Spikes And Such

dracaena indivisaI plant lots of seasonal containers for clients every year. This season has been particularly intense and compressed.  Cold nights plagued our area until the very end of May.  The week before Memorial Day, we had nights in the 30’s. I was wringing my hands at the prospect of getting out to plant so late, but I have always been stubborn about delaying the planting until we have three nights of 50 degrees or better in a row. It was beginning to feel like that day would never come. This year was a test that kept me awake at night.  Even if the weather turns warmer by mid May, there is a terrific lot of work to do, in a short amount of time. So what does a compressed season have to do with the 6″ buckets of spikes pictured above?  Rarely does the schedule of the planting of the summer containers permit leisurely planning.  The weather turns.  I have a lot of work to do. There are certain plants that look good to me, and others that do not interest me much. My design and plant choices boil down to instinct,  experience, and whatever else captures my fancy. I have no choice but to trust my eye and my hand, and proceed without over thinking my decisions. As for spikes, I have no history of ever planting them in containers.  This year I have planted a lot of them.  Spikes. Yes, I have a little spike fest going on.

spikes and such (3)Who knows why I was suddenly so enamored of spikes. Maybe it is a result of having turned 65 a week ago. A murmuring dialogue about my age, and what that might mean may be influencing my choices. Maybe I was feeling old fashioned and out dated. Most years, I am compelled by a need, on some level, to explore. Exploring is generally a good thing.  Though the fact that I was planting spikes in containers left and right alarmed me, I did not have the luxury of the time it would take to second guess the impulse. I rolled my eyes, and kept on planting them.   Every gardener knows what spikes are.  Their grandmother’s routine and pat pots of geraniums at the front door all has a spike in the middle. A pot full of geraniums with a spike in the middle-an icon of container planting from 50 years ago. Even the grandsons of the grandmothers who planted those spikes vaguely remember them, though they may not be able to identify any other seasonal plant. Today’s container plantings are endowed with an incredible variety of plants unknown and unavailable in 1950. Seasonal container design is a very exciting part of gardening right now. Every interested gardener has a generous palette of plants available, and a design atmosphere that is genuinely challenging and interesting.

spikes and such (6)A spike, Dracaena indivisa, is a tropical green plant.  It is easy to grow, and tolerates lots of different soil conditions.  It likes regular water and sun, but will live amiably with less of everything that it wants. It can be moved inside over the winter, with a minimum of fuss.  The timidly broad sword shaped leaves emanate from a central trunk. The leaves are lax, like a grass. They are the anti-centerpiece. They have no extraordinary color or texture.  They are just about the last in line of the so called architectural plants available to plant in containers.  They are plain green, as in invisibly green.  Worse than that, they are very much out of fashion.

spikes and such (5)So what is it that I am liking about them? Giving up the notion that the center plant in a pot has to be the most important plant is key. I like how a spike gently and unobtrusively softens the appearance of all of these surrounding plants. The geraniums and New Guineas in this urn are stiff, unyielding, and visually demanding. The spike tones down all that bossy color and form.

spikesSpikes are simple to winter over in the house. Simple does not mean it is simple minded to plant them.  I had this pair of spikes a number of years. Grown on to a large size, they have a much more architectural appearance.  In this garden, they provided a little fireworks.

spikes and such (18)

 Cordylines are related to spikes, and  but are not the same genus. They have a somewhat stiffer appearance, and the australis hybrids possess a strong red coloration.  Giving up the notion that only 1 spike is needed opens up the design possibilities. This container has a mass of cordyline in the center.  Dark colors do not read so well in the landscape, so lots of red cordyline means more. Cordylines are fairly indifferent to the vagaries of the weather. They got planted in April, and were in the pots until November. A contemporary pot massed with cordyline can be quite striking.

spikes and such (1)These old red cordylines were grown on from a 6 inch pot. Every year for 8 years now, the arrangement of the pots have changed based on the size of the plants.

spikes and such (13)Phormiums, commonly known as New Zealand flax, resemble spikes and cordyline in their habit, although the leaves are wider.  Some phormiums are quite stiff leaved.  Others are droopy.  There are lots of cultivars available, in different colors and patterns. Phormiums will rot at the base, if they are planted too low in the container.  Outside of that, they are as easy to grow as a spike.

spikes and such (17)The color of this phormium picks up the predominate tones in this group of containers. That peachy pink is especially beautiful with the color of the terra cotta pots.

spikes and such (16)This planting in this pool side pot is simple, but very strong visually.  The phormium “Margaret Jones”, a group of vista fuchsia petunias, and some vinca maculatum work well together, and look nothing like the pots my grandmother planted.

