Sizing Up The Situation

We are a good week or so into our container planting season. The location of the planters or the light and available water drives the selection of the plants. Sizing up the situation is key to successful container plantings. This pair of planters are tall and wide, as they needed to be,  placed in front of substantial stone pillars. Their narrow depth is friendly to the fact that they are placed on a walkway. It is easy to see why my clients selected them. What plants did they ask for? These triple ball eugenia topiaries came in a 1 gallon pot. They would fit. Their shape addresses the formality of the entrance, and they add some much needed height and scale set against the mass of stone. Eugenias are also very tolerant of the shade cast by the north side of the house. There were at least 3 good reasons to plant them. When designing and choosing plants for containers, spend some time assessing your conditions.      The interior of this front porch has a very high roof overhead. Add a northern exposure to the roof overhead means the shade here is serious shade. The porch is massive, and overscaled. Lots of stone and iron flank a pair of dark wood doors. This location asks for very shade tolerant plants with bold texture and good size that would soften and complement the architecture.  The leaves of the lime dracaena “Janet Craig” will burn with the slightest exposure to sun. But in a place like this, they will thrive. The chartreuse leaves brighten the shade. They are striking in an architectural way.

The purple and white flowering streptocarpus is a relative to African violets, and likewise thrives in low light. Given its diminutive size, it is most effective in a mass, as a supporting cast member in a container. The bird’s nest ferns are tropical, meaning they are not hardy in my zone. They offer big and strong mass, shape, and texture to a container planting, while asking for little in the way of light. The black tubes on the porch steps are irrigation lines which will provide water to the containers.  No rain falls here given the roof, so all watering must be done mechanically, or by hand. We run the tubes through the bottom and out the top when we plant the pots as a courtesy to the irrigation contractor. Last but not least is the selection of the containers.  They are of simple shape and smooth texture, which contrasts to the visual complexity of the stone, iron, and glass.  The dark color echoes the dark wood doors, and visually defers to the plants.

This deeply shaded and constantly wet spot was the perfect place for a large scale container. Everything that ever got planted in this ground promptly drowned.  The caladiums and ferns tolerate the the shade, and their striking texture and color help to keep all eyes off the soggy dirt. I have on occasion planted sanseverias in the dirt. They never looked entirely happy, nor did they grow, but they lived. A container is a great idea for a place where nothing else wants to grow. Consider containers for those stubbornly bare spots. A soil and drainage structure above ground can circumvent poor conditions.

This painted brick chimney features a very interesting brick applique, quite unlike any I have ever seen. It thus asks for an arrangement of containers and plants that will not obstruct a view of that feature. The green and white under plantings emphasize that white brick. The triple ball Green Mountain boxwood topiaries can be planted in the ground for the winter, and will only get better with age. I would guess that these boxwood topiaries would would be fine in these lead pots for a number of years.  The white mandevillea will loosen up the look a little, although I will advise my client to clip every once in a while.

This contemporary landscape is dominated by a long and tall corten steel wall. Both the steel and the stone will absorb a lot of heat.  The mid century modern pots are mid sized at the top, and small sized at the bottom. This situation calls for drought resistant plants. As for style, the wild and rangy rosemarys are good against the geometry established by the wall, bench, and terrace. The wide growing small felted leaves of the variegated licorice, and the cloud of tiny blooms from the euphorbia at the bottom will soften the look, without obscuring the shape of the planters.

A container all on its own, well away from a porch or wall, asks for some volume and mass. Once this Limelight hydrangea topiary grows out and blooms, this 24″ by 24″ container will have a living tall and wide presence.  The petunias, white phlox and variegated licorice will provide a wide and soft cushion below, in contrast to those big coarse hydrangea leaves. As the container is 30″ tall, there is room for the roots of a shrub to go deeper than the typical annual plant. The grass, ground cover, gravel, and stone are all on the same level-the ground plane. A tall container and a statuesque central and defining plant that represents the landscape on an entirely different level is particularly effective. Formal landscapes ask for equally formal container plantings.

