove the variegated alocasia leaf that was shading the showy oregano.  That oregano had already given up. The green leaf hovering over the dead oregano was a much better look. The large lower leaves of nicotiana mutabilis in the upper pot covered the bare stems of the licorice close to the soil line. I have never had any trouble growing licorice, but this year all of the leaves on the stems close to the soil died back. I have no idea why. The licorice recovered, and had grown vigorously all through and on top of the puny petunias. These pots, left to their own devices, are looking better than they did 2 weeks ago. The alocasia is very happy, on the house side. The back side of this pot is in a fairly shady spot. The sunny side is the primary viewing side. Driving up the drive, the alocasia is leaning towards the light. One of the most difficult parts of container planting design is picking the plants that will be able to handle and perform in light conditions that vary.

containers-mid-september-5Buck has enjoyed the alocasia all summer. He kept me posted if a leaf was turning brown, or developed a hole or tear.   I have never grown them before, so I am giving them a serious look. They are slow to get started. Given plenty of heat, they thrive. They react very slowly to change. It’s clear they can anchor a summer container on in to the fall.

containers-mid-september-10I have learned that my driveway is not just a place to park.

containers-mid-september-2Welcome to the September nicotiana fest underway in the driveway.

 

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A Different Direction

dsc_9650A few years ago I made my first visit to a large rural property outside Ann Arbor. It was very early in the spring. My clients had built a house very much of their own design. My first impression? An American farmhouse with a decidedly contemporary twist. Plain, but plain in a visually strong way. Their property is especially large, given that they had also purchased the house and property next door when it became available. They do the lion’s share of the work it takes to keep up that landscape, spread out over a number of acres. The landscape of their outlying areas is graceful, generous, and unstudied. There is nothing self conscious about the placement of all of the trees, both evergreen and deciduous, that they have planted.  They are good stewards of their land.  They called to ask if I could sketch out a master plan for them. A design that would help make better sense of their love of their property, and their love of plants. They were particularly uncertain about how to handle the landscape near the house. My impression, driving up on this early April day? The front of the house featured the winter remains of ornamental grasses, and mulch-a still dormant garden. A landscape friendly to the architecture would provide this view of their house with some year round interest.

a-different-direction-8R. sent me this picture of the house in the summer. The front yard grade rose from the street, and rolled until it reached the grade of the house. Though the house was set crisply square and level, perfectly matching the horizon, the ground rolled right, dropped off. Rolling ground can be beautiful, but in this case, the ground falling away from left to right made the landscape fall off. A house needs to sit squarely and securely on level ground. One of my favorite places in my landscape is that spot where I might lie down, and feel the earth supporting me. The word foundation has numerous meanings, but that base upon which all else is imagined and constructed comes to mind. As a designer, I am very interested that a house have a flat and spacious ground plane that supports its mass. Right away I knew I would advise my clients to regrade, and add a retaining wall. Their collection of ornamental grasses is lovely, but they do not constitute a landscape. The texture and mass was beautiful in spots, and sparse in others. The tall and the short of it was that neither the grade nor the planting celebrated the geometry of the house.

a-different-direction-11There were other places where those grasses shone. Further down and on the other side of the driveway, they softened the architecture. The interplay between the grasses and the rocks was quite lovely. But this view of the house is not part of the presentation of the house from the road. Ornamental grasses do not sprout until fairly late in the spring-sometimes as late as June in my zone. The house was without a landscape for too many months of the year.

a-different-direction-10The garden attending the walk to the front door was chaotic, and overwhelming to the porch. This picture tells that story. My clients have a big love for ornamental grasses, but I feel they are best in masses of the same kind, and in open areas where they can get big, and wave in the breeze. A pond on another part of the property would be the perfect spot to transplant them.

a-different-direction-9The walk from the front door back to the driveway was equally grassy. They obstructed the view out, and did not relate to the landscape on the far side of the drive.

a-different-direction-15I did a sketch for them for a landscape that would keep the landscape at the front of the house green – all year round. It should be clear from this drawing that their driveway was centered on the house at the road, but angled sharply to the left on its way to the garage. This placement of the drive was of necessity.  A raised septic field on left side of the drive made that area off limits for a drive. That angle made me think a landscape design featuring the horizontal dimension would be good. Sketched in pencil on the left side of the drive near the garage was an unspecified landscape feature, cut into the steep slope and boulder retaining wall constructed for the septic field. My clients like blue green foliage. The block of pinus flexilis “Joe Burke” to the far right would help to visually counter the steep slope away from the house.  A hedge of dwarf Serbian spruce would traverse the entire front of the house, and continue to the drive. A rock retaining wall to level the ground in front would have a hedge of yucca filamentosa in front. Hydrangea Little Lime would provide a little relief to all of the evergreen elements. Given that my clients are hands on, and very involved in the design process, a rough sketch was all they needed.

a-different-direction-21It proved very difficult to locate any dwarf Serbian spruce, so my clients substituted  several rows of Hicks yews, faced down by a spreading yew  “Everlow”. Their rock wall was constructed as a border until the ground dropped off sharply at the end. Planted above that rock wall, as a transition to the grass, is a hedge of Winter Gem boxwood. Just last weekend they came in and purchased a low and very wide steel bowl from Branch, set on top of a volcanic rock pillar.

a-different-direction-20It will take some time for the plants to grow, but it is clear where this layered landscape is going.  I especially like how the lawn panels have such a sculptural quality.

a-different-direction-13This view furthest from the driveway explains how dramatically the ground dropped away. A set of concrete stairs makes the side yard accessible from the front of the house.

a-different-direction-14The flexible pines are planted as a block off the corner of the house.  Eventually they will present as a single organism. They are doing a great job of visually holding up this corner of the house. The exposed foundation of the house is another clue as to how steep the drop in the grade truly is.

a-different-direction-4The Little Lime hydrangeas will greatly soften the architecture of the house.

a-different-direction-1My clients did a great job of creating a landscape feature on the far side of the drive.  It made such great sense to put a staircase in that permits access to that upper level. The steel retaining wall is an interesting contrast to the massive boulder wall. I see they have some sculpture set on that upper level. Someday they might break through the evergreen hedge that separates their property from the property they just purchased. That view has a lot of possibilities. It is particularly satisfying when a client takes a sketch and turns it into a landscape all their own.

