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.

Making Interesting Conversation

The big blue tuscan kale I know as Nero di Toscano is a favorite plant.  The giant blistered blue-green leaves have that vaguely prehistoric look to them.  The common name, dinosaur kale, aptly describes this massive growing, highly textured plant. As with any member of the brassica family, they are beloved by chewing insects.  It is a rare cabbage or kale whose leaves do not bear holes and chomp marks.    

The lower leaves mature in a spectacularly unattractive way. Some ornamental cabbages are grown for the cut flower trade; a long thick stem will have a tuft of brightly colored or white leaves sitting on top.  All plants have characteristics that are less than desirable.  Annabelle hydrangeas are weak stemmed, and flop over the minute they are in full bloom.  The roses get blackspot; post-bloom maturing foliage on daylilies is nasty looking.  Designing with plants is much about pairing them with other plants that minimize those faults.  I would not give up growing kale over their legs.  

I planted the pots in front of the shop this year with the aforementioned kale, green and white variegated plectranthus, and sun parasol white mandevillea.  I thought the three planted together would make for some interesting conversation.  This plectranthus is lax growing.  The thick stems will droop under their own weight.  They grow vigorously-in this case, they are growing vigorously around the kale that are loosing their lower leaves.  Their trailing habit makes them the perfect cover-up for those awkwardly leggy and stiff growing kale. 

Related to coleus, they do respond to pinching back, but once the weather gets hot, they grow with huge stem spaces between the leaves.  This puts them on the verge of becoming a vining plant.  This does however take time.  They are great for a gardener that likes to watch things grow.  These pots in their infancy were not all that great looking.  I avoided looking at them all together for the first month after they were planted. 

These concrete pots are quite tall, and have a smaller planting area that what I would like.  Though they have a graceful presence as an object, it is not easy to grow something in them large enough to balance all that pot height.  I think this planting is my best shot ever at getting a finished proportion that is right.  We have had such a warm and rainy growing season this year that the pots are already rootbound. Maintaining these another few months will be a challenge. I need more horizontal volume from that plectranthus-judicious pinching back is in order. 

The third party at the table, the white mandevillea, is a tropical vine that doens’t begin to get going until the weather gets really hot.  This plant did not perform particularly well last summer, as the weather stayed cool.  The Sun Parasol series is known for its glossy and disease resistant foliage. The red cultivar is particularly heavy blooming. My experience with other varieties, such as Alice de Pont-spider mites and mildew rule the day.  No thank you.  Though this plant is a vine, I decided to grow it as a trailer, and let the chips fall where they might.  One never knows what a plant will do, left to its own devices.   

Early on, I was worried this might have been a mistake. The pots looked ungainly, underscaled, and ill-defined.  But plants seek the sun, and live companionably with other plants.  Most of the plants on this earth manage to live and prosper without much help from people.  The three plants in these pots share one characterisitc-they are all vigorous growers.  The battle they do for light and water is creating the overall shape you see.  They share the light and water as they are fairly equally matched. The large mandevillea flowers help cover the leggy kale as much as the plectrathus does.  The mandevillea gets support from the stiff stems of the plectranthus. 

These tall pots are finally beginning to look like something.  The combination is to my eye more interesting than any of the individual plants.  Growing mandevillea as a trailer, and plectranthus as a climber and a kale for some other purpose than braising is what makes gardening so interesting.  Whenever I visit a garden or a landscape, a good deal of what I see is that conversation between the gardener and the natural world.  Is there an interesting conversation going on?  Is one of the involved parties talking too much, or not enough? 

 I am hoping these containers are a little better than half-way to being good.  Should they never get really good-fine.  There will be something about the experiment that will help make me a more interesting gardener.