Recent Work

We have been planting container projects daily, one after another, since May 15. With time outs for cold, and torrential rain. I do not ever remember a season quite like this one.  Very cold night temperatures, cloudy skies and relentless rains have been the order of the day.  A client remarked that we have had rain for 65 days of our last 90. That is an astonishing statistic. It has meant constant interruptions to our work schedule. Cold nights have meant we are hesitant to put temperature sensitive tropical outdoors. The gray skies mean plants have been slow to come on in the greenhouse.

I explained the situation to one client as a discussion about what constitutes providing a good home for a plant. A home is a warm, friendly and inviting place. Home for tropical plants far away from their native home means we wait for weather and soil temperature that approximates the conditions under which they thrive. Many of my clients for whom I plant begonias, coleus and New Guinea impatiens have had to wait. Who doesn’t hate to wait?   My suggestion is that their plants are thriving and growing in storage in a greenhouse.  Planted out in their pots in cold weather, they would languish. The temperature this morning June 11 at 5am, 48 degrees.

The cold has not been the only issue. Rain is essential to plant life. I doubt I need discuss that with any of you. Rainy weather working its foggy magic on a landscape is beautiful. A rainy day encourages introspection. Or at the very least a nap. I love the rain in all of its spirited and benign forms. But we have had rain day after day without much respite. This is rain of a different sort. Too much rain foments rot both above and below ground. Too much rain spoils blooms. Too much rain dampens the spirit. We have had all of the aforementioned. The most dramatic signs of distress have come from the mandevilleas. These vining plants like hot weather and dry conditions. They look beautiful in the greenhouse, and poor to middling outdoors. It is tough for plants to settle in and thrive when their medium is watery. And more watery.

All of our rainy days have been attended by clouds. Naturally. Growth in annual plants is directly related to sunny circumstances. This means we have been planting smaller plants than usual, in those moments between the rains, in the cold. Am I worried?  Not so much. Warmer and drier weather will come our way sooner or later. All of those container plantings will need some time to grow before the design and intent is clear. I have time for that, in my more rational moments. The day a container is planted is its first day –  not its best day. The best days are months ahead.

Postponing a planting can be the best strategy when conditions are hostile. This year’s conditions are obviously hostile. But in general, I do most of this planting in late May and June. May is a spring month in my zone. What looks good are the spring flowering bulbs, the wildflowers, and those shrubs and trees that thrive and bloom in cooler weather. The Venus dogwoods are glorious right now.  The geraniums, not so much.

One way to deal with lost time is to plant larger plants.  6″ pots instead of 4″. Hanging baskets in lieu of 6″ or 8″ pots. Growing summer blooming annuals from seed or cuttings is a lengthy process.  That is why growers have greenhouses, and grow under glass.  Many of the most cutting edge of those houses have very sophisticated lighting and watering devices. If warm weather, reasonable water and sun were not necessary to grow on tropical plants, growers would grow outdoors. That said, every greenhouse where I shop has run out of or are low on plant materials that I customarily use all the way through June.

We have a solid 2 weeks of planting still to go. Just like the weather, we are just getting warmed up.

I would not want to do without container plantings, whatever the weather.

 

Planting The Summer Pots

The opportunity to suggest a collection of pots to a client is pleasure indeed. We looked at lots of them, but she kept coming back to these Belgian stoneware pots. This was no surprise, given that the architecture of her house is contemporary. And dramatic. The roof combines a large curved window with strongly angular geometric shapes set in a variety of planes. The overhangs are substantial. A pair of large brick planter boxes and an over scaled walk to the front door contribute even more in the way of hard surfaces. It was a given that my client was interested in multiple pots. They would provide a vehicle for introducing some green to the front entrance. Three pairs of pots, different in size and color, would provide lots of opportunity to soften all of the hard surfaces. It took a while to arrange the pots, but both of us were happy with the outcome. The planting design came next.

The planting design of an associated group of pots takes some thought. They needed to relate to each other in color and feeling. They also needed to be of a scale appropriate to the size of the pots. A pair of  lemon cypress almost 5 feet tall would provide strong color and texture on either side of the front door. That color would set the stage for all of the other plantings.

As much as she was interested in contemporary pots, she was likewise interested in contemporary plantings that had a simple and architectural feel. Many of the plants chosen were green plants of various colors and textures. A mix of lime and variegated licorice provided a wide spectrum of shades of green.

To follow are pictures of the planting. Yellow flowered cannas have bold leaves, and the color repeated the lime of the licorice and ginger.  A pair of Limelight hydrangea topiaries will bloom a greenish white later in the summer.  In the meantime, the spherical shape of the head echoes both the roof windows and the steel spheres.

