Garden Designer’s Roundtable: Take The Tour

This is my first time posting as a member of the Garden Designer’s Roundtable.  Every month, a group of landscape and garden designers from all over the US and Britain post on a single, mutually agreed upon topic.  This month-a discussion of our own personal gardens.  I live in an urban neighborhood first established in the 1920’s.  My 1930 house is a curious amalgamation of both Arts and Crafts, and Mediterranean style architecture.   

There are 8 steps up from the street to the front door.  Every change in elevation in the front is marked by yew or boxwood hedges.  I like evergreens in the landscape, but I am especially fond of them in my own garden.  My landscape was designed to give me what I want most when I come home from work.  A little peace, a big dose of quiet, and not so much work.  After designing and planting all day, I want to come home and enjoy being outdoors with Buck and the corgis. 

I will confess that I have a weakness for containers-I do have quite a few.  Watering and deadheading my pots is a pleasure I look forward to at the end of the day.  The groundcover underneath these containers-herniaria.  Getting a lawn mower to this upper level would be a nuisance.  The yew topiaries have survived their third winter in these big concrete pots.  These containers look fine even in the winter-a season my zone is noted for.  Empty pots in the winter have such a forlorn look.

On either side of the house, on the house side of the tallest yew hedge, are blocks of limelight hydrangeas.  They start blooming in late July, and entertain my gardening eye until late in the fall.  As long as they get a spring pruning and some regular water, they deliver a lot more than they demand.

Inside the gate, my south side garden.  There is a place for Buck and I to sit, and grass for the corgis.  Sinking the lawn panel 8 inches, and retaining the original grade with steel provides a little visual interest to a landscape that is very plain.  The boxwood and arborvitae provide a sense of privacy and enclosure.  This space is neat and organized-unlike my desk and work life.

annual container planting

I plant this giant concrete square for the summer.  A very large pot in a small space not only organizes the space, it enables me to have a version of a garden that I am able to look after.  I want to come home to something that looks good to me, and takes just a bit of care. 

In June there are a few roses on the south side.  Carefree Beauty, Sally Holmes, and Earthsong are all strong performing low maintenance roses.  On the wall, the dwarf climber Jeannie LeJoie, and the large flowered climber Eden.  For a few weeks there is enough glory to satisfy me.  There is some Boltonia, hardy hibiscus, and white Japanese anemone for later season color.  I planted some asparagus between the roses.  This year I did not pick any.  The roses are getting large, and starting to crowd them out.

At the bottom of the rose garden steps is a fountain garden.  The pool is 26 feet long, and 9 feet wide.  The sound from the jets is lovely.  I can hear it from the deck where we have dinner outside, and all of the rooms on the back of the house.  Princeton Gold maples, yews and pachysandra are planted on the perimeter.  Around the pool-herniaria. 

annual gardens

It is 5 steps down from the fountain garden to the driveway.  My car is usually parked here.  I like driving up to the pots, and the color from the narrow strips of annuals.  The butterburrs on the left are difficult to keep under control, but I have help from a local nursery that comes for them, and pots them up for sale.  Sometimes I buy them back, if I have a good spot for them in a client’s yard.

I will be planting my pots the first week of June or so, after I have the planting for clients a little further along.  The bottleneck in the drive makes that drivecourt a little more private, and a little more inviting.

container gardening

I do have lots of pots on the deck, all of them terra cotta.  I think they look great with my house. I spend at least an hour out here every night, puttering, while Buck cooks. 

The room where I write is just inside the open door pictured above.  We have that door open all summer long.  The corgis like going in and out.  They are happy outdoors if I am inside writing-as long as that door is open.  One nice feature of city living-we never have mosquitos until after dark.   

On the north side, I have a little garden of sorts.  A few dogwoods, rhododendron and azaleas are original to the landscape.  Last year I tore out an overgrown block of ornamental grass, and planted a small perennial garden.  A much smaller version of what I had when I was in my 30’s.  It is a little wild, and not so neatly kept.  I like this change of pace from the rest of the landscape.  My garden gives me a lot of pleasure and privacy.  It has a quiet atmosphere-perfect for me.  The rest of my family likes it too.

Interested in the home gardens of the other members of the Garden Designer’s Roundtable?  Check them all out!

Susan Morrison : Blue Planet Garden Blog : East Bay, CA

Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In The Garden : Los Altos, CA

Pam Penick : Digging : Austin, TX

Mary Gallagher Gray : Black Walnut Dispatch : Washington, D.C.

