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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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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Independence Day

July 4 2016 004The Fourth of July is one of my favorite holidays. I like the story of how America came to be independent. I like anyone who has a mind to think and act independently. I like even more that I live in a culture that places a premium on freedom. That freedom came and continues to come with a very big price. I so respect any person who contributes to what it takes to let freedom ring. Today I am thinking about those people who valued independence and freedom above all. The 4th of July is a holiday that celebrates the best of what Americans can be. There is always a lot of impassioned discussion about what constitutes the best we can be. I like any idea delivered with passion and conviction. Bring it on-I am listening.  What did I do over the celebration of this 4th? I spent a lot of time thinking about how lucky I am to live in America. I went to the shop at 7am to feed the dogs, and check on MCat. Once Rob arrived to water the plants at the shop, I knew I could go home with no worries. I came home. Buck and I had lunch on the deck at noon.. Home with family is good.

July 4 2016 001I weeded, dead headed, watered, and greatly enjoyed being outdoors at home. I took pictures.  I rarely have a chance to be home during the day-I so enjoyed this. The corgis despise the booms from fireworks.  I have one hand on them, and the rest of me thinking about how great it is to be home, and to be free.

July 4 2016 025To follow are pictures of my garden from today. I hope you are enjoying your fourth as much as I am enjoying mine.

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FullSizeRender (9)I have a little fireworks of the gardening sort going on today.