Sizing Up The Situation

We are a good week or so into our container planting season. The location of the planters or the light and available water drives the selection of the plants. Sizing up the situation is key to successful container plantings. This pair of planters are tall and wide, as they needed to be,  placed in front of substantial stone pillars. Their narrow depth is friendly to the fact that they are placed on a walkway. It is easy to see why my clients selected them. What plants did they ask for? These triple ball eugenia topiaries came in a 1 gallon pot. They would fit. Their shape addresses the formality of the entrance, and they add some much needed height and scale set against the mass of stone. Eugenias are also very tolerant of the shade cast by the north side of the house. There were at least 3 good reasons to plant them. When designing and choosing plants for containers, spend some time assessing your conditions.      The interior of this front porch has a very high roof overhead. Add a northern exposure to the roof overhead means the shade here is serious shade. The porch is massive, and overscaled. Lots of stone and iron flank a pair of dark wood doors. This location asks for very shade tolerant plants with bold texture and good size that would soften and complement the architecture.  The leaves of the lime dracaena “Janet Craig” will burn with the slightest exposure to sun. But in a place like this, they will thrive. The chartreuse leaves brighten the shade. They are striking in an architectural way.

The purple and white flowering streptocarpus is a relative to African violets, and likewise thrives in low light. Given its diminutive size, it is most effective in a mass, as a supporting cast member in a container. The bird’s nest ferns are tropical, meaning they are not hardy in my zone. They offer big and strong mass, shape, and texture to a container planting, while asking for little in the way of light. The black tubes on the porch steps are irrigation lines which will provide water to the containers.  No rain falls here given the roof, so all watering must be done mechanically, or by hand. We run the tubes through the bottom and out the top when we plant the pots as a courtesy to the irrigation contractor. Last but not least is the selection of the containers.  They are of simple shape and smooth texture, which contrasts to the visual complexity of the stone, iron, and glass.  The dark color echoes the dark wood doors, and visually defers to the plants.

This deeply shaded and constantly wet spot was the perfect place for a large scale container. Everything that ever got planted in this ground promptly drowned.  The caladiums and ferns tolerate the the shade, and their striking texture and color help to keep all eyes off the soggy dirt. I have on occasion planted sanseverias in the dirt. They never looked entirely happy, nor did they grow, but they lived. A container is a great idea for a place where nothing else wants to grow. Consider containers for those stubbornly bare spots. A soil and drainage structure above ground can circumvent poor conditions.

This painted brick chimney features a very interesting brick applique, quite unlike any I have ever seen. It thus asks for an arrangement of containers and plants that will not obstruct a view of that feature. The green and white under plantings emphasize that white brick. The triple ball Green Mountain boxwood topiaries can be planted in the ground for the winter, and will only get better with age. I would guess that these boxwood topiaries would would be fine in these lead pots for a number of years.  The white mandevillea will loosen up the look a little, although I will advise my client to clip every once in a while.

This contemporary landscape is dominated by a long and tall corten steel wall. Both the steel and the stone will absorb a lot of heat.  The mid century modern pots are mid sized at the top, and small sized at the bottom. This situation calls for drought resistant plants. As for style, the wild and rangy rosemarys are good against the geometry established by the wall, bench, and terrace. The wide growing small felted leaves of the variegated licorice, and the cloud of tiny blooms from the euphorbia at the bottom will soften the look, without obscuring the shape of the planters.

A container all on its own, well away from a porch or wall, asks for some volume and mass. Once this Limelight hydrangea topiary grows out and blooms, this 24″ by 24″ container will have a living tall and wide presence.  The petunias, white phlox and variegated licorice will provide a wide and soft cushion below, in contrast to those big coarse hydrangea leaves. As the container is 30″ tall, there is room for the roots of a shrub to go deeper than the typical annual plant. The grass, ground cover, gravel, and stone are all on the same level-the ground plane. A tall container and a statuesque central and defining plant that represents the landscape on an entirely different level is particularly effective. Formal landscapes ask for equally formal container plantings.

This client owns a pair of particularly fine and detailed bronze urns. The recent planting was designed to never obstruct or impinge on the view of the urns. The white mandevillea will grow up, and provide some green company to the porch columns. The white sunpatiens will flush out, and grow wide.

