The First Container Planting

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Every year, the prospect of having a full roster of container gardens to plant makes me want to black out. I spend the first three weeks of May utterly certain that I cannot plant one more pot.  That I am out of ideas. Luckily, time passes by, and and I start shopping. A client I have worked for as long as this one is easy to shop for. I had a pair of giant banana plants to pick up at our farmer’s market at 5:45 am. I was ready at 7am to let Dan know that we would need two pallets-130 bags –  of our custom container soil blend, and 30 bags of bark. We would need moss fabric for a pair of wire urns, and a ladder to tie the mandevillea to the steel plant climbers.

annual planting (12)I had shopped with David and Riley on Friday.  They put all of our plants on racks, and loaded them onto our trucks.  At the end of the day Friday, I was ready in the plant regard.  I had an inkling of an idea about what I would plant. Of course I was going over that inkling, critically. I had from 6-8am Saturday morning to print the photographs from last year, and write on them what materials we would use in them this year. Two hours gives me enough time to change my mind. Once my crew is ready to load, I am too.  I take extras and alternates, just in case.

annual planting (5) Once every pot had gotten filled with bark for drainage, and our container soil mix, all of the centerpieces get planted.  Then I lay out the scheme for the rest of the pot.  I was entirely absorbed and focused on how each plant would grow out, and interact with its neighbor. I favor containers that have a beautiful overall shape by the time they mature.  My favorite part of this planting for a group of Italian terra cotta pots? Orange geraniums. Geraniums, as they provide an incredible amount of color when properly grown.  They are heavy feeders. But more so than the bloom habit, that orange would contribute an interesting variation to a warm color palette.  The red mandevilleas and red geraniums are a bluish red. The orange geraniums have just enough yellow to make the combination interesting. My client is keen about the drama that can be created by intense color.
annual planting (6)This pair of Italian pots can handle the size and textural drama of a pair of large scale bananas. Not yet visible are a collar of strobilantes, or Persian shield plants that will ring the trunks of the bananas.  The chartreuse leaved Persian Queen geraniums and misty lilac waves petunias will highlight the iridescent red-violet of the Persian Shields.

annual planting (9)Lime green is a key color in this planting scheme. All of the warm colors are all the more intense, by their proximity to lime green. The red represented in this container is red sunpatiens. They will grow quite large.  The lime licorice will lighten that load of red.

annual planting (7)This big scented geranium will have pale pink flowers intermittently over the summer.  But they are primarily grown for their bright apple green foliage that can be clipped into shapes.  We gave this geranium the most rudimentary clip.  My client has a lot of formally trimmed shrubs maintained by the company that prunes our boxwood at the shop.  Her crew will put a skilled set of hands to the spherical shape of this geranium.  It is under planted with an orange geranium of a different sort than the big growing zonal geraniums.  Caliente geraniums come in a wide range of colors, and are extremely easy to grow. The pink and white bicolor trailing verbena “Lanai Twister Pink” is a beautiful addition to this series.

annual planting (11)There are two containers in fairly dense shade.  The color of the lime dracaena “Janet Craig” brightens any shady area.  The dracaena is under planted with bird’s nest ferns.  The leaf form is simialr to the dracaena, but is a darker green.

annual planting (8)A boxwood topiary on standard is under planted with Persian Queen geraniums, red geraniums, and vista fuchsia petunias. The low terra cotta bowl features hot pink XL dahlias, black cherry supertunias, and a bicolor trailing verbena.

annual planting (10)3 terracotta boxes get identical treatment.  Hot pink zonal geranium towers, and lime creeping jenny.

annual planting (14)This old cast iron rectangular cauldron sits in a garden bed which is so shady that very little grows there. It is planted with a a pair of lime green fleck leafed dieffenbachia “Camouflage”, Janet Craig dracaenas, and Black Gold Xtreme sansevieria. The sansevieria in the box is repeated in ground at each end. This planting will thrive all summer long with next to no water.

annual planting (1)By 2pm, you would never know we had been there. It was a splashy beginning to our container planting season.

A Day In The Life

This day was a something of a blur.  A new house needed sod.  A pair of annual plantings in a far away location needed to get finished today, as tomorrow is a set date for another planting.  Three major plantings in one day-we worked it out.  Steve’s landscape crew filled my pots, and planted the old topiaries this morning-he was on his way to sod a a new house landscape we have been working on since last fall.  Scott and Shannon delivered the planted to our job 2 in the morning.  Angie, Owen and Lucio knocked out this big planting by 2pm.  At 2:30, we were a block over, planting 13 pots.  Everything got done, in spite of the rain.