spikes and such (12)This green phormium is a lovely complement to the solenia begonias. Though it is centrally located in the composition, the visual focus is on the flowers.

spikes and such (15)The phormium in this pot takes a much more active role in the overall feeling of this container. Informal and whimsical. The phormium is the plant equivalent of a casual and slightly messy hair do.

spikes and such (14)Phormium “Cream Delight” is hard to find, but it makes a beautiful statement in a container.  The euphorbia diamond frost goes a long way towards softening that spiky appearance, and adds substance, not bulk.

spikes and such (4)Last, but certainly not least, Dianella is related to phormiums, and similar in most ways except for overall size.  They are great for smaller containers. I love how the leaves hover over the rest of the plants in this box. An added plus-dianella blooms.

spikes and such (7)I found a great selection of variegated cordylines at Tellys at Goldner Walsh yesterday. I have not decided what to put with this cultivar,”Torbay Dazzler”, but “Skies of Italy” fancy leaved geraniums might be lovely.  This would be a spike and geranium combination that is both fresh and lively.

spikes and such (8)cordyline  “Paradise”

spikes and such (9)cordyline  “Electric Star”

spikes and such (10)Cordyline  “Electric Flash” is brown leaved with limey green stripes. Imagine the possibilities-all from a consideration of the spike.


  1. Ruth Wolery says:

    I love your spikes and feel the pots need them to balance with the other exciting plants.

  2. You haven’t convinced me, Deborah. A spike is still a spike to me. But it is nice to see that there are many variations out there.

  3. Oh my gosh those dual red cordylines, behind the container with the purple flowers, spectacular! Like something I’d be happy to see in a gallery.

  4. Jody Costello says:

    I’m very fond of Dianthus as a cut flower. People roll their eyes at me when I say so but the variety of color, smell and sturdiness is unlike any other. Sometimes the best stretch a good designer can take is finding a way to see something “outdated” and make it useful and pleasing again. You’re container designs are lovely.

  5. I guess I never knew spikes were “old-fashioned”. Maybe I should have known that since it was my mother who taught me to use them in my first containers–geraniums and spikes–38 years ago! I have moved on to using them with other plants and have used different varieties of spikes, too. I love all your photos and would love to know what the orange flower is in the photo with the licorice plant and “messy hairdo” phormium. I’m so glad I found your blog. Thanks for the inspiration.

    • Deborah Silver says:

      Dear Wendy, thanks for your letter! The orange flowers are solenia orange begonias. best, Deborah

  6. Dear Deborah,
    Happy Birthday! Wishing you many happy returns of the day!
    Coincidentally, I revived use of spikes in my pots this year as well. Who knew we were both spiking our pot designs:))

    XOX, Silvia

  7. Deborah, I love all of your container designs! The ones pictured in this post that really knocked my socks off were those big red cordylines with the light green criss-crossing plants at the bottom (what are those?). The color combination and form are just magnificent!

  8. Heather Burkhardt says:

    Looking good!

  9. What a great post and so many wonderful images! I love and adore the spikes and have continued to buy a few each year whether in or out of fashion! They add that architectural element and so much great texture. Thanks for the great ideas…

  10. Happy Birthday Deborah.
    Thank you for sharing all your wonderful ideas. It’s always a visual delight and vastly informative.

  11. I had to share this blog with my husband. He ALWAYS wants to add a spike to the pots he plants and I always try to discourage him by saying spikes are so old-fashioned and boring. Looks like next year he’ll be ‘spiking’ the pots!


  12. Sarah Harris says:

    It was my grandmother who first taught me to love plants. I still have some of her peonies, ‘Festiva Maxima’.

  13. Only you, the one and only Deborah Silver, could plant spikes and make containers look fresh and not at all old fashioned. Well done, you!

  14. Thanks so much for the spikes vs. Cordylines vs. Phormium lesson. I will differently be looking closer at the “tall fillers” this weekend when I go to Everlastings and Van Atta’s for my summer pot plantings. The phormium “Margaret Jones” is a great one. Definitely not what grandma planted.

  15. I’m a fan of spikes, though I didn’t use any in my pots this year. I really like the urn in your pictures that has New Guinea inpatients along with geraniums, but am surprised to see them together, since geraniums love lots of sunshine and impatiens prefer shade (?). Have you had luck with this combo before?

    • Deborah Silver says:

      Dear Meg, New Guinea impatiens love the sun, as long as they get moisture. They do not thrive in the shade. The best geraniums I have ever grown had regular water, and regular food. I have done this before successfully-but I coach my clients about every aspect of the care. best, Deborah

  16. Cathryn J says:

    Very inspirational!
    I love the combination of Phormium ‘Cream Delight’ with the Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’.
    Thank you for such a variety of spiky plant schemes!

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