White petunias and euphorbia Diamond Frost will repeat that hydrangea white on a lower level.

A sudden and strong wind and rainstorm interrupted the effort, but on the upside there was no need to water when we finished planting.

Shrubby plants – both hardy and tropical – are great in large scale pots.  The variegated shell ginger, or Alpinia zerumbet “Variegata” features a variety of greens, much like the licorice cultivars. They are a perfect scale for the large Belgian cylinders. In a perfectly hot summer, they will bloom with racemes of white fragrant flowers.

A great planting not only involves a group of people with a respect for plants and transplanting, but a group that understands how to arrange and face them in the pot. Though these containers are a long way from attaining their eventual size and stature, there is no reason why a new planting shouldn’t look beautifully presented.

A sense of humor about rain has been helpful this spring. Wow, we have had a lot of rain.

This is a very inviting entrance now. And strong evidence of how much a container planting can alter a landscape for the better.

Choosing Containers

Strictly speaking any object that can hold soil and permit water to drain away constitutes a container. The choices are infinite, really. A container planting that considers the size, shape and style of the container as an essential part of the overall effect is especially beautiful to my eye. A choice of container represents a gardener’s point of view as much as the plants they choose. If a cottage garden, and the notion of farm to table enchants you, then a collection of vintage pails, washtubs and crates planted up with flowers and herbs will help to make that point of view visually stronger. If the architecture of your home is clean, crisp and contemporary, then pots of that ilk will look right at home.

If a whiff of history is your idea of a great fragrance, then antique or reproduction antique pots will serve your point of view well. If a planting that flows over the edges of a pot all the way to the ground represents your style and and sense of beauty, then go for simple containers that afford plenty of planting square footage for your sprawling plants. This is all by way of saying that taking the time and effort to find containers that strongly appeal to your aesthetic and style of gardening is time well spent. An enthusiasm for your containers is infectious. It will not only inspire your design and choice of plants, but it will be an insistent call to keep your plantings healthy and growing.

Choose containers that are suited to their placement. Pots on the front porch need to be proportional to the size of the porch an entry way. Front porch pots and plantings that compliment the architecture and can be seen from the sidewalk are welcoming. Pots on an outdoor dining terrace should be scaled such that the plantings are near eye level to seated guests. Containers that screen an untoward view get a leg up from some extra height and width. A container on an outdoor dining table should be low enough to encourage conversation back and forth. A container set in the landscape needs to have sufficient size and interest to stand out, and command attention. A great pot can provide a little pomp and circumstance to an awkward garden transition.

I recommend containers with substantial planting area. A decent amount of dirt space means an idea about color, texture, mass and contrast can be thoroughly explored. This is not to say that a tall oval glazed pot with room only for one 8″ pot can’t carry the day. It can. It is the gardener that has to choose the pot that best represents the style they wish to convey. I like lots of room, so I can put together a collection of seasonal plants that have enough room to grow up together, interact, and shine. Big containers mean a big soil mass. Large pots make it easier to maintain a sufficient moisture level throughout the heat of the summer. A pot that will forgive you if you are late taking up the hose is a pot worth having. Small pots that need water several times a day would not work for me. I work long days, and coming home to a container whose plants are flopped over from lack of water makes my stomach churn. Water stressed plants stress me. Big pots?  Bring them on.

Knowing the gardener in you through and through should inform your choice of pots. A beautiful pot is a sculpture that invites the addition of plants to complete its beauty. Or not. A beautiful pot, sitting empty in a landscape, can be breathtaking. Great pots can be addressed by a gardener any number of ways. But no matter the planting or the not planting, that pot is an ornament for the garden that should be a treasure.

A collection of great pots can be had all at once, or assembled over a period of time. Some great pots are inherited, or come from a county flea market. Others have been stowed away in a shed, unused, for years. Still others can be repurposed from a kitchen or barn. The pots pictured above are made from recycled tires.

Recycled containers, especially those made from galvanized metal, are a favorite of Rob’s. They are a great addition to a cottage style garden. They look equally at home in a more contemporary setting. The steel in these vintage containers is much thicker and more weather resistant than sheet metal containers being manufactured now. Will these eventually show signs of the galvanized layer wearing thin?  Probably. But considering that these are already in excess of 40 years old, I don’t see that happening any time soon.

Vintage and reproduction pots can have just as much charm as antique ones-especially if they have been outdoors long enough to have acquired a patina of lichens or moss.  The lichens on the rim of this vintage pot will spring back into action, as soon as they are exposed to weather.

