The Edge

French-glazed-pots.jpgWe are on the edge of the end of a year.  The furthest edge.  In just a few hours, that year will be part of the past.  There will be discussion-a retrospective.  Some memories will be sentimental.  It is easy to remember the roses, and gloss over the beetles. We are likewise on the edge of a new year.  In a few hours, we will cross over the leading edge of a new year-to an unknown but greatly anticipated future.  It is an interesting place to be-on the edge.  Great design, no matter the discipline, tends to hover, and thrive there.  Edgy may not describe my shining hour. I suspect I am just too old. But as a designer I am very interested in composition.  Composition, in my opinion, is much ado about edges. These French glazed pots have beautiful edges.  The top edge is compound.  The sides are sleek and precisely contoured.  The edge that meets the ground is generous and hefty.  What I would plant in them has everything to do with the shape, size, color and decoration of the pot.

concrete-pot-and-hound.jpgComposing seasonal plantings in pots is all about creating a world unique, complete, and believable, in a space notable for its sharply defined edges.  A pot has a distinct shape.  A top, a bottom, and 2 sides.  The four sides frame an expression.  Much like a frame contains a painting.  Much like the composition of a painting has four edges.  No matter whether you choose to respect or breach the edges, the treatment of the edges will dominate a certain part of the discussion.  How I design a planting begins with the space in question.  I have always wondered how the person who purchased this concrete pot with its companion dog chose to plant it.  The top edge is abrupt, and unadorned.  This pot could have plants draping over and down the sides-or not.  Were the paws of the dog still visible?  Did the dog appear to be enchanted by the fragrance of the flowers, or was he staring down a bug at eye level?

English-made-concrete-pots.jpgContainers with ornament and detail at the top edge may suffer from a mature planting that obscures that detail.  Some pots demand visual respect of the edges.  Were I to plant these containers, I would concentrate on plants that lift off.  The visual relationship between the planting and the pot is a relationship worth exploring.  These pots would look equally fine in a garden, unplanted.   I did not plant any containers when I was young.  I could barely afford to buy plants-much less containers.  Everything I planted went in the ground.  But even then, I was concerned about my composition.  My gardens had edges.  My grass had edges.  I would frame some views, and disguise others.

antique-French-Biot-pot.jpgI will confess I have always edged my beds.  I would strike a flat shovel deep down on an edge, and toss the soil up into the bed. I liked making a clear decision about shape and direction – for better, or for worse.  Any composition that was sloppy was unsatisfying.  Every gardener has their own point of view, and I have mine.  No matter how exuberant and wild the planting, the container holds it all together.  This late 19th century French pot from Biot is a container of breathtaking beauty.  If I were to plant it, I would go up.  The rim is too beautiful to obscure.  As strong as the rim edge is the slight foot at the bottom.  I would place this pot on a plinth, no matter how slight,  so that detail would not be lost.

classical-stone-campagna-shaped-garden-urn.jpgThis vintage stone campagna shaped urn is beautifully simple.  Much is made of the top edge.  The compound curvy shape and foot is hefty, yet graceful.  Any pot is an expression of the garden ready to be more.

Chicago-glazed-stoneware-pots.jpgThis pair of glazed stoneware pots made in Chicago in the 1930’s have generous rims.  The body of the pots-low and wide.  The square foot is large enough to visually support that width.  Would I plant them low and very wide-yes.  I respect the edges established by the maker.  However I might compose plantings for these pots would be as much about the architecture of the pots as the horticulture.

faux-bois-squares.jpgOver the past 18 years, I have had the pleasure of an exposure to pots, containers, boxes, buckets, troughs, and urns of every description.  I feel quite certain that part what the future holds involves containers the likes of which I have never seen before.  I like that promise inherent to the future.  Those people who made it their business to fashion a vehicle by which a small collection of plants can grow and prosper-I appreciate them.  The range of shapes, styles and colors is astonishing. The containers I have chosen for my own garden are friendly to the period and architecture of my house.  I favor bigger pots over small ones-I like having a lot of room to plant.  A pot whose top is 30 inches across represents an embarrassment of riches in container planting space. That size space in my garden is a trifle.  Given that my property is very small, I like gardening opportunities that seem large.

