Planting At The Front Door

One’s front door-it keeps out the cold, and the babble.  On one side, it sheds all the noise of the street.  On the other side-sanctuary. It welcomes friends and family. It is a visual symbol for home. Containers at the front door do a great job of reinforcing that welcome, and dressing up the public presentation of what we all call home.  Choosing the right containers has a lot to do with intersection of the architecture of your home, and what best represents your feeling about your home.  These galvanized and acid washed steel lattice boxes with medallions are stately, and in perfect concert with this period house.  Their sharply geometric shape is in contrast to, and highlights, the beautifully curved stone insets to the door.  The plain panel at the top third of the box repeats the horizontal wood frame piece on the door.  This works for me-but better yet, it worked for my client.  

This gracious tudor makes much of a summer planting-my clients so enjoy this.  The front door is set at an unusual and beautiful angle.  The simple terra cotta pots stuffed with rosemary accents, but yields the floor to the enchanting placement of the front door.  You can barely make them out in this picture-they say welcome, very very quietly.  These pots do not dilute or draw attention away from this striking architectural feature. 

This exuberant and low key home features a giant front porch and pediment.  The clients like big, easy, and relaxed.  A series of related pots make a big porch entry more intimate.  The mix of French glazed pots and contemporary concrete pots is interesting, compelling.  They invite a visitor to wend their way to the front door.  I like entrances that give a visitor time to shift away from their day, and anticipate their visit. A front door and porch is a transitional space.  Great containers provide time, space and interest to the transition.  When I open the door to welcome guests, I hope I can tell they have experienced that walk to the door. 

An offset front door might suggest an informal entrance-but this is not necessarily so.  A left spaced formal planting of boxwood, and a classically shaped limestone urn on a simple limestone pedestal balances the right spaced door space beautifully.  The urn speaks much to the taste and intention of the client.  The boxwood in the urn is a formal arrangement, making much about architecture, space, and reserve.  I so love the contrast of the asymmetrical space, and the formal and geometric elements.  This may be quiet, but it is enormously successful. 

I like a generous entrance, a big porch, a front door with width.  Multiple lead pots draw the eye to the door, in this case.   Big front doors lacking a chorus of containers-lonely and unsettling.  These lead containers and wirework plant stands-they whisper welcome, they repeat that whisper- in response to a very big space.     

This vintage modern house-the front door and its approach is part of a front of a greater front of the house terrace.  I had this to work with. These 1920′s French faux bois rectangular planters not only direct visitors to the door (not seen in this picture-but to your right)-but they distinguish the the front door from the front terrace.  How beautiful are these old containers, placed on a slate terrace from the forties.  Should you have a mind to study this picture-the view is  really good.  Good containers at a front door-they enchant, and they have the additional strength to direct traffic.

Some homes feature pillars near the front door.  Any container set on top of a pillar needs to have just the right proportion.  I like wide and low and footed.  This looks generous and appropriate.  The simple lead containers at the front door-they frame the hard surfaces that make up that front door.  In the event the gates were to be opened for company, every visitor would have visual and emotional time to focus on that visit, and be pleased to see that front door open.  

The iron lattice of these boxes refer to the ironwork attending the front door. Large steps are narrowed down, given these lattice boxes.  The plants that might brush up against a guest-so personal.  A front door and attendant container presentation needs to work from the street, and  work up close as well.  Choosing containers for a front door-look long and hard.  Consider what might not immediately come to mind-pay much attention to the architecture, and even more attention to your point of view.  Those friends that you might welcome-consider them too. 

This front door-a huge and wide swath of lawn provides the approach. In this particular instance, the approach figures more prominently than the front door.  Handmade Italian pots mark the changes of grade.  The big idea here-your front door is unlike any other front door.  Study it.  Be armed with your point of view when you go to shop.  What exactly do you want to say at your front door?  The answer to this will help you garden in containers at your front door, successfully.

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?    

Oct 15 008
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.

DGW 2006_07_26 (31)

 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.