The Fine Gardening Container Issue

Most gardeners like me are familiar with, and respect, Fine Gardening; it is indeed a fine publication featuring sound horticultural advice and great, beautifully detailed and illustrated ideas for gardeners.  I myself was not aware that they published special issues-until I had occasion to meet their editor, Brandi Spade.  She was in the area shooting photographs for an article for the magazine on container gardening with indoor tropicals last July, and called to see if she could take a look at some of my projects.  Of course; I was thrilled she was interested. She spent the entire day, taking photographs, and talking gardens.  Fast forward 8 months; my issue arrived a few days ago. It could not have been more perfectly timed; containers are on my mind.  Who knew she remembered me? The lead article-50 inspiring ways to use your pots. Do not miss her letter from the editor about her life as a container gardener-it is terrific.  Should you have a mind to pour over a print publication about container gardening-I recommend this issue. 

I plan to spend the next week or so addressing container plantings from my point of view-how to choose them, where to put them, how to insure container success-and ideas about how container gardens can enchant and satisfy.  Whatever I write about has a way of making me sort through issues of my own; this is just one reason I so enjoy writing about gardening.  I have a new annual planting season coming up that I plan to greet, meet, and forge new friends over. FG’s container issue covers everything from the relevant design tenets, to specific detail on plants; it is chock full o’ good advice and inspiration- sure to interest the heart of any container gardening afficianado.  I admit I am inspired by what I read.   As the time for decision making on pot gardens looms soon, I need to shift into drive right now.   My starting point, inspired by the FG container issue- -50 inspired pots in which to grow your favorite plants. OK-just kidding.  I promise not to make you roll your eyes and doze off as I detail 50 planters that makes my heart pound. I will comment on a few; I am counting on you to spread your wings.  Some containers just ask for a green flag to be waved.  These contemporary tripod faux bois planters-so fresh, woodsy and natural-what shade container gardener could resist them?  If the idea of ferns, hardy or tropical, caladiums, club moss, baby tears-those tropicals that need steady shade to prosper outdoors-give these sassy tripod planters a look.        

Who knows the original purpose of these galvanized v-shaped rectangles-should you know, please write me.  Thanks!  These look like giant baking tins. Vintage baking tins are just one of many possible objects that could conceivably hold soil and plants-what do you have in your shed, cupboard, or basement?  Great containers are much about purpose and vision, and not so much about money- put some of this idea to work for you.  This lettuce row, accented with grape hyacinth, violas and black willow-the hands down favorite no matter who comes through my door.  The composition-Rob’s own.  

I only know the word Fiskars as it relates to scissors.  But these chunky and texturally expressive industrial bins are just asking for a container garden of note; I had to buy them.  People use containers of all kinds-to store, to bake, to ship, to organize, to stack. Container gardening-drop the gardening, and look at containers.  Any good possibilities? 

Regal and gorgeously proportioned-these glazed stoneware footed pots were manufactured in Chicago in the Arts and Crafts era.  I could not specify a date, as they are unmarked-but I am guessing 1920-1940.  They are unmistakeably early modern and midwest;  I rarely see pots of this caliber.  If the reproduction Frank Lloyd Wright planters seem chilly, and too widely distributed, these containers have an aura that could carry that same look with great style.      

This ancient-and I mean very ancient-lead cistern might hold water or plants, or sit distinctly empty and sculptural.  Old lead never comes perfectly shaped.  Lead collapses on itself; it is incredibly dense and weighty, and incredibly soft.  If great age draws you, lead is a good choice.  This cistern might have seen the reign of Henry the Eighth-no kidding. A container choice has everything to do with you; trust your eye.  


No age is involved in these stainless steel vats salvaged from a chocolate factory. I do not fault them for this; they will shine, filled with water, and planted with white lotus. This is Rob’s idea-ok, I am fine to get in line behind it. A lively and expressive life for these bins- a new look for your container garden.

Any box can be lined with coir off the roll-we keep this in stock.  By no means does every container need to come with a blue-bloom or blood pedigree.  Some fabulous containers are just waiting for you to put your eye to them.  Scour you garage, shed, kitchen, or favorite recycling venue.  I am astonished and pleased at how much great style is fashioned from discarded bits.  Should a container with great history be just the thing for you, Detroit Garden Works has a substantial collection.  But if the cast off from the top shelf in the garage enchants you-stay your course.    

The Fine Gardening container special issue featured a designer or design group from all our country’s regions.  It felt so great to be selected to represent the midwest. Many thanks, Fine Gardening.

The Party’s (Almost) Over

Sept 24 055Given that I took this picture September 24, why wouldn’t I be unprepared for the weather here this past week? Just three weeks ago, I still had my summer.  Though describing any Michigan weather as “ordinary” is glossing over the truth, our weather ordinarily cools off at a slow enough pace to make keeping up with the job of putting the garden to sleep relatively easy. My fall cleanup and shovelling out is based on the distinction I draw between gardening, and housekeeping.