Weathering is an inevitable consequence of being outdoors. Any surface which absorbs water can provide a foothold for colonies of small plants. For those gardeners who like a clean look, choose pots with a surface that resist the weather. Glazed or enameled pots do not absorb water from the outside. They can easily be cleaned with soap and water. Pots that do not absorb water do not breathe.  This means water only evaporates from the surface of the soil that is exposed at the top. This is a good choice of container for the gardener who has a long list of responsibilities besides watering every day. I helped such a gardener pick pots some years ago. She fills a collection of waterproof containers every year with waterlilies, lotus and floater plants.

The right pots? You’ll know when you see them, and can’t forget about them.

The Summer Container Plantings

The demand for landscape design and installation has been one after the other this spring.  I am sure you can tell, given how few and far between my posts have been of late. Our persistently chilly weather has given way to some gardening friendly weather. Suddenly, the summer container planting season is here, and my board is chock full of projects that will need doing beautifully, and with dispatch. The summer plantings begin later in May, and finish up in late June.  Late June? The spring plantings are just beginning to come in to their own now. Clients with spring plantings are not in a rush to plant seasonal tropicals. Given that tropical plants dislike cold temperatures, and hate cold soil, a spring planting can stave off that urge to plant summer containers too early.
Of special interest to me is the unique role played by containers in the landscape. No news here,should you be familiar with Detroit Garden Works. For 23 years now, the shop has been a premier source for great ornament for the garden.  I am happy to say that our reputation in recent years has become a a national phenomenon. Jackie deals with clients all over the country, and manages a steady stream of shipments going out. The shop website is good, and easy to navigate. Jenny keeps it fresh and lively.

Of course the lion’s share of our focus is on containers of every conceivable period and style. Vintage dolly tubs and new locust wood casks belted with galvanized steel rub elbows with a select collection of European and American antique urns. Of course the choice of a container is a significant factor in container planting. It is as much an important part of the container arrangement as the plants. That empty container represents the opportunity to throw a party in celebration of summer. The limited square footage imposed by the edges of a container means the design idea has to be simple. And it has to be visually strong.The plants need to be companionable, or at least tolerant of one another. Container plantings at war with nature make me uneasy. Given the almost limitless number of plants that can thrive in a container, it would take several gardening lifetimes to even make a dent in all of the possibilities.

A container planting matures in but a few months. What a pleasure to be able to watch that process. Mercifully, it all comes to an end with a hard frost. One can abandon a scheme that disappointed. Or explore a new idea come the new season. A collection of containers is a visual diary of what is on a gardener’s mind at that moment. A landscape and garden involves a long term commitment. There is strategy and planning involved. Decisions that are made one year are not so easy to change years later. An old tree that succumbs to an illness or bugs can make for chaos in the garden below. Growing a landscape on can feel like a full time job. The blooming of the double bloodroot, dogwoods, lilacs and peonies are ephemeral, but the gardener gets to enjoy them year after year, barring a disaster. A collection of containers set within that landscape keeps the garden dialogue fresh and interesting.

Containers do not need to be large to be good. I still like this planting, 10 years after the fact. I like the color of the gold marjoram complements the color of the glaze. The lavender star trailing verbena is a lively contrast to the yellow petunias.  The overall shape is relaxed, and proportional to the container.  Small containers ask for small growing plants.

Hot sunny places are the perfect location for seasonal plants. The profuse bloom on these petunias and mandevillea speaks to those conditions. Seasonal tropical plants are a way to have flowers every day all season long. The plastic liner in this wicker basket helps to keep the wicker from deteriorating from constant exposure to moisture. And that plastic means a basket this size will not require watering every day in the heat of the summer.

Double white petunias are leggy, and those legs are not so attractive. Pairing them with euphorbia Diamond Frost disguises that unfortunate trait, and holds up those heavy double flower heads. The datura  provides a contrasting texture both in leaf and flower.

This wooden trough features a large collection of different plants, all arranged in a very informal way.  Insouciant in feeling, this.

Any container planting can be endowed with a contemporary feeling-the design plays a major role in that.

Lush and lavish by summer’s end speaks to months of consistent maintenance. For those whose life means picking up a hose comes last, an irrigation contractor can install watering lines that can buy you some time. If the need for low maintenance is a deterrent to planting, many tropical plants don’t need dead heading, staking or frequent water. A clear understanding of what kind of gardener you are can inform the plant selection process. The big idea is to enjoy the process as much as the results.

 

I planted trees, shrubs and perennials in my own pots last year. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed that. What will I do this year? I do not have a clue, yet.