A Hot Mess

Sunne works at Detroit Garden Works.  Though her given name is Carolyn, everyone knows her as Sunne.  There is an obvious reason for that-she has a very low key and very positive aura about her.  It takes a lot to disturb her sunny disposition and manner.  She is also known for special way with words.  When something goes way haywire, she will come and tell me that we have a hot mess going on.  A hot mess accurately describes the past 10 days.  Howard had to have a fairly serious surgery.  Once I got him home, he needed lots of care from both Buck and I.  I am happy to report that he is better.

summer-containers.jpgMy summer containers at home have been a hot mess from the get go.  I planted late.  I planted lots of plants I had never grown before.  Torrential rains and cool temperatures took their toll.  At one point a Persian Shield in one of my pots wilted down, and died.  I would guess root rot was to blame.  But have I ever in my life failed to bring on a Persian Shield?  They are as easy as pie to grow.  In August, I needed to replace one of them.  The look of this pair of pots-a hot mess.  The lime green scotch moss has been the devil to keep happy.

missing-begonias.jpgCold temperatures and relentless rain-not favorable circumstances for the cultivation of begonias.  Their thick juicy stems despise too much water.  Rot has been a problem since the first of July.  The cold rain has been heaven on earth for every fungus floating in my vicinity.  Of the four begonias planted in these pots, I only have 1 and one half pathetic plants still standing.

wasabi-coleus.jpgThe Wasabi coleus is just about bullet proof.  No matter the conditions, it thrives. As for the torenia, this was my first year growing them.  I have not been disappointed.  They have been covered with flowers all season long, in spite of the rain, the cold, and the north wall.  I was impressed.  As for the curly liriope – it will rot in a heartbeat.  I watered every plant in this pot separately.  This is a lot of work.  The easiest culture for plants clustered in a container is to choose plants that all agree on optimal light and water conditions.  Should you choose to plant a container with differing sun and water conditions, plan to baby and coax.  kitchen-door-pot.jpgThe pot outside the kitchen door has taken forever to come on.  The nicotiana hated the cold.  The verbena bonariensis bloomed out early.  The double lavender petunias-not so robust.  But I see late signs of life.

Planting with a particular color scheme in mind comes with a whole host of trouble.  Many yellow and purple flowering tropical plants are so beautiful together, but they may lack the vigor given poor conditions to produce a mature arrangement that delights the eye.  Testing plants can be an expensive and unsatisfying exercise.  Be prepared.  Was I prepared?  Not really.

I spend lots of time planning my containers. I enjoy them so much. I care for them every day. Of course I want them to do well. But I do not want to limit myself to plants that promise to do well.  I want to try new things.  Unknown plants.  That exploration can unexpectedly work out great, or unexpectedly fail to enchant.  Despite my best efforts, my collection of pots is what Sunne would call a hot mess.

I have never grown yellow thumbergia before.  I have waited a long time for flowers.  I am sure to cool temperatures has a lot to do with this.  The yellow punch cannas-will they ever bloom?  I am still waiting. The scavaeola was obliging, but it cannot carry the day.  This pot is a moment still waiting to happen. I am hoping for a long and warm fall.

summer-container.jpgI do love the variegated boxwood.  Do I love its companions? Not really.  The Jester millet is the wrong texture.  It has never set seed.  The dark purple petunias are scraggly.  Though the planting is healthy, I am disappointed.  Did I do this-really?

driveway-garden.jpgThe driveway pots are based on cup and saucer vines, nicotiana langsdorfii, tibouchina, lime licorice, and misty lilac wave petunias.  A grand scheme this-but the season has not cooperated.  Will I have a fall long enough to see more flowers in this sea of green?

container-with-lantana.jpgThe box at the bottom of the stairs gets about 6 hours of sun every day.  I made a big investment in lantana.  Though all the plants seem to be doing fine, they make an arrangement which is neither strong in color or composition.  Sleepy, this.  OK-boring beyond belief.


summer-container.jpgThe Cathedral blue salvia in the center of this pot-I planted lots of them this year.  I was so taken with the color.  I see now that they are strictly a supporting cast plant.  They do not have the stature or punch required of a centerpiece for a container.  I suspect that even in a perfect season, they would always be subtle, and more green than bloom. Garden, and learn.

front-yard.jpgI am trying to take a philosophical approach.  The best part about planting containers is you have a chance to do them all differently-next year.  I have a fall season, coming up. Next season in the garden-this sounds good.  It always sounds good.