Sept 24 052I have seen those properties that look as though every shred of organic debris has been blown, vacuumed up and disposed of weekly; anyone who has inadvertently turned a blower on themselves realize what an invasion they are. Every green leaf looks dusted; every surface has been swept, every shred or organic debris is bagged and removed.   The stone is scrubbed clean, and the cushions are only on the furniture when company is in attendance.  I like the look of cultivated soil as well as the next person, but all of the above is housekeeping, not gardening.  Years ago a gardener whom I greatly respect, Marge Alpern, told me she disturbed her plants as little as possible.  She maintained that plants can be worried such that they refuse to prosper. I think this is a point well taken. I will not take on the perennial gardens until much later in the fall.

Oct 14 063A series of nights with temperatures hovering in the mid thirties left my pots looking like this-devastated.  It does not matter one bit that I know this day is coming, I am never ready for it, nor do I like it. I do not like to let go. On a much more dramatic scale than the time changing to daylight savings, I adjust slowly, and poorly.

Sept 24 035Coleus are astonishingly intolerant of cold weather.  Anyone who does poorly with them is probably planting them out too early; every plant thrives in some conditions, and sulks in all else.  This five foot diameter fiery orange ball was glorious all season; in late August the corgis were breaking off the branches encroaching on the doorway.  They keep the extreme understory clear of any obstructions.

Oct 12 004In what seemed like the blink of an eye my fireball shed almost every leaf. Unlike the gingko tree which sheds every leaf on that certain perfect fall day, leaving a beautiful pool of yellow on the ground, the coleus leaves dessicate, drop, and disappear before you can even mourn properly. 

Sept 29 001My English-made Italian style pots were home to the biggest bouquet I have ever grown. The nicotiana mutabilis got busy throwing spikes in September, and the dahlias were blooming profusely. I like that extravagant and exuberant look.  No matter how the day had gone, I could go home and congratulate myself on having grown one of the annual wonders of the western world. You may be laughing, but how the look of it pleased and cheered me. 

Oct 14 076Though the nicotiana mutabilis is yet bravely defending its home, the cold pierced the heart of the whole.  Buck is always amazed and amused and the depth and breadth of the despair which attends the beginning of the end of my gardening year.  I alternately rage and whine-he murmurs, and pours the wine. 

Oct 14aa 010This sister to my pots, adapted for use as a fountain, bears all the signs of a season’s worth of  mineral laden water, weather,heat and growth. Does that gorgeous Italianate face not seem completely grief stricken?    

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It will no doubt take time, but I will get to thinking about what I will do with these pots for the holidays, and the winter.  But for the moment, I am inconsolable.

Nicotiana Fest

DSC08391What could be better than a giant pot stuffed to overflowing with nicotiana?  OK, probably plenty of things, but no doubt I am a big fan of the nicotianas.  There are a number of ornamental tobaccos suitable for cultivation in our area.  The species nicotiana alata pictured above grows strongly to 30″ or better. It has a loose, rangy, and unstructured habit of growth.  Sporting clusters of big leaves at the base, the flowers appear all along thin soft stems.  They are indeterminate bloomers; a stalk will continue to elongate and produce flowers for months.  Once a stalk blooms out, and starts setting seed, I trim it back. July23b 041

The species nicotiana alata is very fragrant in the evening, but my favorite part is the simple star shaped flowers.  Individually, they have the same impact common to any simple flower.  I favor hellebores, single roses such as Sally Holmes, mandevilleas and Japaense anemones for this reason.  Single flowers are swell.  The individual florets make a graceful mass;  I like the looks of the from the sides and the back, as much as from the front. In the box pictured above, Nicotiana Alata white, Nicotiana alata lime, and Nicotiana Perfume white-the shortest of the group. DSC04753

Nicotiana alata lime is a brilliant lime.  The petals are thin eough to permit light to shine through.  Their color makes every other color look good, and they are equally as effective if a combination of greens is your idea of beautiful.  I always have them close by my deck, as hummingbirds visit regularly.  I would much rather grow nicotianas and fuchsias, than deal with a hummingbird feeder.

Ford 2006 (18)A pairing with Panicum Virgatum Dallas Blues makes that grass all the more icy blue in appearance.  Grasses can be difficult to do well in a container, as they are stiff, or awkwardly floppy.  Nicotiana makes for a graceful ruff here.  They are not without their problems, however.  The sticky soft succulent stems are a magnet for aphids.  Their giant basil leaves sometimes need pruning back when they threaten to smother something else growing at ground level.

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 Some nicotiana hybrids are short, stodgy and airless in appearance; I do not grow the Avalon series for this reason.  Of all the shorter growing hybrids, the Perfume series seems the most graceful.  Perfume purple is a most unusual and intense red purple; true to its name, the smell is divine.

sept9a 026But by far and away my favorite is Nicotiana Mutabilis.  It grows tall, and billows out over any edge with a cloud of small flowers that dance in the slightest breeze. Can you tell I like it?   The flowers range from white to cream to pale pink to rose pink.  This big thing requires secure staking from the beginning. It will pick up speed, and send out new growth from the base of the plant as the night temperatures start to cool. 

