Designing Summer Containers

Detroit Garden Works 2015Eric Hofley, owner and publisher of Michigan Gardener Magazine along with his brother, Jonathon, published a rather lengthy article of mine about designing summer containers. The article just came out a week ago in their May issue. If you are local to Detroit Garden Works, you are welcome to come in and pick up a copy-it is, and has always been free.  The magazine covers everything of interest of gardeners in our state. You can check out the website for their their publication here:   The Michigan Gardener    Detroit Garden Works has advertised with them since they first began publishing, 19 years ago. We value that relationship.  Jonathon and Eric handle all of our print advertising their media company, Motor City Publishing. For those of you who are too far away to pick up a copy of their magazine, I have reprinted the article below. Our weather has taken a sharp turn towards the warm.  If the suddenly warm weather is getting you to think about your summer containers, there might be something here of value to you.

landscape 2013

I have been a landscape and garden designer for over thirty years. The prospect of a new project still has the power to interest and enchant – for this I am grateful. Landscape installations which have grown in and been well maintained are a great source of satisfaction. Of special interest to me in any landscape design is the unique role played by the seasonal planting of containers. No news here, should you be familiar with Detroit Garden Works. Nineteen years ago, Rob Yedinak and I opened a retail store dedicated to fine quality ornament for the garden. The lion’s share of our focus is on containers of every conceivable period and style. Why so? Any one who loves the garden loves the beauty of nature. A summer container is the best of both worlds. A container of a certain style, and a planting of the moment, to go with.   An empty container represents the opportunity to create an arrangement of plants all one’s own choosing. Designing and creating a seasonal living vignette in a container is not only fun, it is satisfying. A container is a vehicle by which a gardener can make a very personal statement about nature and beauty. The results can be seen and enjoyed in the space of one season. Given the almost limitless number of plants that can thrive in a container planted for the summer season, it would take several gardening lifetimes to even make a dent in the possibilities. That summer annuals grow and mature in but a few short months is a relief. One can abandon a scheme that disappointed, or try something new for the sheer joy of trying something new. A well maintained container planting of interesting design has the potential to create a landscape all of it’s own- in miniature. It is a visual look book of what is on a gardener’s mind at that particular moment. My container choices over the years represent the evolution of my taste in plants, and arranging plants. A thoughtfully designed container is an experience of the landscape on a small and intense scale. Planting summer containers is way of exploring plant relationships that can inform the bigger garden and landscape in a small time and space frame. A landscape is a long term commitment, requiring decisions that are not so easily changed. A well designed and mature landscape is a treasure. A collection of containers set within that landscape keeps the garden dialogue fresh and interesting. Planting containers is not just an exercise, it is an education that is ongoing, and can span many years. The ability to plant and care for containers can persist long after the ability to cut beds, turn soil and plant trees has waned. To follow are my thoughts and opinions about the ingredients necessary for a great summer container.

Sept 22 2012 005

THE POTS
Strictly speaking, any object that can hold soil and permit water to drain away constitutes a pot. But a beautiful container planting is as much about the container as it is about the plants. A container planting that considers the size, shape and decoration of the container as part of the overall effect is especially beautiful to my eye. A container represents the gardener’s point of view as much as the plants they choose. If a cottage garden, and the notion of farm to table enchants you, then perhaps a collection of vintage galvanized metal containers will help to make that idea visually stronger. If the architecture of your home is crisp, clean and contemporary, pots of that ilk will satisfy you. If a whiff of history is your idea of a great fragrance, then an antique or antique reproduction urn will serve your point of view well. If a planting that flows over the edges of the pot all the way to the ground represents your style, then go for containers on pedestals. I would advise purchasing containers that you truly like, as your love for the container will inspire what you fill it with. Choose containers that are properly proportioned to their placement. Pots on the front porch need to be large, so the planting can be seen and enjoyed from the sidewalk. Pots on a terrace should be scaled to put both the pot and the planting at eye level, when you are seated. Terraces are for sitting, relaxing, and having dinner. Some terrace pots should be tall, and their contents taller – with the idea of screening an untoward view, or providing privacy. A container on the dining table needs to be low and wide to permit conversation across the table. I recommend containers with big planting spaces. Big containers give me the opportunity to explore the relationships of color, texture, mass, line and shape-in a detailed way. I like lots of room, so I can put together an entire collection of summer annuals that might grow up together, interact, and shine. Big containers mean a big soil mass, which will hold moisture in the heat of the summer. A big pot will forgive you if you are late to water is a pot worth having. Knowing the time you will put to the maintenance of your containers should inform your choice of plants-and pots. Great pots with a design or material that pleases you sets the stage for all that is yet to come. If you are in the decision making stage about containers and where to put them, an initial purchase of fiber pots or burlap pots is a great way to test your ideas without great expense. However, my experience is that a great container will encourage a great planting.

