What Comes With A Box

What is not to love that comes in a box?  A birthday present, a book, a new fleece, a pair of Hunter muck boots or new pair of pruners, a working washing machine, a flat of sweet woodriff from Bluestone; the box creates all kind of excitement about what is inside.  Anyone who knows me has heard me wax eloquent on the subject of the box. I like to make them, and I love to plant them up.  Big planting spaces permit plenty of garden expression. The giant Tuscan planter box pictured above was a summer home for a giant and unwieldy agave. In its plastic pot, it looked dangerous and standoffish. In the box, plenty gorgeous.  This box of generous proportions visually organizes my entire side yard garden.  Anything planted inside a box reads as a present to the garden. 

We make these Egren boxes. I named this box after Michael and Karen; they were the first to order them.  I designed them to solidly reflect the history of the classical orangery box, in a shape and configuration of my own.  The classic French made orangery boxes have steel corners, but they are made of wood, and painted.  The mild French climate supports this material-I was after a gorgeous box that would persist.  Egren boxes-my idea of a box for our climate. 

There are those landscapes that call for boxes.  These painted rectangles on the porch planted with boxwood are in support of four original Jardin du Soleil French orangery boxes placed at the four corners of the drivecourt.  That support is clean, and elegant. The trimmed boxwood in the generous boxes-a beautiful  and unexpected proportion. They separate the porch from the drive and walk. Box, boxed-a statement of very few words with big impact.  Should you be considering wood boxes, having a galvanized metal liner made to fit will confine the water in the soil to the soil.  Repeated soaking damages wood and paint.

These English iron boxes have galvanized steel liners that have been painted.  The large square of soil they hold make them perfect for topiary evergreen plantings.  Evergreens planted with their roots above ground-consider a box.  A big box. Well-grown healthy evergreens have big rootballs.  Undersizing the planter is asking for trouble.  Big boxes are a good home-a home that has room for future growth.  There will be some space for an underplanting.  Most painted finishes on metal will require maintenance sooner or later, unless that rusty looky suits you. 

A beautiful box can anchor a driveway, a terrace-or in this case, a terrace.  These brick piers were designed specifically to hold these gorgeous French boxes.  If you are looking at boxes for your garden, pay mind to those designs that get that box up off the ground plane. Boxes glued to the ground-dowdy. If I am placing boxes without feet, I try to set them on gravel; this makes the box look dressed up. Set up a bit, a box can be quite elegant. The air space at the bottom also permits water to drain away freely.    

A box can make a big statement about a change of grade.  On the ground plane, bluestone, thyme, and magnolias. These boxes deliver visual delight at a different level.  This makes for a space all the the more interesting.  When you design, look at all the levels at your disposal; these boxwood are pruned to the height of the stone table, reinforcing the statment being made about this plane.  This small courtyard, completely enclosed by the home, was designed primarily for the views from inside, not so much for utility.  Should you need a little punctuation, consider a box. A small square, a giant square, a rectangle of note. 

These English made concrete planters in the classical Italian style are not exactly boxy.  But for the purposes of this essay, they qualify.  These V-shaped squares would take any garden from the the sleepy to the sublime.   I so love their solid and understated shape and decoration-I could plant an entire garden in these squares.   No matter what I might engineer for my shop or my clients, I have a big love for classical Italian terra cotta.  Baked clay boxes figure prominently in my scheme of things.  Buck obligingly forged stands for my boxes.  Up off the ground given 17 inches or so, these boxes enchant whomever might be seated on the terrace. Choosing containers for a terrace has much to do with what you will see, seated.  These boxes have beautiful decoration on them. They are to my mind, a work of art.  I like to look at these boxes as much as the flowers. Elevating them on stands puts them within visual reach.       

A box may not immediately seem like an extraordinary garden feature.  That is a matter of placement; I will leave that to you to sort out.  For many years I had a pair of round Italian terra cotta pots in this spot.  They were beautiful, planted up-but the box makes much of the transition from the deck level to the ground.  It could be a box could do a similar thing for your garden.

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.