French-enamelled-pot-circa-1890.jpgThis giant enameled pot of French origin circa the 19th century-astonishing in its size.  Buck did a great job of repairing it.  Every year it is my pleasure to plant it for the summer, and the winter.  Its edges are of a scale and shape that challenge me.  In my favor?  A container planting rules for but one season.  You have another shot-next year.

cast-stone-urns-and pedestals.jpgThese English cast stone urns are an invitation to a seasonal party.  They are also large enough to comfortably contain the rootball of a good sized boxwood.

Francesca-del-re.jpgThe pots hand made by Francesca del Re are of the toughest frostproof stoneware it has ever been my pleasure to meet.  The design of the pots-surprisingly soft.  The edges are forgiving.  Plant away.  This pot can take whatever dream you have the mind to dish out.  A traditional container planting will be just as successful as a contemporary scheme.  The edges of these pots are friendly, and forgiving.  The planting will make the pot.

Doulton-four-handled-pot.jpgThis antique English glazed pot manufactured by Doulton – who knows how a gardener might interpret this pot.  A placement where the shape and decoration could be easily seen would be the first move worth making.  It would be lovely on a plinth, or on a wall. The shape and decoration is bold.  An oakleaf hydrangea might be just the plant for this pot.

Frank-Lloyd-Wright-style-urns.jpgBy way of contrast, these massive and benign cast stone urns manufactured from a design by Frank Lloyd Wright, would handle almost any idea for planting you had in mind.

Italian-terra-cotta.jpgThis is a picture of my most favorite seasonal container, ever.  Italian terracotta is a personal favorite.  The relationship of the container to the plants-as edgy as I am ever likely to get.  This coming year, I will have another chance to compose and plant.  How good does this sound?    Happy New Year!

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.

Putting Your Foot Down


Advising people about pots and containers for their homes and businesses has been part of my job for going on 17 years.  Those same 17 years have put me in contact with a vast selection of antique, vintage, modern and contemporary containers from many different periods and countries.  Does this make me an expert?  I would hesitate to go that far, but I will say I have had considerable exposure.  Exposure to and knowledge of garden containers helps me advise  the right pot for the right place.  One aspect of container design that interests me the most is how that pot meets the hard surface on which it sits.  These French glazed pots have a  stepped base, or foot, that supports the body of the pot.  These big bodied pots would look clunky indeed without their bases.   

The shape of the bottom of a container, and how that bottom meets the oorch surface or terrace, greatly influences what I recommend.  I am sure you have seen an Olympic gymnast perform a complicated routine, and unerringly land on their feet.  Squarely on two feet.  That flawless two footed landing is enormously important.  A urn, pot or planter that has a foot keeps a large container from looking heavy.  A hefty container from bottoming out.  These English arts and crafts period limestone pots are both massive and hefty.  The claw feet make them feel lighter, and more graceful.    

The squashed ball feet under these orangery boxes do more than just lighten the look.  Pots need to drain; growing plants in soggy soil is a challenge to both the plants and the gardener.  Pots that sit flat on a perfectly smooth flat surface can impede drainage.  If water does seep into that space between a pot and a hard surface, prolonged contact with water can make marks or stains on the hard surface.  If ytou put a spoonful of soil into a cup of water and stir, you will see what might eventually be absorbed by your front porch surface.

Modern and contemporary pots feature crisp and simple lines.  In the case where “feet” would disturb the visual appearance, we may place spacers underneath the pots.  The spacers do not interfere with the geometry of the pot shape, but they do permit water to drain away quickly.  Bluestone is especially prone to absorbing stains from soils with a high compost content, and from natural drainage materials such as bark.  Water stains can appear in the form of white rings-this a result of the minerals and salts dissolved in the water.

These classic French orangery boxes hve many beautiful details, not the least of which is its cast iron finials, hinges, braces and foot assembly.  The painted oak boards fit down into the base, and are held in place by a pair of braces.  The arched base with squared off feet is as functional as it is beautiful.  The wood never comes in contact with the ground.  Wood is very durable in the landscape, provided water drains away.  Wood that sits in water will soon rot.  When we place wood containers in a landscape bed or lawn,  we install a gravel base underneath it, so water drains away quickly.

These English lead pots have a very small foot.  But what is not evident in the picture is that the bottom of the pot is recessed, so the drain hole never comes in contact with the terrace.  Lead may be very dense, but it is very soft.  The flat bottom of a lead container will eventually conform to the exact shape of the surface on which it sits.  Old lead urns sometimes collapse onto their own footed bases. 

