A Color Scheme

I like to cart watch. During annual planting season, I am interested to see what plants people choose. I try to imagine what it is they are going for, as evidenced by the plants in their carts. Light and airy? Tropically intense? Textured? Moody? Exuberant? I could spot Rob’s cart in a greenhouse chock full of of them from four aisles away. There will be herbs, perennials, annuals that look like perennials, ferns, subtle colors, a touch of peach and pale limey white or pale yellow, grassy elements, self effacing shapes and unusual micro-textures. His cart will look much like a cross between a more measured version of road side weeds, and ingredients common to Mediterranean style cooking. If this sounds complicated, consider that I have been exposed to his work, and the evolution of his work, for decades. I know it when I see it. Some people shop plants with no rhyme or reason that I can determine. I am not a fan of no rhyme or reason, so I will skip over that.  Other gardeners shop plants with color as a primary organizing element-I would be one of those. Determining a color scheme for a collection of pots is one of the season’s great pleasures. I am embarrassed to say how much time I spend going over a color scheme for my pots at home, and the plants that can represent that.   We do on occasion get a request for a very specific color palette. In this case, a special event slated for August came with a request for pink and white flowers. Making that work is more difficult than you might imagine. There are many shades of pink, ranging from peachy pinks to blush and on to rose pink and carmine. Some pinks are dirty, and others ring clear as a bell. I am thinking of that classic medium pink petunias, “Cotton Candy”. The upshot is that there are many shades of pink to choose from. Take your pick. Shades of white are common in the house paint industry, but not so common in annual flowers. Porcelana roses, common in the cut flower trade, are quite creamy. Some white zinnias are creamy. White marigolds are decidedly on the yellow side. But most white seasonal annuals, from mandevillea, snapdragons, trailing verbena, supertunia white, New Guinea impatiens, and Boston daisies, are a fairly bright white. The variety will be driven by the shapes of the leaves and the growth habit of the plants, and various shades of pink. It certainly is easy enough to vary the volume of pink and white in a given container, but to plant a series of containers that stand out individually while guided by a restricted color scheme is an intriguing challenge.

No matter whether the planting project is big or small, I furnish my crew with a photo of the pot or area in question, and a planting scheme. Those sheets go in a waterproof envelope. That is their invention. A job site is known for equal parts of dirt, water, hands and boots. Those sheets provide some order and direction. A road map, as it were. There is no discussion of the shades of pink or the volume of white.  All of the design comes ahead of the planting. Years ago I used to accompany my crew to the job, and go over all of my design decisions in real time. To the last, my crew hated that. They made it known that I needed to make a call, and sign off –  so they can do their part, unimpeded by any hand wringing on my part. They want to go and fill pots with soil, grab the sheets, assemble the plants, plant, clean up and water. Do I have any empirical evidence that suggests that my second guessing myself resulted in better design? No.

I never go to a container installation anymore. I am unwanted, and my angst about the design is a huge bore.  Just ask my crews. So now I play my cards, mark up the sheets, hand them over, and stand pat. Of course I will not know whether my pink and white scheme will be beautiful, dynamic and enchanting for quite some time. The plants need to grow. But the pictures that come back to me via multiple cell phones during the installation and at the end of the day are a clue to the future. In my favor-it is hard to go wrong with plants. Those unloved plants can shine, given some inspired companionship. Rob is able to make marigolds look fresh and beautiful, despite their stiff plant habit and ball shaped flowers.

shrubby pink mandevillea and twister pink trailing verbena

planted container

shade container

kingwood coleus, pink and rose pink polka dot plant

planting

variegated Algerian ivy topiary under planted with pink solenia begonias

This planting was beautifully executed. The ivy at the base of the topiary has been integrated in to the planting of begonias.

placing the plants

close to the finish

terrace planting

planting

At day’s end, Birdie is watering. I have a theory that plants resent and are set back by the transplanting process. I think a good shower helps to wash some of that insult away.

 

Sustaining

My apologies to all of you who read my essays. Two days ago, the server for all of our associated websites and this blog crashed. All is rebuilt now, but my latest post, this post named “Sustaining” was a casualty, but for the beginning two paragraphs. The original version cannot be restored. To follow is a rewriting of that post. For those of you that were able to read before the crash, I hope this version will be tolerable, or better. For those of you seeing it for the first time, this is the first in a series I hope to write about planting containers for the garden. It’s that time.

