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.

A Spring Mix

We plant loads of containers in April in celebration of the spring season. The length, depth, and breadth of that planting is informed and driven by those materials available that can tolerate the chill. Farmed twigs are shipped to us in early spring and late fall. They provide mass, volume and height to our container arrangements at a time when the spring season is just beginning.   I cannot express how intrigued I was, given a recent and unexpected gift of 50 stems of a new variety of pussy willow. P sent them unannounced, and I was pleased to get them. How gorgeous are these twigs? The white, gray and black catkins are quite unlike any pussy willow I know of. This variation was observed in their field, and the decision was made to propagate the plant. They sent me all of the rest of the stems they had available – 200 – with a promise there would be more available next year.

In asking for a potential name for this new cultivar, they adopted Rob’s suggestion. Spring Velvet it is. Aptly named, I think. My suggestion of Spring Sensation was the first thing that came to mind when I saw them. It is so rare that a new plant or cultivar becomes available for early spring containers. That small group of plants (I do include the cut stems of willow and dogwood in that group) that can handle the very early spring weather becomes larger as the weather moderates. April 1, my planting options were limited to twigs and cold grown pansies-provided the night temperatures did not dip below 24 degrees or so. Now, given that is April 15th, we will be able to expand our palette of plants.

Those first plantings rely on the mix, meaning the mix of colors. I would not have thought that merlot colored pansies would work well with pink wing violas and lavender pansies, but this mix turned out to be surprisingly lively. Does the variegated Algerian ivy get its leaves singed when night temperatures go too low-yes. But the risk is low enough to warrant planting them, and hoping for the best. This planter is on a covered porch, with walls on three sides. The Janet Craig dracaenas we plant here for the summer stay beautiful long into the fall.  As for the faux picks, I like what they add to the mix. Green fuzz ball picks and white deco ball stems are graphic and sculptural. They are also whimsical.

This series of boxes feature the straight and vertical stems of copper willow, and the horizontal layer of pansies. The faux grass picks add a transitional layer that softens that intersection between the copper willow and those pansies. Though the faux grass is faux, they have a relaxed look that is not only believable-it is welcome. Faux grasses have progressed from a stiff and painfully obvious imitation to a graceful and charming representation of what is to come. The signs of spring are still subtle here. Hardy ornamental grasses in my zone will just be waking up the beginning of June. These boxes speak to spring in a brash and sassy way.

This container features a tree hydrangea which we overwintered inside our unheated landscape building. It will be a while before there are leaves. The process of watching this shrub leaf out is an experience of spring not to be missed.  Three cultivars of pansies with closely related color make for a mix that is visually interesting.

Mixing colors is a way of making familiar materials seem fresh.  Once this planting grows in, it will be easier to see that the color in the pots is related to, but different from the pansies in the ground.

This contemporary spring planting features a color palette notable for its strong contrast.

This pot is entirely planted with lavender shades pansy.  The color variation is built into the cultivar. The night temperatures had improved sufficiently to permit adding white annual phlox and alyssum to the pansies. All around the contemporary centerpiece-lettuce. The faux grass is very short stemmed and droopy. The paddles are sections of palm leaves that are dried.

This box is in a very protected location. The birds nest ferns will readily handle the chill. The rest of the box is planted with white pansies and alyssum. The texture of the alyssum will soon provide a frothy foil to the broad leaves of the ferns.

The pansies we carry are sown in October, and overwintered in unheated tunnel houses. It makes sense that our grower has selected varieties that are well adapted to, and thrive under these conditions.  Though there are a finite number of pansy and viola cultivars, there are lots of ways in which those cultivars can be combined to achieve a distinctive look.  This client likes bold color, and strong contrast.

The plants in this box are pastel and pale in color. Once the phlox gets growing, the box will have a volume better proportioned to the size of the box. Looking over pictures of some of the pots we planted last week, they are indeed remarkably different from one another. It is a pleasure to have something to plant in early spring.

This basket is Rob’s planting.