This client owns a pair of particularly fine and detailed bronze urns. The recent planting was designed to never obstruct or impinge on the view of the urns. The white mandevillea will grow up, and provide some green company to the porch columns. The white sunpatiens will flush out, and grow wide.

This small front porch does have a roof, but it does face south. This tall pot has a very small planting area.  A tree form fuchsia with long and graceful arms readily fits in the small space. The petunias and licorice will not thrive to the extent they do in full sun-but in this situation, restrained growth will be good.

This delicate wire planter on legs is also placed on a covered porch, facing east. The pink caladiums will flush out, as will the button ferns. This will soften the blocky look of the walls and floor. The container is light enough to be taken out for some overhead light once in a while. The creeping jenny will cascade. A little judicious pruning will help keep that jenny narrow.

These large Italian terra cotta pots occupy a partly shady corner on a terrace that occupies most of the floor space. Small beds permitted the planting of Boston ivy, and climbing roses, but containers provide an opportunity to really warm up the space. The fuchsias will bloom all summer in this protected location, as will the sunpatiens. These containers were planted on May 9 for an event on May 12. There would be no time for growing.  So we planted gallon pots and baskets rather than 4″ pots. This is an equally good strategy if you need to plant seasonal containers late. Many greenhouse 2 or 3 crops a season, or an edited selection of annual plants in 6″ or 8″ pots. A new terrace, a birthday gift of a pot, a new house, an engagement party-there are plenty of good reasons to plant late.

In the meantime, all of the containers we planted for spring look terrific right now. These plants are thriving in our cool weather. I like to plant seasonally. By this I mean the best place for heat loving annuals right now in my zone is a greenhouse. Deciding when to plant is an important decision.  I will do most of my container plantings in the next 3 weeks.

Rob placed this basket full of white gerbera daisies next to this antique stone cistern. I think he did a great job of sizing up this situation.

 

 

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What Will You Plant?

I did plant my first container project last week for a client who had an event, and was willing to take the risks associated with planting in cold soil. Planting for an event means I use the largest and most established plant material I can, in hopes that the shock of cold soil and cold nights will bother them less than small plants. My rationale could be entirely without merit – and just a feeble effort to make myself feel better about shocking these tropical plants with unhappy conditions. But soon enough the nights will be warm enough to plant. At home, I like to get my containers out early, fill them with fresh soil, and look at them for a while. We had a new and improved soil mix blended for us in March that has more compost, leaf mold, and ground bark.  I am hoping this soil will retain moisture better, so the pots we plant do not have to have to be monitored so closely for water. When the soil in my pots is plenty warm, it is time to plant.

What will you plant? The process of deciding what to plant is not logical or linear, but certain issues are influential. The light conditions rank right up there.  Geraniums do not like a shady location, and white non stop begonias will burn and fail in hot sunny locations. This issue is fairly easy to resolve. Most plants have care tags in them. Sun means sun. Shade really means partial or dappled shade. If you have deep shade, shop the house plant department. Locations that are part sun and part shade can be trickier. Those white begonias may tolerate some morning sun, and want more protection from noon on. Caladiums will tolerate a lot of sun if they have sufficient water. 6 hours of sun might satisfy those plants needing full sun. Shop at a nursery if you want help selecting the proper plants for your locations. Most nurseries in my area have people who are expert in the light and water of seasonal plants.