This small front porch does have a roof, but it does face south. This tall pot has a very small planting area.  A tree form fuchsia with long and graceful arms readily fits in the small space. The petunias and licorice will not thrive to the extent they do in full sun-but in this situation, restrained growth will be good.

This delicate wire planter on legs is also placed on a covered porch, facing east. The pink caladiums will flush out, as will the button ferns. This will soften the blocky look of the walls and floor. The container is light enough to be taken out for some overhead light once in a while. The creeping jenny will cascade. A little judicious pruning will help keep that jenny narrow.

These large Italian terra cotta pots occupy a partly shady corner on a terrace that occupies most of the floor space. Small beds permitted the planting of Boston ivy, and climbing roses, but containers provide an opportunity to really warm up the space. The fuchsias will bloom all summer in this protected location, as will the sunpatiens. These containers were planted on May 9 for an event on May 12. There would be no time for growing.  So we planted gallon pots and baskets rather than 4″ pots. This is an equally good strategy if you need to plant seasonal containers late. Many greenhouse 2 or 3 crops a season, or an edited selection of annual plants in 6″ or 8″ pots. A new terrace, a birthday gift of a pot, a new house, an engagement party-there are plenty of good reasons to plant late.

In the meantime, all of the containers we planted for spring look terrific right now. These plants are thriving in our cool weather. I like to plant seasonally. By this I mean the best place for heat loving annuals right now in my zone is a greenhouse. Deciding when to plant is an important decision.  I will do most of my container plantings in the next 3 weeks.

Rob placed this basket full of white gerbera daisies next to this antique stone cistern. I think he did a great job of sizing up this situation.














The Deck Pots

June 25 2014 (1)Every year I think I will be able to finish planting annual containers for clients before the beginning of July.  Beginning of July? I do have clients who plant their pots for spring-they have no need of a summer planting until late June.  There are some clients who call the first week of June for pots.  It is late June until I can get to them.  I am hoping to finish all of my private clients this week, leaving a summer commercial installation for next week.  The container plantings I hope to have done by the 4th of July.   Given our cold and off putting spring, It is still taking all the time I have and then some to do the work I have booked. But no matter the work load, I make time to plant my pots at home.

June 25 2014 (3)I do plant lots of containers at home.  Coming home to planted pots is a good thing indeed.  Part of my end of the day routine is to tend to the watering  and maintenance of my pots. Just an hour ago I finished planting the last pot.  Given that I am planting into warm soil, that last pot should show signs of growth in just a few days. Looking at them and after them is relaxing for me.

June 25 2014 (4)I do plant my pots differently every year.  That is part of the challenge, and the anticipation of the summer season.  My trees are in the same place, doing the same thing, every year.  My perennials and roses and groundcover-I do not move these plants around, or change them regularly. Though I may waffle away the early spring planning for my containers, by the time that June comes, I have to commit.  I like that deadline.

June 25 2014 (5)I like that pressure. Too big a time frame gives me too much room to fret.  A short time frame encourages me to make decisions, and plant.  I am pleased with this year’s deck plantings.  Certain things influence my decisions. I have a 1930’s home with Arts and Crafts details that features a brick cladding that is a mix of yellow, cream, and pink.  White looks too chilly here. Silver foliage, as in gray, looks good here.  I will admit that after the consideration of scale and mass, I am very drawn to a discussion of color. Pink and orange, and all the versions thereof, may not interest you.  But those colors suit both me and my space.

June 25 2014 (11)I went on occasion far afield from a pink and orange scheme. The Persian Shield in my Italian terra cotta squares faced down with variegated pepperomia and variegated tradescantia seemed appropriate to the color of the brick, and the color of the Italian terra cotta pots.  I had no problem introducing some dark purple to my scheme.June 25 2014 (7)The pennisetum whose name I cannot remember,  and the orange coleus works with the color and the design of this pot.  I did entertain many other plantings for these terra cotta urns.  Pictured above-my decision. No one else has to be pleased about this decision but me.  That is half the fun of it.  I like this messy head of hair in contrast to the formal and classical style of the urn.  Once the coleus gets to growing, the look will change.