The instinct to sustain comes standard issue with all living things. Animals strengthen and support their newborn young with mother’s milk, a home, and protection from danger of all sorts. That Mom supplies her young with all of the necessities of life, whether it comes from her, or from  a source of water, shelter or food nearby. Some parents with no innate directive to protect or feed their young produce progeny by the hundreds or thousands. Sustenance comes in a lot of different forms. People, those most complex of all the creatures, do much the same, but in a more complex and individual way. Luckily, many kids lacking sustenance emerge with a will to grow, standard issue. Some seed within them grows. What is truly amazing is how many varied paths of affirmation work. Astonishing, this. Plants likewise have mechanisms to not only grow, but protect their own survival for generations to come. Even the most cursory study of seeds, and the conditions under which they germinate and grow, makes it clear that the urge to survive is a most basic tenet of life. The flowers have a grand purpose. Pollination and the the eventual production of seed insures the survival of the species. Those of us who treasure flowers whenever they appear are witnessing the story of how a species is sustained from one generation to the next – every bit as much as their ephemeral beauty.

Anyone who gardens has that instinct to nourish and nurture. That comes part and parcel with the urge to try to make something grow. The effort it takes to grow and sustain a landscape and garden is considerable. Aching backs, permanently dirty nails and sunburned noses, scrapes scratches, bruises, frustrations and failures tell the story. All that effort in search of that perfect moment. The gardener enjoying the garden they create and sustain. The natural world is a world in which every living thing jostles for space, breathes, and prospers, or not. The outcomes are not always predictable or positive. Every living thing is as capable of sustaining injury or damage as they  Anyone who gardens has seen treasured plants demolished by deer, or destroyed by an exceptionally hostile winter. The list of the plants that have died on my watch is a very long list. Those plants that have persisted are a source of great joy. Life and death in the garden is pure theater. Why else would gardeners come back for more, year after year? The spring season is anticipated for months, and the experience of watching plants break dormancy and grow is an experience like no other.

Gardeners of all description are in the full swing of it now. All because the relationship people forge with nature is sustaining. There are landscapes and gardens being cleaned up. There are new plants going in the ground. There are plans for a new terrace, or a fountain. Some older landscapes are getting a refresh. A garden bench is getting a fresh coat of paint. I for one have always enjoyed weeding;  its solitary and contemplative byproduct is a tonic. Pulling weeds does not require much in the way of concentration, so there is time to hear the birds.  In a frantic world, the garden is other worldly, and restorative. That spring move into the garden is the emotional equivalent of a trip to the cottage or the beach without any travel time involved. We mark the beginning of the summer gardening season by planting containers. It’s a specialty of the house.

Rob plants containers in May in his own inimitable and sustaining style. He puts up planters that combine herbs, vegetables and flowers in a relaxed and graceful way. His plantings strongly evoke the agricultural roots of all gardening. Planting crops that feed communities is life sustaining. A place for growing vegetables and herbs in the garden takes many forms. Some gardeners plant ornamental plants incidental to a working garden. Others want a few tomatoes and some herbs to cook with. No matter the form or extent, growing those plants that sustain life sustains a very basic emotional need – a working connection to nature of which we are all a part.  Rob is apt to purchase lots of containers that compliment these first container plantings. Baskets of all shapes and styles, wood boxes and crates, galvanized buckets and tubs all speak to the farm garden.  Even the contemporary stainless steel wire baskets with fabric liners pictured above pair remarkably well with a planting of herbs.

The herb pots come first for a simple reason.  They not only whet the appetite for the summer season to come, many herbs – basil excepted – are quite tolerant of unpredictably chilly spring weather. The pot pictured above is planted with a couple miniature petunias. They shrug off cold weather as well. The plastic liner in the reed baskets help improve their longevity.

vintage berry baskets planted with rosemary, variegated scented geraniums and anbual phlox

Will the grapes produced by this grapevine be sufficient for a few bottles of home made wine, or jars of marmalade? No. But planted up in a vintage champagne grape crate, this container planting is earthy in every regard.

Mint is an impossible thug in the garden. It will run everywhere, and is very difficult to eradicate or control.  But a planting in a bucket means this fragrant herb is available for seasoning lamb or as a garnish in a summer drink.