Oct 2 003They are a nuisance to keep deadheaded-I don’t fuss so much with that.  Its hard to spot which stems need headling back, and every part of the plant is sticky.  This seems a fairly minor problem to me; a well grow stand of mutabilis is enchanting.

Sept 19 024You can see the new growth pushing from the base of this pot on both sides; all of this came on strong in September, and will continue until a hard freeze. They also seem much more aphid-resistant than other nicotianas.

Oct 2 005The individual flowers are so small and so delicate; the overall picture is delightfully meadow like.   All of these nicotianas are a staple of my summer garden.

Growing Evergreens in Pots

Gardner 2005 (5)On my top ten list of frequently asked questions, the culture of evergreens in pots ranks right up there.  In theory it sounds great.  You invest in an evergreen which will provide you with a center of interest that looks great no matter the season. Perhaps there will be room on the edges for a few seasonal annuals.  The work and expense up front is considerably more than planting smaller and less expensive plants, but then you are done.  Redoing one’s pots with new plants every new season no doubt is a lot of work and expense. But as with everything connected to growing a garden, one is rarely “done”.  The Italian cypress in the pot pictured above is not hardy in Michigan, nor can one leave a terra cotta pot such as this one outdoors during the winter.  The cypress has to be wintered in a greenhouse cold storage area, and replanted every spring.  The pot is put away. There is time and trouble hauling it back to the greenhouse in late fall. 

Ford 2005 (2)This 25 year old rosemary has spent 25 winters in a glass house.  It is an evergreen-should you live in Greece or Italy, or California. Michigan winters are fiercely cold.  However unfair it seems, rosemary is just not hardy here. In return for the extraordinary pleasure of owning an old rosemary such as this one, my client is willing to weather what it takes to keep it alive and healthy.

Birmingham (14)Junipers on the other hand are ruggedly hardy. But key to the successful culture of evergreens in pots is to understand that at best, they tolerate this treatment. Growing a plant in a pot is actually about growing a plant with its roots above ground.  No plant likes this-they may or may not put up with it.  Siting is the first crucial issue.  Evergreens must survive the winter and stay green without being able to take up water.  A windy location can dessicate the needles-thus the term, winter burn.  A winter burned plant is still alive, but it’s not a good look.  It will take time to grow out of the scorched needle phase.

Orley 7-07 (2)Mugho pines, both the shrubby and the topiary forms, have the reputation of good survivability in pots.  Critical to that survival is proper watering. Should you quit watering this evergreen when your geraniums go down from frost, you are almost certain to loose it.  Judicious watering right up until the soil ball is frozen solid is a must.  If this evergreen were to unfreeze in a January thaw,  a watering might be in order.  When the soil thaws in the spring, the watering should be resumed-even if this is long before you plant your other pots.  What evergreens in containers require is not for the faint of heart.

BirmPots (26)This grand old myrtle topiary was beautifully maintained, for 11 summers.  The 12th winter in the greenhouse, a furnace went out, and it froze.  It has been in the greenhouse for the past two years; we are trying to coax it back to health.  Owning plants like this is a big committment with little in the way of any guarantee.  Just because you have provided next to perfect care for a long time does not mean you cannot loose it.  Evergreens in containers are for gardeners who relish risk. 

Hudas 8-06 (16)These mugho pines on standard have lived in these orangery boxes for 6 years.  At some point, they should be taken out, root pruned, and reset in fresh soil.  They will most certainly decline without this maintenance.  No plant stays the same, just because its container stays the same.  Plants will prosper and grow, or sulk and decline-one or the other. 

Sept 30a 005Boxwood is a good choice for a container.  As this French terra cotta pot cannot be left out, I wheel this entire assembly into the garage for the winter.  This species, Buxus Microphylla, is very tough; my hedge on the southside of my building never winter burns. In the same spirit, it tolerates a mostly dark and unheated garage from November until March.  At the first sign of moderating temperatures, I take it back outside.  A garage can get too warm for holding plants dormant long before the outside temperatures moderate. 

Sept 30a 002Waxleaf privets are an aristocratic cousin of our hardy privet.  The large leaves are lustrous and juicy looking.  They are hardy in zone 7, so they can be wintered in an indoor spot without much in the way of heat.  They grow slowly, and are available in big sizes; there is demand for the topiary forms from gardeners in more temperate regions.  They take well to pruning and shaping. 

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These giant scotch pine on standard are breathtakingly beautiful. I kept them in equally giant wood barrels for the better part of two years, before I sold them.  Evergreens need big rootballs to insure successful transplanting-so pots for evergreens need to be large.  Boxwood balls are usually larger than their foliage diameter. A well-grown evergreen in a gorgeous container is hard to beat; most likely I will keep on trying to grow them.