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I have been landscaping, and planting pots for this client for better than 20 years.  She has extraordinarily good taste, and is willing to change things up at a moment’s notice.  Every spring, I look to her for a color scheme.  This year-red, purple and lime.  I was happy to oblige.  This is a big job.  130 40 pound bags of soil-for starters.  We have been wintering a number of topiary plants for her better than 10 years.  They weigh a lot.  Those over wintered plants constitute an entire truckload.  She is 45 minutes away from me-so we have travel to consider.  The terrain-a lot of up and down. This summer planting takes 11 people 7 hours to plant.
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I print out pictures from last year’s planting, with notes about what I want to see happen this year.  Those notes are broad.  Once the broad strokes as established, I personally place every plant.  There is no substitute for being there in person.  A client, an environment, several truckloads of plants-something inspired needs to happen.  I worry like crazy the entire time it takes me to drive there.  What if nothing seems like it is working?
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Once I am there, the worry falls away.  I have work to do-there is no time to worry.  I cannot really describe what happens next.  It is a mix of my relationship with a client, the horticulture, and plants at hand.  As this is client is far away, I pack two trucks full of plants.  I want every plant that works available to me.  Planting on location means I need more than what I need-at hand.  What happens next is one part science, one part relationship, mone part inspiration, and one part experience growing plants.

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This pot has a hyacinth bean vine in the center.  The look of this pot will be much different, come August.  But today I value the bones of that look-purple, lime, with a dash of red.  There are upright elements, and horizontal elements.  At the very last, before the sweep-up, all the topiary frames get straightened.
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The deck off the master bedroom-an expression of the color scheme-with the odd pot out.   To the far left in this picture, an old peach flowered abutilon.  That one element that doesn’t fit in will work just fine here.  Annual plantings that match too perfectly- to my mind, too cold.  I like any expression in the garden which is personal.  Really personal-all the better.
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We had winds and heavy rains half way through this planting.  The red leaved red flowering leaved canna Australia-who knew my client would like this?  We surrounded it with red dahlias and red leaved alternanthera.  The verdict on this planting-due in late August.
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There are red purples, and blue purples.  I opted for a mix, with some deep red Caliente geraniums.  Hypnotica lavender dahlia is a great plant-it performs.  The mini blue veined petunias-a great performer.  Lilac wave petunias-a favorite of mine.  I like this mix, with a smattering of creeping jenny and lime licorice.  I feel fairly confident that these deck boxes will only get better over the course of the summer.
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Our box truck-just about empty.
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These old wax leaf privets have a new home this year.  Last fall I told me client that she needed bigger pots, or we would have to abandon these privets on standard.  She was not willing to let them go-I do not blame her.  They are beautiful.  She bought new pots.  These 30″ tall by 30″ diameter pots handle these topiaries with ease.  We under planted them with scaevola, variegated licorice, and mini blue veined petunias.  Today, this planting is all about green, texture, form and mass.  In August,  there will be a another story about color.
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The torrential rainstorms that have been passing through for the last few days means that all of us are wet.  Really wet.  My shoes and socks have been soaked for 3 days.  The late spring weather has not been easy to deal with.  The last time that the spring weather was easy to deal with-years ago.   This is a way of saying that no late spring planting season is easy.  The transition from one season to the next is always about turmoil.  Michigan weather can and does turn on a dime.We have done a number of annual container plantings in the past 3 days.  Thankfully those plantings look a lot more put together than what is left on this truck.  Not that I am complaining-this is work I truly love to do.

At A Glance: Memorial Day Weekend

We did start our container plantings last week-tentatively.  I was not planting coleus, begonias, lantana, basil, sweet potato vine, caladiums, angelonia, and a whole host of other plants with zero tolerance for cold.  Just two days ago, the temperature at 5:30 am-34 degrees. whoa.  A friend at the farmer’s market told me she lost half her field of summer cut flowers that she had already planted.  What a heartache.  But Erma Wiegand, one of the group of brothers and sisters that own Wiegand’s Nursery in Macomb told me 6 weeks ago that the possibility of frost in our area was a real possibility, until the May full moon.  The May full moon?  Two days ago.  She has the heart and skill of a farmer-and she was dead to right.  The weather this spring has had my back-I do not like to plant containers too early.

lavender-bacopa.jpgCold soil is bad for tropical plants, and annual plants native to warmer climates. I drag my feet, getting going, until it seems like the weather is really warming up. I am happy getting the container planting going on come Memorial Day-it is the right time for our zone.  Memorial Day is a national holiday, as well it should be.  But we have a lot of work to do in a very short period of time.  We were working.  Lots of people came into the shop today-they are planting too.  There is a special and particular spirit attached to every holiday.  Memorial Day weekend-a favorite of mine.  We honor the troops.  We hope for the future, and plant.

container-planting.jpgWe were not at the shop-we were on the road, planting. In the background, a fan palm underplanted with Wasabi coleus.  The white streptocarpus with a purple throat will be added on the edge tomorrow.  In the foreground, a pot located in a patch of sun.  White mandevillea, lime nicotiana alata, creeping jenny, and silverberry petunias.

tropical-ferns.jpgBroad leaved bird’s nest fern, lemon cypress, and angelina.  I am still thinking about what to do in the front/center.  Do I leave blank spaces if I am not sure what I want to do?  Yes.