 

Not only do spring containers represent a preview of what is to come in the landscape and garden, they will just be hitting their glorious best at the end of May and on into June.

April 2, 2019

What was noteworthy about this past Tuesday, the second of April? We planted containers and flower beds at 5095 for spring, 3 weeks earlier than last year. Our first spring planting. The morning was decidedly chilly, but the afternoon was sunny and warm. I could not have been more pleased or content to be outside planting. It was great. Nor could I have been more happy that we could be outside working the beginning of April. Northern zone gardeners are stuck inside longing for another time and place- for the duration of the winter. By the end of March, I am impatient for the winter season to turn to spring. And grumpy every day that it doesn’t.

The beginning of April is not always the beginning of our spring. Last year’s April was wintry in every regard. Mountains of snow deposited over the winter had no impetus to melt. The daytime temperatures were barely above freezing. The nights were plenty cold. The weather was conducive only to ice making. Giant piles of snow transformed by freeze and thaw into ice were everywhere. We planted this project April 22 last year. Embarrassingly late, that.

That I was outdoors on a sunny day with no more than a spring jacket to keep me warm was a good day indeed. I have more to be thankful for than this. My supplier of twigs sent an outstanding collection of fresh cut branches to us. That he farms willow and pussy willow provides great scale to my spring containers. Our pansies are fall sown, and over wintered in unheated greenhouses, so they are good to go outside the moment I take delivery. A whole collection of visually persuasive faux grasses-I thank Rob for them. They provide an intermediary layer between what is tall and what is short. These pots would be rather awkward without them.

A sunny warm April day, some spring centerpieces of note, and a raft of thriving pansies is enough for this early spring day. I went home both happy and satisfied. Nothing in my garden has made itself known.  Later spring will be a symphony. At home, and on the job. So many voices – so much to see. Spring in full blast is hard to keep track of. But this earliest moment, out planting, was the gift of the early season.

This bed full of a pansy mix will sparkle all season.  Lavender shades, Delta Premium violet and white, and pansy beaconsfield mixed will shimmer. If you plan to mix varieties, 3 types provide a more even mix than 2.

This bed of pansies will thrive well into June, should my client decide to delay her summer planting. She might be tempted this year to let this spring planting mature. I for one would be much happier planting her containers for summer in June. Both the soil and the air will have warmed up by then – just what seasonal tropical plants want.

Cool Wave Berries N Cream is a spreading/trailing pansy.  It is perfect for those container plantings that ask for flowers spilling over the edge. This pansy is reputed to survive our winters with aplomb, should you decide to plant it in the ground. This urn was planted with hanging baskets of this pansy. The more mature size of the plants in the basket provide height and volume right from the start.

There are few signs of the perennial garden in this area. These spring pots provide some visual interest, in the meantime. Containers in every season can be a bridge from one garden moment to another, a landscape or garden idea tested in miniature, a laboratory for testing new plants – I do value what containers can bring to the garden.

boxes planted for spring

This long trough is my favorite of the group. The columnar lemon cypress will go on to ornament both the summer and fall planting here. Pots of Persian limes between the cypress will do the same. Yellow and violet pansies compliment the spring green. The summer green will be just as luscious.

Four large planters in the back yard are routinely planted with multi-trunked Himalayan white barked birch. We take them out of the pots in the fall, and winter them inside our landscape building. Very few woody plants are hardy over the winter in pots. With their roots above ground, they struggle to handle the extreme cold of our winters, and unexpected freeze and thaw cycles. Even though our building is unheated, it provides protection from winter wind and sun. As all of the leaves drop in the fall, they have no need for light in the winter months. The birch provide much needed scale to a rear terrace that is large, and a pair of doors from the inside that are very tall.

This is the first year I have under planted the birch for spring. On the terrace-flats of pansies and violas. The mix is lively, as I hoped it would be. Anyone who plants containers brings an idea about shape, mass, texture and color to their plantings. In this early spring container planting, color is a key element.

Mixing plants implies a brew. I like this. Who knows what nature is brewing up next, but for now this spring brew tastes great.

It was a good day.