A fiber pot, made primary as a biodegradeable container for the nursery industry, makes a great and inexpensive container.  A rose in a fiber pot can be planted pot and all-the fiber soon decomposes.  A fiber pot used as a container is most vulverable at the bottom.  This galvanized steel stand with feet keeps the pot off the ground.  This greatly improves the longevity of the pot.  The feet also give it a more finished and graceful look.

I had this pair of tapered steel pots in the fountain yard for the summer.  The design is reminiscent of a classic Italian vase, but taller and thinner in proportion.  I decided to plant them for fall, and asked Buck to make matching socles for them.  A socle, or low base or plinth, puts this pot on a different footing. The driveway is a large enough space to visually accomodate a pot that sits flat on its surface, but the socle gives it a much different look.

Elevating the pot off the surface of the drive makes the tapered pot seem more elegant and light.  The height is good in contrast to the height of the wall.

Providing a foot need not be a complicated matter.  This low terra cotta bowl looks much more lively, given a steel pot stand.  There are lots of considerations involved in the selection of a pot-the size and shape, the style, the price, and the materials are just a few.  How it sits in relation to the ground is another.

Green Gardens

2008 Ford 9-25-08 (32)I have clients whose interest in gardens runs to green, and more green. Though my love for the green of the plant is every bit as great as my love for their flowers, I have never had the discipline it takes to restrict my own palette like this. But I find that whenever a client represents their own point of view outdoors, the result looks just right. 

2008 Ford 9-25-08 (22)These large stone and brick piers punctuate a pair of walls that partially enclose a terrace. I plant them with a mix of plants whose textures are as unlike stone and brick as possible. This is a matter of directing visual attention. The window boxes on the roof of my shop are not so gorgeous.  They are made of galvanized sheet metal ordinarily used in the production of ductwork for the heating and cooling industry.  The sole function of those boxes is to hold the soil, nutrients and water for the plants-they have no visual interest in and of themselves.  The intent here is to acknowledge the beautiful surface of the container as much as the planting.

Ford 2006 (36)A green planting has a quiet and serene look, as the greens so closely relate in color and value.  The green of these painted Belgian oak boxes harmonizes with the color of the bluestone terrace; the relationship is a subtle one. The Dallas Blues panic grass repeats that color. Monochromatic color schemes tend to read that way, although an ocean of orange is anything but serene.  Add some contrasting purple to that orange, which in turn contrasts with the green,  and you have a visual party going on. These greens speak softly.

2008 Ford 9-25-08 (3)A porch planting plays the spiky texture of a tropical fern off the round chubby leaves of a  of large scale pepperomia; the effect is pleasing, not demanding. The elegant English wirework planter reminiscent of vintage conservatory furniture is balanced with a simple and very rustic wreath that hangs on the wall year round.

Ford 2006 (39)The container collection is a beautiful one. An American stoneware grape panel container from the 1920’s, and English lead and the Belgian oak box are very different in materials and forms, but very much alike in feeling.

2008 Ford 9-25-08 (17)A pair of very old and distinctive French iron planters sit on the walls.  I usually plant them with lavender, and alyssum, showy oregano, and whatever other herb like plant seems appropriate.  The effect is graceful; the muted colors of every aspect of this space invite contemplation.

Ford, C 2006 (25)Some plants stay green all season, as our summer is too short to permit flowering-as in this large tropical salvia.  The fine perennial hyssop hangs on to the ghostly lavender of its flowers a very long time; this is repeated in a lavender trailing verbena.  Though there is some color here, it is the relationships of the greens that reads first and foremost.

Ford 2006 (26)I think the leaves of  tibouchina grandiflora are surely my favorite.  The large oval leaves are completely covered in fine white hairs; they are a marvel. Their contrast to the needles of the rosemary topiary is considerable in form, and little in color. Variegated licorice is one of the most versatile of all green plants.  The leaves sport two different shades of green; the blotches are very blue green, while the edges are more yellow-green.  It works with every plant with which it is paired.  This collection of pots benefits from the lively effect of its habit of growth, and relative lightness.  Subtle does not mean sleepy.

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No one element here dominates a supporting cast.  Each element has its own voice, but the close relationship of the voices makes for a space that whispers. Some gardens provide refuge from noise; this I like.