June 25 2014 (8)My terra cotta pots from Mital have  loads of detail.  I try to plant them with an eye to that detail. I try even harder to not to over think it.  I am a big fan of graceful. All the plants in this pot are quite ordinary-petunias, geraniums, lime licorice.  The terra cotta nicotiana is new to me-I like that brick orange color.

June 25 2014 (6)Pink and orange-I will admit my choices for my containers this summer were much about lively color.  The nicotiana “Blue Ice” is an interesting color variation I had not seen before.  I have planted this oval pot all green, with green nicotiana, for many years.  This year is different.

June 25 2014 (10)As for what I have planted in my deck pots this year, I like the relationships generated by color.  Not quite so obvious are my sun issues.  This space does not sit due east.  It sits southeast.  This particular spot gets incredibly hot and sunny for about 6 hours a day.  The brick, once it gets really hot, radiates more heat.  I have to pick plants that are happy in this environment.

June 24 2014 (42)This pot full of orchid pink new guinea impatiens looks swell.  Like the geraniums in the previous picture, this impatiens likes the heat, and a good amount of sun.  The pot is large enough that I am able to keep the soil at the proper moisture level.  Dry New Guineas will flop over dramatically.

June 25 2014 (9)The 1930’s English snake pot is a prized pot.  It does not need all that much in the way of dressing up.  The creme brulee heuchera leaves are big and simple, and compliment the shape of the pot. I can see over it into the garden beyond. The pot has a setting.

June 25 2014 (2)At the bottom of the stairs off the deck, one of the first boxes that my company Branch ever produced. I love this box every bit as much as my Italian terra cotta pots.  The color scheme is a mix of yellow, orange and brown. There is a lot going on, texture and color wise, as the pot sits in front of a big section of brick.

I would share anything I could about my process for planting containers with any gardener.  Why wouldn’t I?  That said, I did not think much about my process until the pots were done.  My container design has everything to do with the place- the architecture of that place.  Color.  Scale and proportion. Rhythm.  Texture, mass and line.  And of course, the maintenance. What can I plant that will be a pleasure to maintain?


Planning The Pots



Reluctantly, I planted my first pots, this past Friday..  I was reluctant, as the overnight temperature was 46 degrees.  At 9am, just 52 degrees.  But this particular client spends most of the summer on the east coast.  She needs an early planting, so I am happy to oblige.  She knows there could be damage from cold-she is willing to risk it. She has every hope that when she gets back in late summer that her pots will still look good. What looks good early that goes on to look good late-that is a tall order.  I choose the plants that go in her pots carefully.  This means plants that can shake off the cold.  Plants that have staying power. And a great soil in which to plant.  No begonias or coleus or caladiums for her.  Good planning in the beginning makes for good results.  The big idea here-know your habits, your inclinations, your summer schedule, your availability to look after them-then plan to plant your pots accordingly.

summer planting

I am very concerned that whatever gets planted produces good results.  I am sure you are wondering why I am so interested in results-as if planting summer pots was a competition.  But there is a very real competition going on.  A love of the idea of a gardening life-lots of people favor this.  But then there is the reality.  The expense and trouble versus the effort and the result-every gardener has had that moment when they weigh the effort against the results.   A summer planting that falls down and fails is discouraging.  A successful planting encourages a gardener to keep going, and expand their relationship with the garden.  I like the idea that successful container plantings can encourage people to garden on.  Abject failure makes the time and money involved the most important issue.  I like the benefits of gardening to be the most important issue.

summer-planting.jpgGreat container plantings revolve around three issues.  First and foremost-who are you?  Are you a do it yourself gardener?  Do you work a job, or have kids? Are you a professional designer with clients who expect you to handle the summer season for them?  Are you a person that loves green best of all?  Do you have the time to individually and carefully water, or are you interested that your irrigation system do the watering work?  Are you all in?  Are you new to an interest in the garden?

summer annual planting

This why I favor advance planning.  I like to know how my clients see the garden.  This helps me to plan for them.  A planting that answers the needs of a specific gardener is the right planting.  If you are planting for yourself-ask the same questions.  Ask lots of questions of yourself-before you buy the first plant.   Answer them, as true as you can.  The second issue-where have you placed the containers?  At the front door under a porch roof?  On the pool deck?  In a shady bed?  Narrow your plant choices to those plants that will thrive in the conditions that you have. At my shop, the sun plants are in the sun, and the shade plants are in the shade-this makes choosing the right plants easy.  Most nurseries do the same that I do.  Most plants have care tags in the pots-read, before you leap. Plants are very specific about what they want, and if they don’t get it, they will languish.