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Deborah Silver : Dirt Simple : Detroit, MI

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA

Andrew Keys : Garden Smackdown : Boston, MA

Container Garden Design

Every move you make in a garden has to start someplace.  Some activities begin for everyone in the same place.  Should you decide to run a marathon, there is a starting gate and a finish.  If you are designing a container garden, it’s your choice where to begin, and where to end.  The inspiration for a container can come from lots of places.  A favorite flower, color, or texture.  A favorite pot, a memory of a garden from another place or time can provide a place to start.  For this container design, I started with my two Julias.  Julia the Mom from whom I inherited a love for flowers, and Julia, my friend.  Friend Julia is a plant afficianado-whether it be a dwarf evergreen, a flower, or a tree.  She spent 20 minutes with me a few weeks ago, extolling the virtue of a new osteospermum called 3D.

3d silver daisy

I decided to design a container around this particular plant. Her enthusiastic praise for its performance was compelling.  The flowers stay open all day-a decided improvement over older varieties.  They bloom strongly all season long; I like this too.  But I was intrigued by the color-an icy white, and a purple that was decidedly on the red violet side.  I laid a few plants out in the driveway, so I could take a closer look.


petunia White Russian

Julia was equally keen about a new petunia called White Russian.  Why not see if both flowers would work in the same arrangement?  After all, a pair of great plants might making for a smashing container.  But right off the bat, there was trouble.  Not all whites are created equal.  Color in nature is infinitely varied.  Some color combinations I find more appealing than others.  These two whites together did nothing for each other.

petunia White Russian

The brilliant, almost luminescent white of the daisy looked wrong with the flat white of the White Russian petunia.  The petunia took on a rather lifeless greyish look-to my eye.  But until I had some more plant choices in place, I wouldn’t rule out the combination.

annual heliotrope

Adding heliotrope to the mix was jarring.  The flower is a blue based purple-not at all like the carmine in the daisy.  This was a combination that made everyone look bad.  It looked bad to me-that is.  Everyone sees color very differently.  Whern in doubt-trust your own eye.  It also seemed that having a fine floret sized texture would be better underneath the daisy, rather than on top.  I eliminated the heliotrope.

euphorbia Diamnond Frost

A pot of Euphorbia Diamond Frost moved the arrangement in a better direction.  The bright white color was the right white.  But even better is its contrasting texture.  The daisy has a rather stiff habit in both leaf and flower.  The euphorbia has a fluttery, sparkly texture that would loosen up the composition.  As a centerpiece in a pot, the euphorbia would grow fairly tall and wide-as will this osteo.  They would be fairly evenly matched.

tricolor sage

On a whim I tried adding Cirrus dusty miller to the mix, but the leaf size was overpowering.  A tricolor saga had a little more grace, and that same blue green color that contrasts so well with red violet.  A salvia Cathedral sky blue-the wrong color altogether flower wise, and the leaves were not blue enough.  I thought briefly about some lavender, but if the 3D daisy was to be the star of the show, all of the other colors and textures should be chosen in visual deference to that idea.

cirrus dusty miller

I have a small group of plants here, with a bigger collection of rejects.  I see Rob do this all the time when he is trying to help someone design a container.  He groups plants together.  Then he adds this, and subtracts that until he gets a composition that looks right.

variegated licorice

After putting away all of the flowers that were not going to work, I added some variegated licorice to my group.  That cool green looked good with the sage, and the cool whites.

carex frosted curls

Carex comans Frosted Curls is a very similar color to the licorice, but an entirely different texture.  The delicate blades of grass would be in concert with the habit of the euphorbia.  At this point the arrangement has a subtle and delicate coloration, and just enough contrast to have visual interest.  Subtle does not mean sleepy.

supertunia mini silver

The White Russian petunias proved to be too sleepy.  I switched them out for the supertunia mini silver.  It is a small flowered petunia that grows vigorously.  Those sturdy stems and that vigorous blooming would be a great contrast to the euphorbia.  It would also add a lot of color to the sage/licorice/grass mix.  In a container, I would alternate the petunia with the licorice, and then the grass.  A mix of 3 plants is much more lively and interesting than a mix of 2.

persian shield

Were I to plant a large container with this scheme, I would want to introduce a plant that would grow larger.  A Persian Shield would grow very large, so there would need to be multiple plants of the Diamond frost and 3D daisy.  The numbers of this plant versus that is about balancing the composition.  Little plants may need a bigger voice via greater numbers.

