Good Grooming

annual planting design

Successful container planting depends as much on the maintenance as it does on the design.  Though I do have clients that never touch their containers once they are planted, I find that gardeners who look after their containers enjoy them more, and enjoy them longer.  If you have kept up with the need for water, this extraordinarily hot summer has been a dream come true for annual plants.  Many of them are native to hot, tropical climates.  They luxuriate in the heat.  Every plant is on top of, and competing for a dominant position with its neighbor.   

container planting design

Plants compete with other plants.  Given that there is only so much light, and so much water, any garden in its simplest definition is the story of that competition.  In these urns of my own, every day the potato vine threatens to engulf the silver dichondra.  It is up to me to level the playing field.  I remove those leaves that shade or otherwise interfere with the well being of the dichondra.  I signed up for this job, as I planted two vines whose habit and vigor are very different. 

white caladiums

This window box that I planted for a client requires little in the way of intervention.  The caladiums produce lots of leaves, but the impatiens have found a way to work theimselves to the forefront.  They coexist-peaceably.

container planting design

This container features plants that harmonize without much intervention.  The nicotiana are tall-and above the fray.  The petunias are very good eggs that tolerate the pestering from the stems of the lime licorice.  The Diamond Frost euphorbia is just now making a break for it.

annual companion planting

The pots in front of the shop this year-the relationships are complicated.  The mandevillea is a big growing vine with big paddle shaped leaves that produce shade.  The petunias just grow, and expect the best from their neighbors.  The euphorbia is delicate, but persistent.  The plectranthus-a big leaved thug that would smother anything in its path. 

annual plants

I planted mandevillea, as it vines luxuriantly, and grows very tall.  A month ago, I started removing the leaves at the ground level-they were shading the plants on the ground plane.  The petunias are willing and able to perform, providing they get great light, and food.  They are heavy feeders. Should you want great performance from your petunias, feed them regularly.  Grow them on the dry side.  Trim the straggly ends-routinely. 

Diamond Frost euphorbia is pitiful in early spring.  That anyone buys and plants it amazes me.  I plant it, as I believe in what it can do in the home stretch.  It needs an extended period of heat to come on.  Once those slender stems and airy flowers get going, they add add an unequalled wispy volume to a container planting.     

variegated plectranthus

Plectranthus is a thug.  It features long thick stems, and large leaves.  It would smother anything in its path-given the chance.  Why plant it?  Few plants are better at creating and sustaining great volume and mass.  The tall pots in the front of the shop have a very small planting area.  They ask for something that grows wide.  Plectranthus will grow every which way, including wide.  How do I manage it? Like the mandevillea, I remove those leaves that threaten to smother all of the other plants.  Some of my plectranthus are bare stems, until they go over the edge of the pot.      

It is my job to make room for the euphorbia.  Though the stems and blooms are ever so slight, they have a big will to live.  I just do what I can to help their natural  process along.  This work means my late September containers will have something good to say.  Container plantings?  With care, they will prosper late into the fall.

 euphorbia diamond frost

Every plant you plant-no matter if it is shrub or a tree or a perennial or an annual-they have habits.  Every living thing has habits.  A collection of plants that you intend to represent a garden rely upon you to sort out the real relationships.  Be in charge.  A garden with a thoughtful gardener in charge?  I respect this.

Sunday Opinion: Fragrance

My sense of smell is put to shame by my corgis.  These dogs know that someone will be walking by-5 minutes in advance of the event.  When they are shrieking and howling, I know something is about to happen.  Their noses warn me in advance. 

  My sense of smell is much more after the fact, and pedestrian.   The fragrance of Casa Blana lilies about flattens me-that odor is so sweet, and so strong.  The smell of ammonia makes my eyes water.  The smell of diesel fuel and exhaust makes me think of Buck, riding his Harley.  The smell of hyacinths makes me think about spring.  The smell of the lindens in bloom makes me think about England.  The fragrance of phlox, and petunias makes me think about summer.  The smell of roses-divine.  

Compost has a very distinctive fragrance.  How shall I describe it?  Earthy.  Musty.  Like mushrooms.  The smell of fresh mushrooms is as pleasurable as any fragrance it has ever been my privilege to experience.   The smell of fresh mown grass is indescribable-the fragrance that mulitple leaves give off when they are cut and threshed-delicious.  Cassia leaves when touched smell like popcorn.  Rosemary leaves have a distinctively acrid smell.  The smell of fresh basil makes my mouth water.  Lettuce has a watery fragrance.  Rain has a fresh fragrance.  Tomatoes smell warm.  It has to be 30 years ago that I dug into the side of a compost pile on a very cold fall day to make myself a warm place to have lunch-the memory is so much about the warm steamy fragrance of that compost.      

There are those fragrances that warn me that all is not well.  I know when I need to take a shower.  Plants rotted from too much water have a troublesome smell.  Decomposition in the absence of air has a foul odor.  There is no  mistaking the smell of an infuriated skunk.  An electrical short smells like a fire about to be.