Once the science has been satisfied, there are plenty of other decisions to be made. The first is to understand your objective in planting the pot in the first place. If you want the pots on your front porch to be seen from the sidewalk, then planting large flowered plants, or vines in a pale or bright color will help them to read successfully from afar. If you want them to screen an untoward view, plant your pots tall, and maybe plant multiple pots in the same location. If you want a pot to anchor a garden or landscape bed, plant large pots big and wide. Be clear in the planting that the container is a focal point around which other elements will revolve. If you like small, subtle, and or fragrant flowers, plant them near where you will be able to sit to enjoy them. If your idea is to stop any visitor in their tracks, then plant annuals that bloom lavishly, or whose foliage is striking

Annual container plants have an attitude. Some are dramatically formal. Others are free wheeling. Others still are modest in form and flower. That plantatude factor might influence what you choose. Large flowered tropical plants have an exotic and otherworldly aura about them. Dahlias, zonal geraniums, cannas and mandevilleas are tropical plants with big showy flowers. ooo la la. Some annuals plants with dramatic foliage include alocasias, calocasias, agaves and cannas. Even small succulent plants can be dramatic, as their forms are fascinating. Coleus foliage is not that large, but the color of the leaves can be very dramatic. If coleus are pinched regularly, they attain great size and interesting shapes.  If the drama of it all makes you happy to be gardening in containers, then go for it. If the drama needs a formal and contemporary aspect, then fill your pot with lots of the same plant, in the same color. In a shady spot, a Janet Craig dracaena (large glossy chartreuse leaves) underplanted with creeping jenny (dimuitive chartreuse leaves that trail downwards) and lime selaginella (a creeping velvet textured club moss) in a container would make a very dramatic statement indeed. A container of a single color makes the forms and textures of the plants prominent. All of the drama of tropical plants comes naturally in my zone. A pot full of dahlias grown in a tropical zone might blend into the landscape, and would not have the drama that I associate with exotic plants.

If something lighter and more subtle is more appealing, choose seasonal plants have forms and flowers that have the look of the perennial garden. There are tropical forms (meaning non-hardy) of lavender – as in French or Spanish lavender. The annual blue salvia is quite similar in color and form to the hardy types. Marguerites, or Boston daisies bring the look of a shasta daisy to a container. Annual phlox flowers look much like phlox subulata, or moss phlox. Angelonia is a graceful stand in for veronica, or any other spike forming perennial. So why not plant the perennials in the containers?  Perennials have a very limited and specific bloom time. If cut back, many perennials will rebloom, but the down time is significant. Annuals that have that perennial aura, with some exceptions, tend to have a more relaxed habit of growth.  That more cottage like farm and garden look is easy on the eye.  What says summer breeze in our zone better than daisies? Getting sunflowers to work in a formal or contemporary container would be tough. Sunflowers look like they belong in the vegetable garden, no matter how they are placed. They have an aura.

The arrangement of the plants in a given container creates a distinctive mood.  Symmetrical arrangements are more formal. I usually plant my pots symmetrically, as my pots are formal and classic/traditional Italian terra cotta. That style pot works well with my 1930’s house. The pots are a big part of the composition.  What do your pots ask for?  Asymmetrical arrangements of many types of plants is more garden like, and less fussy. Plantings of a single cultivar are the most formal, and also the most contemporary. Planting a stiff growing plant (like a dahlia) with an airy growing plant (like euphorbia diamond frost) relaxes the look. The relationships established by the color and form of one plant to its companions is part of why gardening in containers is so interesting

Of course, color plays a big part in the selection of plants.  Some colors are appealing; others not so much. Pink and orange together is loud, even rowdy. Gray and white is subtle. All white, and all green-so chic. Purple and red looks like royalty. Yellow and white is sunny. This is my take on color combinations. Everyone sees color differently. How you see color, texture, mass and form should be evident in what plants you choose for your containers. What will I plant?  I have no idea…yet.

 

 

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Some Very Good Reasons To Plant Containers For Spring

Our early spring season has been notable for its soaking and relentless rains. Daily rain. As in  “don’t go out without your muck boots on”  rainy. And  “don’t even think of stepping into the garden”  rainy. The boxwood pictured above are slated for an early landscape installation. They spent the winter indoors, in the building we use to house equipment and vehicles. By mid-March, those plants needed to come out of storage. The process was not pretty, as you can see. No gardener can tell ahead of time how the season will change from winter to spring. That transition is rarely smooth and easy. Into our second week of daily rain, the ground is simply too wet to work. We have heeled these boxwood in, not knowing when we will be able to begin planting.