 

 

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Early September

early September containers (13)Come September, there are sure signs that the garden is waning. The day breaks late, and the dark comes earlier.  The sun is lower in the sky, and is beginning to cast those long shadows that foretell the coming of fall. Though our weather is still firmly entrenched in a summer long pattern of hot days, the over night temperatures are decidedly cool. It is never easy to tell when a container garden has reached its peak, but I am sure anyone in my zone who gardened in containers this summer was working at a peak level all summer long to maintain them. Week after week of extremely high temperatures and near drought conditions meant the delivery of water to container plants was a job never done. My best ally? My big pots. This pot is 40″ square. Routinely someone who is shopping at Detroit Garden Works remarks that only a person with a very large yard would have a pot this big. Though my side garden is actually quite small, this big pot looks right at home. But the best part of its size is the size of the soil mass inside it. That big body of soil retained moisture for a relatively long period of time before I had to water again. Once the plants shaded the soil, the water evaporated at an ever slower rate.  At the height of the heat, I only watered this pot every 3 or 4 days.  The plants like fewer waterings as well. It is hard on plants to be soaked one day and bone dry the next.

early September containers (12)It goes without saying that smaller containers dry out faster. The two small pots in the foreground of this picture are planted with zinnias and the cascading geranium “Acapulco Compact”. Both of these are highly drought resistant. None the less, they needed a good soak every other day, if not every day, due to the small soil mass. Mandevilleas do thrive in high heat, but they also like to be kept on the dry side. The petunias were too dry. As simple as it is to grow petunias, this year’s crop had no end of problems. Petunias decline quickly when they are too wet, or too dry.  A summer such as ours made it easy to over water and under water. A small pot soaked through and through was still dusty dry by day’s end.  The smaller the pot, or the smaller the root system, the harder it is to maintain an even moisture level.

early September containers (11)The scented geraniums were perfectly happy to be dry.  The fancy leaved geraniums wanted more water. The zinnias with too much watering was the perfect environment for fungus to take hold.  After a long day working outdoors in blistering heat, the prospect of having to fuss over 32 containers was not the first thing on my mind when I got home. The larger pots were more forgiving if I let them go until the morning.

early September containers (9)I firmly believe that every fuchsia and lantana comes with a population of white fly – standard issue. Of course the heat brought them out in droves. I completely defoliated this Ballerina tree fuchsia, white flies in a swarm around my head, and put the leaves in a bag that I dropped off the deck into the trash can below. Yes, I immediately put the lid back on that can. That was not the end of them. I did resort to pest strips. My lantana was green most of the summer, as the white flies went first to the new growth. A lot of new leaves and flower buds went in the trash.  Though this is the smallest of my pots, it is placed on a north wall that gets very little in the way of sun. It got a little water once a week, and that was enough. Small pots are great in the shade.

early September containers (3)This medium sized pot is home to a white dahlia, Acapulco cascading geranium, and white petunias. These white petunias are the best petunias I have this year. I attribute this to the fact that they did not get too wet, nor did they go too dry. How do I tell if a pot needs water?  I put my finger, or a bamboo stake down into the soil.  If the soil has adequate moisture, it will stick to my finger. Dry soil does not stick to anything. The soil on top may be dry, but of concern is the moisture level at the roots.

early September containers (6)The cordyline and trailing verbena in this pot like dry conditions too.  This pot has a fairly large soil mass, although some moisture will evaporate from the terra cotta.  I was very careful to delay watering this until I was sure the plants were in need. My choice of container plants was absolutely influenced by the National Weather Service 3 month prediction. Their unsually hot and dry prediction was correct.

early September containers (1)The Bounce impatiens in these urns need a serious soaking every day now. The soil mass is not that great, and I am sure the plants are root bound. Buck actually watches these for me.  Coming home to these plants flopped over makes me grumpy. Their name is fitting – they will bounce back from being too dry. The lavender New Guinea impatiens below them are in a much larger  rectangular pot. Once they grew enough to provide the soil surface with some protection from sun, the pot held its moisture much longer.

September 4 2016 019By and large my containers on the deck look happy. We have a garden going on that took a lot of work to maintain. Even the corgis disliked being stuck outside when it was too hot, but they were too well mannered to ask or expect me to go it alone.

early September containers (15)This pair of Italian terra cotta rectangles are home to a very happy group of plants. They have plenty of soil to live in. I watered the smaller plants on the edges of the pot more often than the middle or back section. When the weather is really hot, watering all the way around the rim of a pot is important.  Terra cotta can draw the moisture out of the plants on the edge at a much faster rate than the interior plants. I rarely shower a pot. I water with however much I think each plant needs.

early September containers (16) This has to be the most successful planting I have ever done in these planters. I am enjoying them.

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