 Some smells are attractive to some and not so much to others.  Buck would not touch a bunch of cilantro without gloves.  He insists he cannot wash away that smell.  Needless to say, he doesn’t eat cilantro either.  Dogs smell doggy.  Wet dog smell is pretty pungent.  I don’t mind either one.  The smell of boxwood-some like it, some don’t.  I never met a cheese that didn’t smell good to me.  I like the fragrance of Chanel #5 as it reminds me of a favorite Aunt who wore it every day.         

I have a childhood memory of eating cucumber salad in the summer. Buck has been trying to recreate that childhood cucumber salad for me the past few weeks.  My memory is about the smell, and the taste-I have no idea how it was made.  His current recipe-very very thin slices of cucumber are sprinkled with salt, and left to drain.  Later, he squeezes the water out, and dresses the the limp slices with sour cream.   The moment he skins and chops a cucumber, the kitchen is filled with its distinctive and fresh fragrance.  Could there possibly be any fragrance as beautiful as that generated by a cucumber?

At A Glance: Repeat After Me

container planting design

container planting with repeating elements

repetition in the landscape

planting in rows

limelight hydrangeas

Limelight hydrangeas and boltonia

boxwood in pots

repeating container planting

hellebores as groundcover

mass of picea mucrunulatum and hellebores

variegated hosta Krossa Regal

variegated Krossa Regal hosta

massing yews

drivecourt enclosed by yews

boxwood hedges

drive edged in yews and boxwood

massing boxwood

boxwood planted repeatedly

verbena bonariensis

panicum virgatum and verbena bonariensis

columnar Bradford pears


baltic ivy
brick, boxwood, baltic ivy-and chanticleer pears

Breaking Some Eggs

An old client with a new house-it happens on occasion. As I have lived in the same house for going on 18 years, I did not envy them this change. The old house and the new house are quite similar in size-not so the property.  They exchanged a very large, expansive, and private property for a city sized lot.  The back yard was very small; most of the space was taken up by a lap pool.  I knew we would have to break a few eggs before this landscape would pass muster.    


A really beautiful and old multitrunked magnolia was moved to the front yard.  We ditched a number of spireas, and a group of old and diseased evergreens.  The iron fence between the drive and the yard was removed, and stored.  At this point, the proximity of their house to others in the neighborhood became painfully obvious.  How could we arrange some privacy?  Privacy in an urban neighborhood is a relative thing.  Buck and I were privy to the music played graduation party given by our neighbors for their daughter.  We enjoyed that, but we also treasure our visual privacy.  

The lap pool was dug out; the hole was back filled.  We planted spruce along the back lot line, as we were able to secure trees with considerable height. Given that there was no room to maneuver a full sized tree spade, each tree was dug with a spade, balled and burlapped, then driven in and planted with the help of an excavator.

Those trees did a lot to screen the neighboring houses from view.  There was precious little space left over with which to design, but the walkway from the detached garage to the house would be a well used thoroughfare.  The walkway to the far library porch-equally important.   

The stonework took a lot of time.  The walkway to the sunken library terrace bumped out midway across the rear of the house.  This radiused terrace would provide a stopping point should there be a party or event.  No matter how small a yard, good and graceful circulation is important.

It seemed just about forever that this project was on hold, awaiting the completion of the stonework.   

Once the stonework was complete, we created a landscape bed in exactly the same radius as the leading edge of the terrace.  We planted a hedge of limelight hydrangeas-a favorite of this client.  A housewarming gift of 500 white tulips got planted in a space which would eventually be a collection of white flowering perennials. 

Great care was taken by the architect on this project to design a pergola which would connect the garage with the main house.  The main function of that pergola-to provide cover in that walk from the garage to the house in inclement weather.  My input-a clear polycarbonate roof.  No need for them to feel they were walking through a tunnel.  The pergola design got worked out.   DeGroot Spire arborvitae were planted as a green wall between the driveway, and the back yard.  They will tolerate the small space given to them, and will eventually be able to be pruned formally across the top. 

The original iron fence and gates have been reinstalled.  Today, there is no hint of what it took to transform this space.   

Small spaces are very hard to design, as every square foot counts.  There is no room for an unresolved issue or tentative solution.  Every element has to work, with every other element.  What you see here is the result of a client, an architect, the excavator who removed the pool, a stone mason, an electrician, a pergola construction company, the large tree moving and planting company, the air conditioning and generator people, the painters, and our landscape company-working together to produce a credible landscape project.     

There is no hint now of any broken eggs.  All of the discussions, revisions, and re-revisions are in the past.   

Of course there will be ongoing issues.  But there will also be ongoing pleasures.   

This brick wall to the west-my client had no love for the look of it.  She likes green.  Happily we were able to plant ivy grown on galvanized steel screens.  They are taking hold, and will cover this brick wall in no time. 


I am very pleased that this landscape renovation, which started late in 2010, is finally finished.  Big changes in a landscape take lots of time.  Change lives on a diet of time and more time.  I try to remember this.