white dahlias

I could also add a white dahlia to the mix, meaning my daisy would have to become part of the supporting cast.  What I like about the dahlia idea is the yellow derived from the bud color, and center of the flower.  It would bring out the red-violet in the other flowers, and contrast with the cool greens in the foliage plants.

nicotiana saratoga white

I still liked the idea of the floret sized flower in this container.  Alyssum, whether it was white, citron, or red violet, would do a great job of that.  Even a mix of all of the colors would work well.

butterflies boston daisy

I could revisit the pale yellow idea with a flower that was smaller and less overbearing than a dahlia.  The butterflies boston daisy has a habit and size more in keeping with all of the other plant choices.

container garden design

The nursery industry has gone to great trouble and expense to include tags in their plant pots.  These tags will give you a brief overview of the eventual size of the plant, and the light and water it will require.  Taking advantage of this information means you will avoid making cultural mistakes.  Making sure you have the right neighborhood in mind for all of your residents will help your container to prosper.  I do think I am ready to plant up this pot.

The Photographs

glazed French pots

You may have noticed that this website has a new format.   Indeed it does.  My big interest in updating the blog was that the photographs would be bigger-better.  Clearer.  I am no different than most; say what you will, but show me a picture.  A photograph communicates in a graceful yet direct way. The picture of this French pot does a vastly better job of explaining the look than a collection of words.

A photograph does not require good grammar, or proper punctuation.  A good photograph of a garden can capture the light, the weather-the moment.  The written word-a labor of love which invariably looks like labor.  My pictures-sometimes they capture in one fell swoop what would take me 800 words to describe.

Italian terra cotta pots

I have days when I am not interested in reading the words.  I only have eyes for a visual moment. It took me a few days to learn how to use this new format. The lag time made me furious!  What garden writer wants to be out of touch the latter half of May?  But  I am pleased with the results.

mossy clay pots

I like the bigger pictures.  And that you can see them even bigger yet, if you click on them.  As for my post yesterday about the process of choosing great pots, here is an addendum.  A visual addendum.

The gardener who would fall for this contemporary Belgian glazed pot is entirely different from the gardener who would choose wirework plant stands.  The gardener who would mix them in a grouping of pots-another sort. But enough of the talk-enjoy the pictures.

cast iron jardiniere

French cast iron jardiniere

American ridged concrete bowl pot

two-tiered plant stand
two tiered wirework plant stand

English concrete rectangle

glazed French terra cotta

glazed French terra cotta

limestone urn detail

concrete pots

brick and rock pot

terra cotta pots

Rob planted these Italian terra cotta pots.  The combination of great pots and great plants-truly lovely.


Which Ones?

planted tin cans
It is just about time to plant containers.  Last night’s overnight temperature of 41 degrees proves that it is still spring in Michigan, but every gardener in my zone is busy planning for their summer season. More than any other time of year, gardeners who have decided they want new or more pots are popping the question-which ones?  Which pots will be the best for me?  These reproduction vintage tin cans are great-in the right place, and with the right material.  They would need to be on a table top to be seen.  Given that each one holds about 6 ounces of dirt, what gets planted in them will need to love to be dry.  My first question is always-where do you want pots?  And then, what do you want to grow?

Small scale pots, such as the ones pictured above,  can be placed on the ground at a front door, or on a terrace, provided they have a little grown up company.  This may mean they get paired with larger pots, or sit on top of a pillar of similar scale.   Small pots on their own can look lost.    Small pots also benefit from a simple and strong planting, rather than a fussy one.  Stone and concrete pots, with proper care,  will last a lifetime.  They shrug off the worst that the winter has to dish out.  Natural stone has one important leg up on concrete-the little crooks and crannies are friendly to mosses and lichens.  Who wouldn’t welcome a community of lichens on their pots?

This galvanized metal container is a fabulous vintage piece that Rob found in England.  A brand new galvanized horse trough from a local feed store can do just as good a job providing a home for a collection of cottage style flowers as this English tub.   But the aged surface, the rim and bottom detail of this tub adds a whole other dimension to the idea of growing plants in containers.  The container has a beauty all its own-planted or not.  Where is it a good to plant galvanized horse troughs?  In a vegetable, cutting, or cottage style garden.  At the front door of a vintage Arts and Crafts style house, I would go with this vintage English piece.   Put special containers in important places.