  1. I think you are being very critical of yourself. I know that all too well. This has been a tough summer on flowers and plants, we cannot change mother nature. As you said there is always next year to try different arrangements. I really like the fact that you use so many different types of plants in you pots. I look forward to your posts. I am glad Howard is ok. jeanne

    • Deborah Silver says

      Jeanne, thanks for asking after Howard-I appreciate it. And the fact that you are seeing good in spite of what has not been so good. Deborah

  2. Julia Hofley says

    “Garden and learn…” Wise words, dear friend. This year has been a whole new semester in the garden! My Canna ‘Ehemanni’ bloomed earlier and never again, and the C. ‘Panache’ just came into bloom finally! Ten other ones in the garden have moderately good looking leaves and that’s all. Maybe by Halloween they will bloom! There are some promising new double petunias that are miniatures and they look fab coming down the pike. My upright fuchsias in terra cotta baskets are perfect in every way. The tropical hibiscus have set their 1st blooms of the summer this past weekend. What a drag it has been hopefully watching their Japanese Beetle-chowed leaves for weeks, just hoping for one measly bloom. The tiny, double Calibrachoas have been stalwarts all season in containers. It has been a new lesson indeed this summer. I hope it stays warm longer this year just so we can enjoy the containers on the patio sometime before the snow flies.
    I am relieved that little Howard is okay and on the mend. His fan club is large and he is loved by so many~ xo Little Guy

    • Deborah Silver says

      Thanks for your letter, Julia. What a whole lot of frustration this season has been. I too am hoping for a long fall. I have been watching the cup and saucer vines grow all summer. Will they ever get a move on, and bloom?? Howard is on the mend, thanks. Deborah

  3. C’mon out to California in August sometime and take a look at our containers..hot mess does not begin to describe the tragedys. I’d give you ten of yours for one of mine ! And the Corgi ? I want that too …

  4. Looks like a beautiful mess to me. What is the pink flower/shrub in the first photo? Where do you find the terracotta stands that you used for the pot outside your kitchen door? I like the height it gives.

    Thank you for sharing your garden!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Sherry, the pink is a stand of carefree beauty roses. I took the picture of Howard in June. Detroit Garden Works sells the terra cotta pot stands-they are called “socles”. Thanks for reading! Deborah

  5. Oh, if you lived in Nebraska you would be so delighted to have all your planters look as wonderful as your’s do! It was 100 degrees today.

  6. Silvia Weber says

    Dear Deborah, so sorry to hear about Howard’s surgery – very happy he’s OK.
    Your pots, although not your usual masterpieces, are far from a “hot mess”

    • Deborah Silver says

      Silvia, We have had to carry him up and down the stairs, but every day he is better. As for the hot mess-it is so frustrating when your skill and attention doesn’t matter much! Deborah

  7. Kathleen Emery says

    Comforting to me to realize that even the professionals struggle sometimes, although struggle is relative- your containers look pretty good to me! I also plant containers each year. I love to devise what I will plant and usually plant too heavy-immediate gratification. My black and blue salvias were so huge that they split in half last week. They look butchered now but my hummingbirds still love them.

    Alas, it is September and my garden notices.

    Thanks for your posts and pictures. Your garden blog is a gem in my inbox, always look forward to it. I will be taking a DGW excursion sometime soon.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Kathleen, we are expecting 96 degrees to day, and 92 tomorrow-go figure. What a tough year. Though last year’s relentless heat ws hard to live through, all of my tropical plants loved it. I have a new appreciation for what the word “tropical” means! Thanks, Deborah

  8. Your home is lovely,and all of your flowers are beautiful! I do understand your disappointment though. That was a LOT of work! We moved a couple of months ago from MS to UT — yes, cross-country! I have really missed all of my flowers this summer, as I was not able to bring any with me on our move! Different climate, but some similarities. I hope to have time to have flowers next year when weather permits. VERY DRY & hot here; not as much rain as MS, so I am trying to learn my way in the flower garden. Just a very few plants & flowering things in the yard now. Have enjoyed the wildflowers so much in the mountains, and am debating what to put where in the yard, and also pots on the deck. Your pots give me some good ideas, as well as your website. You are doing a great job with it all! Keep up the great work!

  9. It has been the same in the UK, waited forever then a pathetic show. Love your blog, very inspiring. Mary

  10. I am sorry about your plants and your pots, but it does this gardener’s heart good to know that even a pro such as yourself struggles. This has been the hardest gardening year ever in NW Ohio. It is really helpful for you to describe your thought process — thanks for the lessons.