Are you a good and faithful waterer? Do you relax, deadheading and grooming your pots?  Do you have little time to devote to the maintenance of your summer plantings?  Are you easy going about the relationships that develop in a container planting, or are you interested in being in charge start to finish?  Do you have pots big enough to handle a day without watering in the heat of the summer?  Do you have easy access to your window boxes?  Will you look after those pots as soon as your family has been looked after?  Are you up north in the heat of the summer?  This is the third issue-are you on top of the maintenance of summer annuals?



Detroit Garden Works-everyone who works for me is ready and willing to help you with a summer planting scheme. But no one knows your summer life better than you do.  Every gardener’s summer  is different.  I so value the diversity expressed by the gardening community. This said, tell your story.  Your story, and our story, in concert, might make for some really  beautiful summer containers.  This is a fancy way of saying that my group likes meeting people face to face.  I will repeat this, as it is so important.  Be willing to tell your story.  A story understood mean a plan with success in its future.

window box

The plants are growing fast-how I love how they look.  I am thinking non stop-what will I plant?    What will you plant for summer this year?


Some Like It Hot

I have been a fan of orange, and every related warm, hot and striking color, my entire gardening life.  A client who once remarked that orange was a color that symbolized hysteria-I am sorry to say she had no appreciation for for sheer exuberance.  Some of us-including me-like it hot.  As I have said before, I love annual gardening for the fact that I can plant differently every season.  

This combination of plants-Rob’s own.  Stellar-the syncopated beat of his color combination.  The idea of rhythm is very difficult to discuss in words-but so easy to photograph.  Hot and cool colors in graphic contrast will get attention from a long ways away.   Striking color contrast is but the first sentence from a  paragraph about what constitutes hot.  Looking to be blazing?  Think about orange, orange and hot pink and lime.  Think about any color, intensely represented.  

Hot pink and white zinnias, pink cotton candy petunias-these three plants can get a party going on.  I have been a fan of zinnias since was a kid. There is something boldly charming about their big flat faces.   Cannas, dahlias, bananas and other tropicals-all of these can bring loads of color to a planting.

Solenia orange begonia is a great performer.  Properly watered, they will bloom heavily the entire summer.  They have succulent juicy stems that will rot if they are overwatered.  If you put your finger in the dirt-and the dirt sticks, wait to water.  Lime green is represented in the pots, creeping jenny, and the irisine in the right hand pot.  Lime and orange is a combination guaranteed to wake you up.

Gartenmeister fuchsia grows vigorously enough to make a great show as a flowering topiary.  As it is a lax grower, it needs secure staking from the beginning.  The dark red threadleaf amaranthus and orange New Guineas finish the arrangement.  Though that orange dominates, the overall impact is as much about form as color. 

Bicolor angelonia and Persian Qeen geraniums make a lively a color statement.  I plant lots of pots for the shop-when I see a combination grow up to make a beautiful bouquest, I try to make a note of it.  These two plants just seem made for each other.  The angelonia loosens up that stiffly growing geranium.  The geranium provides mass and substance to that wispy growing angelonia.  Hot pink, purple and lime-delicious.  That little bit of white in the angelonia keeps all the other color reading loud and clear.

A gardener has no end of plants to choose from.  How to organize what to choose?  I recommend as a first step-ignore what is in bloom May 10.  Too many people restrict their exposure to plants by insisting on “color” right off the bat.  There are other flowering plants in this world besides impatiens, wax leaf begonias, and red geraniums.  Big growing annuals do not make any kind of show in mid May; it takes time for them to mature.  Increasingly I see growers producing big plants in large tubs early.  I buy them when I am planting a client late-the tubs enable me to catch them up. But the pleasure of large growing plants has much to do with the patience to grow them on. Though it is June 3, I have no idea what I will do in my own pots. Maybe some hot color-maybe not.   I have time to dream it up-an entire season is still out there,  ahead of me. 

 No small part of the fun of gardening is planning, putting it all together, and  watching it grow up to be something.