Topiary plant forms have long been a mainstay of the formal garden. The tin pots Rob chose for them recall that history. These lavender and scented geraniums on standard are a more cottage garden version that pair will with pots of herbs and flowers. These are under planted with alyssum and lavender bacopa.

basket of herbs

vintage oval bucket filled with basil

rosemary, variegated lavender, bidens, variegated thyme and alyssum

tomato under planted with gold oregano and thyme

for the love of lavender

a collection of associated vintage and new pots

Chicago figs and yellow petunias

tomatoes and herbs planted in terra cotta long toms.

handled bucket with strawberries, thyme, and white dianthus

Rob planted The Fed  in Clarkston with loads of lavender and herbs last year. He will be doing it again this year. These pots hit all the right notes, don’t they?

August

Did I spend weeks designing and specifying plant material for the shop garden this past February? No, absolutely not. I rarely think about the shop plantings until our work for clients is coming to a close. That means that I scout what seasonal plant material is still available in late June or early July. I actually don’t think it matters that much what we plant. What matters is that we plant. I am a fan of any person who plants. And doubly so for those who plant and plant again. I have no need to weigh in about what is good to plant. Anyone who plants trees, vegetables, perennials, shrubs or season plants in any configuration or design – I thank you and respect you for planting.  Planting is work, but it is entertaining and satisfying work. Making something grow is a good use of time in every sense of the phrase.

You might be aghast that the shop seasonal garden design and installation hinges on the left overs at those greenhouses where we shop, but I am used to this arrangement. I do not mind in the least bit being last in line. I relish the challenge. Any skilled designer should be able to make sense of an impromptu collection of plants they never expected to put together. Surprise is a vastly underrated design element. Surprise without angst, that is. I can always tell if a seasonal planting has been thrown together in a panic at the last minute. Last minute panic usually has that aura.  But last minute does not necessarily imply a lack of design. Designing from a very limited palette of plants available in equally limited numbers is my idea of a good time. Of course some outcomes are better or more interesting than others.

What is the most important factor in a beautiful planting? Well grown and maintained plants have to be at the top of that list. Some plants are not so much to my taste, but any well grown plant has a beauty that is undeniable. It takes effort not to admire a well grown and mature stand of shasta daisies. It is easy to pass over a planting that has had haphazard care, no matter how interesting and extraordinary the plants. The care and maintenance, as in on time watering, grooming, feeding, deadheading, dividing and weeding, is key to a beautiful planting. The window boxes pictured above get a good deal of attention over the summer. As we are in love and in business over the garden, I insist that we take great care of our plantings. The star of our show in the window boxes is a new Proven Winners angelonia known as “Steel Blue”. My grower got a number of cuttings in late, and when we were ready to plant they were looking extraordinarily good.

I am very impressed by its performance. They grow tall on sturdy stems, and they seem to handle hot and humid weather without skipping a beat. That pale carmine color is beautiful. That color so echoes the striking color of bordeaux petunias. Summer snapdragon-what a charming common name for this seasonal plant. They relish the heat, and they bloom profusely. They look especially good paired with nicotiana “Purple Perfume”, which is an all-America selection. An All America selection? Look to this designation for plants that are likely to perform beautifully throughout our summer season. The All America designation is not awarded to many. It is conferred upon plants that thrive. Lime nicotiana and creeping jenny is companionable with almost any color scheme. Green is a neutral color in the garden.

This yellow and carmine purple scheme looks great on a sunny day.

This cream yellow and lavender bicolor verbena named Limoncello tells the story of our pale yellow and purple color scheme. It is a new plant for us.

The petunias further represent the surprise combination of colors thematic to the summer planting at the shop. The color contrast is soft, and engaging. Our grower’s good supply of petunias played a substantial role in the design.

Four pots outside the front door of my office are planted with Limelight hydrangeas on standard. Those creamy and greenish white hydrangea flowers coming in to bloom are the star of the show. One pair is under planted with yellow petunias and lime licorice. The pots are large enough to permit more frequent watering the hydrangeas.

The planting on the roof is just starting to come in to is own. All of those pale yellow supporting plants? Pale yellow marigolds. Splashes of yellow cannas. The coleus “Wasabi” is planted in the back row, as it gets quite tall. It is amenable to being grown in full sun, as long as it gets sufficient water. The color is a sunny yellow – quite different than its lime green color in shady spots. Lime licorice, bordeaux and misty lilac wave petunias round out the planting. The roof boxes have automatic irrigation, as getting up there in person requires a very large and heavy extension ladder. That said, either Chelsea or Karen go up there twice a week to check on everything.  Yes, we plant. Every chance we get.

The shop garden in August.

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.