  11. Great post today. Just yesterday I sat on our deck looking at all of my containers and wishing so badly I could start over. This late in the summer everything starts to look “tired” to me. I look forward to your posts and appreciate you sharing your experience with a novice like me.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Jan, I may try to post about reviving summer pots with new plants-and for sure I will post plenty about the fall. We both have a new season coming up. Thanks for writing, Deborah

  12. This is your best post ever! I too like to experiment with new plants and combinations. The failures offer the most frustration and disappointment but also the most lasting lessons. It’s ‘easy’ to get decorating right with furniture, paint, etc. Plants however are living things and isn’t their unpredictability and their ability to leave us stunningly surprised what keeps us doing this year after year.
    All that said, when your in the business, your clients might not be so generous or philosophical!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Susan, my clients are pretty good about recognizing what can be fixed, and what can’t-and that the issue of responsibility ios not the important part. Like you say, every year has its surprises-and its lessons. I am glad we have a new season coming up fast-this could be a great year for fall containers! Thanks, Deborah

  13. Thanks Deborah! I can empathize completely. We had so much rain here (southwestern MA) at the beginning of the season that I couldn’t fertilize as I normally would have, and that seemed to set all the planters WAYYYY back.
    It’s always a balancing act in spring anyway…do I plant what I know will do well and that has succeeded in the past, or do I push myself a little and try out some new combos and new plants in new ways… speaking for myself, it’s the only way to learn, tho it can and does sometimes result in…”did I plant that, really?”
    It would be great fun to have a best and worst container photo contest sometime!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Julianne, Sometimes my pots have happy accidents in store for me. Sometimes they are dismal. I have lots of double dismal looking pots this year. Here’s to a better Howard, and a long wonderful fall. Thanks, Deborah

  14. If that’s a hot mess then I would call mine ghettofabulous! LOL! I am not kidding.
    It recently occurred to me, however, that I could actually trim my petunias down so all the pots match, rather than have one cattywampus over achiever and two slow learners. Why didn’t I consider that sooner?
    I am glad to hear Howard is okay and that your beloved harbinger of the hot mess is there for you!



  15. Deborah,

    I love your blog, and could not have happened to check it out on a more perfect day. I was feeling particularly down on myself for the way my summer annual displays went this year. Been taking down notes of how to improve as I drive by clients’ houses. I took a gamble and tried some new things with clients pots this year, things more drought and heat tolerant (eh hem…invested a TON into lantana…sound familiar??) 🙂 And not until this week has it been dry and hot. ERRR! I’ve done hundreds of containers in drought tolerant plants and they are all finally giving a show, but green and messy all summer long. So I understand your frustration and you are not alone! I still manage to get compliments on them and all I can surmise is that if you don’t do this all day everyday, year upon year, you are still happy to have your pots full and (sometimes) colorful :). But I can’t predict how the weather of the season goes either…..here’s to an amazing fall to boost our spirits!

  16. Long live your hot mess ! I am so happy to hear that Howard is on the mend.

  17. You’re funny. Everything looks good to me. Very lovely. Maybe it has to do with the pretty containers. Plus Now I may try torenia. I’ve seen it at the garden center, but was too shy to try it. I also LOVE your back door. 😀 BTW have you tried those new spreading pansies?

  18. I am new to your Blog Deborah and look forward to funny, beautiful Hot Messes like this in the future! So true how one’s Hot Mess can be another’s picture of Treasure of Beauty. The style and detail of some of the containers are amazing. Don’t see much of that in Kokomo Indiana!

  19. Deborah, your post made me philosophical as well. My friend and I have an expression for our creative leaps of faith (and effort): It is never the glory you imagine. Working for the glory you imagine makes so much energy in inspiration. Alas, the expression became so much our commentary on disappointment but we realized it was just as applicable for the astounding marvels. As you know, gardening and making things grow is not just about The Plan, but about implementing The Plan and then letting Mother Nature have her input. Her input is the magic fairy dust. Our environment seems to be changing, and though we all know weather always changes and cannot be predicted, it does change in familiar enough ways, all the more familiar the older we get. However the changes recently seem more of a shift than a change. A shift to a new pattern of changes. I’ve even seen cloud formations the last few years that I simply don’t recognize! Something is afoot and all we can do is live with it. And that means learning with it. And learning you are with all your “hot messes”. Your “failures” are just a step on the road to successes. Carry on!

    • Deborah Silver says

      Michelle, thank you for your thoughtful letter. 20 years ago I was driving a van on a 3 lane road near me. It was raining so hard that it looked for all the world like the rain was coming up from the pavement, instead of falling from the sky. The noise inside the van was deafening. I have never seen anything like it-before or since. All the time, I see natural phenomena that I have never seen before. Why else would I be so incredibly interested in the natural world, 40 years out from my first garden? Variation in nature seem entirely normal-just not always so pleasing or easy to deal with. And yes, every gardener has to adjust to what nature has in store next. I have no fear of failure-you are right that failure is is a call to learn that cannot be ignored. Thanks again, Deborah

Leave a Reply to Silvia Weber Cancel reply