These rainy days are gray and dreary. The cold is magnified by all of the water in the air. Bone chilling. I stand on the edges of my garden, knowing it is off limits right now. Stepping on the ground when it is completely saturated with water drives all of the life giving oxygen out of that soil. Compacted soil is unfriendly to any plant that is trying to grow. So how can a gardener garden early on, given these conditions? Plant some pots. The soil in containers drains much more readily than the soil underfoot. The soil of your choice loaded up in a container drains freely. Containers can be readily be planted in the rain, just ask my crews. Containers can furthermore be planted with all manner of seasonal plants that do a great job of tolerating the cold. Our trees are still leafless, and few perennial plant has dared venture forth, but for the hellebores, and the early spring flowering bulbs. What else can help soften the very early spring blues? I would suggest that a worthy preview of the spring season to come might begin with some containers confidently planted with plants that endure in spite of the cold.

These branchy style cut pussy willow stems speak to and echo the spring garden. Pussy willow is a very large growing shrub that blooms very early. If your landscape is not large enough to accommodate this big rangy shrub, the cut branches look terrific in spring containers. The blue preserved and dyed eucalyptus acknowledges that blue color that is so beautiful and reminiscent of our spring. Pansies and violas are entirely cold hardy right out of the flat, provided they have been grown in cold conditions.

We buy pansies and violas that were started from seed last summer. They are over wintered in houses with no heat. They are ready for the April chill. If the temperature threatened to go below 25 overnight I would cover them.  If I wanted to protect their blooms from a windy 28 degree night, I would cover them. This seems like a call to plant away to me.  Pansies and violas are among some of the most charming, sparkly, and cheery plants that endow our northern tier spring season. I would not do without them.

Planting in cold blustery weather is not my favorite, but I am ready for spring. So I plant anyway.  This large container is home to a Turkish hazel tree – corylus corlurna. It survived the winter in this container, and threw out scads of long pink catkins a week ago. Bravo! We planted the ground level soil with an overall mix of blue and  purple/blue bicolor pansies and white alyssum.  In several weeks, when the filbert tree leafs out, this container planting will sing spring.

Have you ever seen a spike bloom?  Me neither. This particular spike was planted in this client’s container last summer.  I wintered the plant over in a greenhouse. I was faint with surprise when we went to pick up that spike for her spring garden. Planted in this container, there is an incredibly beautiful and fragrant bloom spike that takes all of the visual attention away from a landscape that has not yet emerged. The pale lavender pansies will grow and spill over the edges.  Are spikes cold tolerant?  Utterly.

This is a favorite spring container, just planted a few days ago. The fat and fuzzy cut pussy willow branches preside over all. A cream/green preserved eucalyptus provides some mid level interest, and subtle color. The box is stuffed full of a white pansy with a purple blotch, beautifully grown and just about ready to come in to bloom. The spring gardening season is all about hope, delight, and renewal. The garden coming to life again – what could be better? The very early spring container planting season gives any gardener a chance to whoop up the coming of spring.   I like how this spring container addresses that moment.

This big container features pansies, alyssum, and lettuce underneath a centerpiece of cut pussy willow and tiger branches. Lettuce is a chilly weather vegetable, but it will wither in extreme cold. Pots planted with lettuce now will need to be covered when the night temperatures go low. I suspect the same is true for myrtle topiaries. I will confess that I have a habit of pushing the limits of plants to tolerate cold in our early spring. But my best friend in the early spring is floating row cover. Vegetable gardeners cover their early transplants with this non woven fabric to protect them from the cold. I use it to protect my early spring container plantings facing a fiercely cold night. Floating row cover keeps the temperature underneath that cover 10 degrees higher than the air temperature.