summer-planting.jpgan asymmetrical planting of angelonia, Millet Jester, silverberry petunia, supertunia lilac and scaevola.

white-caladiums.jpgKentia palm with white caladiums

pink-mandevillea.jpgPink mandevillea with Cathedral salvia in 2 colors, and white angelonia.  The little pot-mystic spires salvia surrounded by scaevola.  Angie at the helm.

summer-planting.jpgA twisted trunk hibiscus belonging to my client is underplanted with millet Jester, red Caliente geraniums and lilac supertunias.

container-planting.jpgRed mandevillea, red zonal geraniums, millet Jester, and misty lilac wave petunias.  In the background, Cathedral dark blue salvia, euphorbia Diamond Frost, white supertunias, and red potunias

\apple-espalier.jpgsky blue petunias under an apple espalier

laqvender-and-lime.jpgpurple and lime green

annual-planting.jpgplanting for summer

lime-and-purple.jpgWasabi coleus and scaevola

variegated-boxwood.jpga variegated boxwood sphere, lime and green plectranthus, and lime licorice.  This planting will come from behind, and be really good by the end of July.

end-of-the-day.jpgAngie plants-but she is also in charge of the numbers.  Her clipboard has her name on it-everyone knows that they touch that clipboard at their peril.  Angie, Rafael, Lucio, Matt, Amparo, Owen and I planted a lot of plants this weekend.  It feels good to get started.

Planning The Pots



Reluctantly, I planted my first pots, this past Friday..  I was reluctant, as the overnight temperature was 46 degrees.  At 9am, just 52 degrees.  But this particular client spends most of the summer on the east coast.  She needs an early planting, so I am happy to oblige.  She knows there could be damage from cold-she is willing to risk it. She has every hope that when she gets back in late summer that her pots will still look good. What looks good early that goes on to look good late-that is a tall order.  I choose the plants that go in her pots carefully.  This means plants that can shake off the cold.  Plants that have staying power. And a great soil in which to plant.  No begonias or coleus or caladiums for her.  Good planning in the beginning makes for good results.  The big idea here-know your habits, your inclinations, your summer schedule, your availability to look after them-then plan to plant your pots accordingly.

summer planting

I am very concerned that whatever gets planted produces good results.  I am sure you are wondering why I am so interested in results-as if planting summer pots was a competition.  But there is a very real competition going on.  A love of the idea of a gardening life-lots of people favor this.  But then there is the reality.  The expense and trouble versus the effort and the result-every gardener has had that moment when they weigh the effort against the results.   A summer planting that falls down and fails is discouraging.  A successful planting encourages a gardener to keep going, and expand their relationship with the garden.  I like the idea that successful container plantings can encourage people to garden on.  Abject failure makes the time and money involved the most important issue.  I like the benefits of gardening to be the most important issue.

summer-planting.jpgGreat container plantings revolve around three issues.  First and foremost-who are you?  Are you a do it yourself gardener?  Do you work a job, or have kids? Are you a professional designer with clients who expect you to handle the summer season for them?  Are you a person that loves green best of all?  Do you have the time to individually and carefully water, or are you interested that your irrigation system do the watering work?  Are you all in?  Are you new to an interest in the garden?

summer annual planting

This why I favor advance planning.  I like to know how my clients see the garden.  This helps me to plan for them.  A planting that answers the needs of a specific gardener is the right planting.  If you are planting for yourself-ask the same questions.  Ask lots of questions of yourself-before you buy the first plant.   Answer them, as true as you can.  The second issue-where have you placed the containers?  At the front door under a porch roof?  On the pool deck?  In a shady bed?  Narrow your plant choices to those plants that will thrive in the conditions that you have. At my shop, the sun plants are in the sun, and the shade plants are in the shade-this makes choosing the right plants easy.  Most nurseries do the same that I do.  Most plants have care tags in the pots-read, before you leap. Plants are very specific about what they want, and if they don’t get it, they will languish.


Are you a good and faithful waterer? Do you relax, deadheading and grooming your pots?  Do you have little time to devote to the maintenance of your summer plantings?  Are you easy going about the relationships that develop in a container planting, or are you interested in being in charge start to finish?  Do you have pots big enough to handle a day without watering in the heat of the summer?  Do you have easy access to your window boxes?  Will you look after those pots as soon as your family has been looked after?  Are you up north in the heat of the summer?  This is the third issue-are you on top of the maintenance of summer annuals?



Detroit Garden Works-everyone who works for me is ready and willing to help you with a summer planting scheme. But no one knows your summer life better than you do.  Every gardener’s summer  is different.  I so value the diversity expressed by the gardening community. This said, tell your story.  Your story, and our story, in concert, might make for some really  beautiful summer containers.  This is a fancy way of saying that my group likes meeting people face to face.  I will repeat this, as it is so important.  Be willing to tell your story.  A story understood mean a plan with success in its future.

window box

The plants are growing fast-how I love how they look.  I am thinking non stop-what will I plant?    What will you plant for summer this year?