Chicago figs

 English stoneware pots have a very distinctive style and surface.  There is something very comforting and sturdy about them.  Rob says they remind him of baked goods.  Like the English galvanized round, they would look great with an Arts and Crafts house-or an informal area of a more formal English style home.  They are appropriately planted with a shrubby fig, and some strawberries.  These pots will always be comfortable planted with herbs, rosemary, or marguerites.  With formal plantings, they might fall a little short.   Which pots?  Pick pots that look like they belong to you, and belong to your garden, before you decide to purchase.


I still remember a visit some 18 years ago to a very contemporary home, the terrace of which featured two very traditional, very Smith and Hawkins style,  teak benches.  My thought- surely contemporary garden furnishings were available to gardeners whose taste ran to the more modern?  Back then, not so much.  Rob shopped originally for contemporary pots in Belgium.   Belgium and Michigan have very similar climates, so the simple shapes work well in a variety of settings.  Many more local companies now feature modern containers.  If contemporary is an architectural stylre that appeals to you, pass by those iron urns and those ornate Italian terra cotta pots.  There is something better for you, out there.  Should the idea of wood pots appeal to you, consider the ongoing maintenance.  Wood does weather, which means it will deteriorate without regular care.  Soil should never come in direct contact with wood.   We recommend waterproofing the inside of the containers with Waterlox.  We go even further-a sheet metal liner will keep moisture well away from the wood.


Glazed containers add an element of color to a planting that can be very pleasing.  Even the smallest glazed container will attract attention, by virtue of that unexpected color.  This planting in a yellow glazed French pot-vivacious, yes?  A dash of color from a single small container might be just the thing to revitalize a grouping of pots.


Concrete pots that are mass produced in molds have that distinctly impersonal and too universal look.  A garden is a very personal expression-is it not?  If concrete is your material of choice, look for pots with distinctive finishes.  These classic but rustic urns are French made.  Their highly textured surfaces are beautiful.


Wood boxes make great containers.  They are at home in a variety of settings-from the ultra contemporary to the farm garden.  This vintage wood box has an integral zinc liner.  I could see it planted solid with lavender, or dahlias.  I could see it with at least 10 other planting schemes.  If you have a different idea for your containers every year, choose pots that roll with the moment.  Some containers can move from informal to glamourous to modern-given a certain planting.  Should you be an adventurous container planter, choose pots that will adapt to your current inclination.

English made concrete

Beautifully ornate urns-buy them with the idea that you will plant such that the shape and detail is not lost.  If containers that drip with all manner of trailing plants is your thing, simple pots are the order of the day.  I have always wanted to try this- planting a pair of aluminum garbage cans with holes drilled in the bottom could be great.  Given a big emphasis on trailing plants.  Are you game?  reproduction Frank Lloyd Wright urns

These simple footed urns are a reproduction of a Frank Lloyd Wright classic original.  It comes in three sizes, from Nichols Brothers Stoneworks-we are a dealer for them.  I like the massive bowl elevated off the ground by a properly proportioned foot.  These pots are big enough to hold a whole summer garden.  If you are a fan of green, and evergreen, in your landscape, these pots will enable a contrasting boatload of flowers.  They will also distinctively represent a mass planting of rosemary.  These pots are an easy pick-so versatile.

If your garage or shed is full of machine made Italian terra cotta you have had for ages, cast a fresh eye on them.  Old terra cotta pots have a great surface.  Lifting them off the ground in a small rusted steel stand will give them an entirely new look.  Fired earth is always a great choice for pots.  Maybe you do not need new pots.  Rethinking the placement and display of your old pots might make you realize you already own the ones that are perfect.

American made concrete pots

New concrete can be a visually a tough material.  But new concrete with a beautiful pattern, and subtle finish could provide just what you need.  Looking for new pots?  Consider the shape, the style, and proportion.  Consider your taste in plants.  Get professional help if you can.  An investment in new pots only makes sense if they give you better than the look you want.  Consider the detail, the finish, the architectural style, the location, the placement.  Will you see your pots from the street, or sitting down on the terrace to have dinner?  Find a place to get your questions answered in a way you trust.  Are you in my area? Rob buys for the shop, and he has a big love for well chosen containers, and great plantings.  He is just about the best I know in the “which ones” department.To contact Rob-email  Introduce yourself. Pictures are a big plus.  He is really great-you’ll see.