What plants tolerate a cold container environment? Pansies and violas, for sure. Dusty miller. Spikes. Alyssum. Chicago figs. Rosemary and lavender, cold grown. Ivy will take some cold. Chard, parsley, chervil and thyme shrug off the cold. Early spring flowering bulbs are great in containers.  Think daffodils. Hellebores are so beautiful in early spring pots. Once that spring pot fades, those hellebores can be transplanted into the garden. Osteos.  Marguerites.  Interested in planting early spring containers? Try everything. There will be some successes, and some failures.  Any gardener can handle and be energized by these odds.

Spring is on the way.  So excited. Am I ready? Yes I am.

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The Hellebores In March

What’s better than waiting out the end of the Michigan winter is a road trip to Pine Knot Farms to pick up a collection of hellebores. After some discussion with Dick Tyler, I placed an order, and our David drove our sprinter there to pick them up.  Pine Knot Farms has been breeding hellebores for a good many years. Their strains of helleborus hybridus are incredibly vigorous, strong blooming, and hardy in our zone.  The book written by Judith and Dick Tyler, entitled “Hellebores: A Comprehensive Guide”, was and still is a comprehensive and succinct description of the genus Helleborus. It is an invaluable reference work, and I reach for it whenever I have a question about hellebores.

helleborus "Pine Knot Select"From Wikipedia, “Commonly known as hellebores, the Eurasian genus Helleborus consists of approximately 20 species of herbaceous or evergreen perennial flowering plants in the family Ranunculaceae, within which it gave its name to the tribe of Helleboreae”.  Ha. I find the book by the Tyler’s to be considerably more engaging, and a lot more detailed.  I am happy to say that Dick Tyler took the time and effort to give David a comprehensive tour of his nursery. If you are not near enough to Detroit Garden Works to shop his plants, he does ship. This is the last weekend of his hellebore festival, but he grows many thousands of plants. Just one of the many in our collection is pictured above in a photograph of Rob’s. For further information, check out their website.  Pine Knot Farms hellebores

Though we purchase hellebores from a number of different growers from all over the US, I was especially interested in Dick Tyler’s plants for a good reason.  Many of his strains of hellebores have helleborus hybridus as a prominent parent. Helleborus hybridus is in and of itself a plant of complex heritage. This is a major factor in its hardiness. They  are commonly known as Lenten roses, which means they are spring blooming. The blooming shoots of my hellebores emerge from the ground in late March, and will begin to flower in April.  As our spring weather is usually very cool, they are gloriously in bloom for quite some time. The flower itself is quite inconspicuous..  What appear to be petals are actually a modified calyx. Those petal-like structures will eventually turn green, and will persist on the plants for months.

The Christmas rose, or helleborus niger, is a winter blooming perennial.  Winter blooming plants do quite well in mild climates, but have a tough go in Michigan. There are a number of clones which have some measure of parentage from helleborus niger that are able to survive our harsh winter and unpredictable early spring. We are able to buy the hellebore hybrid “Joseph Lemper” in full bloom in December.  Customers who have kept them over the winter and planted them out in the spring report that the bloom stalks will come very early in the spring, but they do manage endure our early spring night temperatures. I prefer helleborus hybridus cultivars for my Michigan garden. I do have some intergeneric hellebore varieties whose bloom stalks began to grow several weeks ago. I have my fingers crossed that they will survive the forecast overnight low tonight of 12 degrees. For this reason, I do not cut off the tattered remains of last years foliage until it appears we will have night temperatures that are more moderate. That old foliage is like a blanket.

So what is one to do with one of our hellebores in full bloom when our night temperatures are so cold?  They are actually quite obliging about a place indoors for a few weeks.  We like to pot them up in a little something that is decorative. The green or black plastic pot that they are grown in will do, but why make do at the end of winter?  Rob potted this hellebore in a basket, and topped it off with some mood moss.  To follow are more pictures of his miniature spring gardens. If you are able to stop in and see them in person, I promise you will be enchanted.

hellebores in pots

See what I mean?

 

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