summer container 11THE SOIL
I have no use for peat based artificial soil mix for container plantings. Soil mixes were designed and manufactured for growers. These mixes are lightweight, and sterile. They need a growers hand to provide regular fertilization. I like soil -as in garden dirt. Soil, sand and compost- dirt that weighs a lot. A topsoil mix in your containers will retain water more evenly, and provide micronutrients whose composition is essential to the health of your plants. This is just my opinion, based on may years planting containers. If the thought of hauling around 40 pound bags of topsoil leaves you cold, be encouraged by the fact that 2/3’s of your container should be drainage material. If you have ever pulled a cleome from a pot at the end of the season, the roots of that 6 foot tall plant are barely 8 inches long. Too much soil in a pot can leave that soil waterlogged.  Seasonal plants need no more than 10 inches of dirt.  Annual plants like regular water, but they like good drainage even better. At the bottom of your container? Hardwood bark is great, for a single season. We use bagged cedar bark mulch. Gravel is a long term drainage material. I have planted many a container with the plastic left over from cell packs of plants. However you arrange for drainage-the fact of the drainage is key. 3/4 drainage, and 1/4 soil.  No kidding. Into the soil, we turn under a handful of osmocote. This time release fertilizer which breaks down in reaction to the soil temperature will feed your pots until the heat of late summer releases the last of it. Container plants that need fertilizer will tell you. The leaves may have gone pale, or yellow, or the growth spindly. We feed with liquid feed every 10 days in late summer and fall-every gardener has their favorite. Some plants favor poorish and infertile soil. Having an idea of what plants you plan to use can inform your choice of a soil mix.

Oct 2 2012 078CONTAINER DESIGN
Designing summer containers is a big topic. There are so many factors which influence success. Containers are planted with a collection of small plants all about the same size, whether they be transplanted from a cell pack, a six pack, or a 4” pot. But that uniformity of size is just the beginning. Some annual plants will always be short, or cascading. Other may grow to a medium, or very tall height. Some are wide, and boss all the plants next to them around. Others are shrinking violets, and need their own air and light space. Think about how each of your plant selections will behave, once they take root and start growing. A successful relationship is key.  The test of the design comes when a container planting matures. The overall shape of the planting, and the mature relationships established by the plants are very important design factors. One can never know to a certainty how plants will react in a given situation. This means the best way to create great containers is to plant lots of them, and keep planting. Another method is to benefit from the experience of others. Look at lots of pictures of container plantings, and figure out what about them appeals to you. The experience can only make you better.

Miro 8-06

STYLE
Containers can be planted in a variety of styles. Contemporary container plantings may feature a single plant, color, or texture. Pots with a very restricted or austere plant palette have a contemporary or modern feel. That said, a small pot planted solidly with Dahlberg daisies can be quite cottagy, in a very cheery way. Yellow daisies have a certain look that will persist no matter how they are planted. Very formal plantings can be equally austere. I think there is little visual difference between a contemporary and a formal planting. The feeling established by the environment around that container will influence how the style is interpreted. Big containers gone wild and exuberantly overflowing have that English garden look. An urn with a single agave has a very Mediterranean look. A galvanized pail planted with weedy growing annuals is what I call the roadside weed look. Rob is particularly fond of this style. Containers planted symmetrically, and layered by height have a semi-formal and traditional look-as in the spike and geranium pots so beloved by my grandmother. A pot with geraniums in the center, and spikes all around the outside has an entirely different look. Asymmetrically planted pots have a very dynamic and informal look.

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COLOR
How people see and react to color is a highly personal thing. There are many more colors in nature than what we have words to describe. I am very interested in the relationship of one color to another, and many of my containers reflect this. Every flower comes with leaves that also have a color. Some greens are cool and bluish. Others are warm and yellowish. Other foliage can be red, black, gray or white. Pale colors read great at a distance, and at night. Dark colors read well up close, and glow in the sun. White is sparkly and refreshing in the shade, but can provoke squinting in full sun. Put your plants all together in your shopping cart before you plant them in your pots.

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TEXTURE, MASS, SHAPE, AND LINE
Flowers and leaves have a particular quality to their surface. Petunias and nicotiana leaves are fuzzy, whereas ornamental black cotton leaves are shiny and hard surfaced. Contrasting the textures of plants creates interesting relationships. Sometimes the relationship of one to another is more interesting that either one, on its own. Phormiums are thin and spiky. Dahlias are buily and stiff. Licorice is lax growing, hairy, and small leaved. Weaving in and out of a plectranthus planted near by is a relationship of great visual interest. By the same token, white mandevillea planted as a trailer rather than a climber features the line it would take naturally, without the benefit of a trellis. Plants have personalities particular to them and no other plant. Assessing what about a plant pleases you the most will help you make good design decisions.

summer container 2014

THE PLANTS
One need not restrict their plant choices to summer annuals that are native to tropical zones. Boxwood are handsome in pots, and some gardeners will have nothing else. Perennials, grasses, herbs, vegetables, small trees, shrubs and groundcovers can be very effective in pots. Hostas in pots can be successfully wintered over in their pots in an unheated garage. I have one client with a Japanese maple that has been in a weatherproof pot next to her garage for 20 years. We cut holes in a large second story deck for another client-her Princeton Gold maples were quite happy, the last I looked.

summer window boxMAINTENANCE
No discussion of summer annual plantings is complete without a discussion of the maintenance involved. Planting containers before the soil has warmed up is asking for trouble. Most of them originate in tropical places. Many of them can be permanently stunted by too early a planting. Try filling your containers with spring bulbs and plants, if you hate looking at empty pots. A container withered and dead from lack of water, or rotted from soil that did not drain is a dreary sight indeed. Worst of all, it may discourage a person from ever gardening in containers again. Plants coated in aphids are unappetizing, to say the least. So gardener, know yourself. If time is at a premium, select plants that thrive on drought and neglect. Consider adding irrigation lines to your containers, if you cannot look them over every day. If you are a heavy waterer, plant plants that like being drenched, or grow in a bog. Lotus and water lilies in pots are beautiful in containers. Auto irrigation is not perfect, but it can buy you a little time. Try a few containers before you try 100. See if having them will prove to be a pleasure, or a nuisance. Try plants that are vigorous-success with plants will help make you more adventuresome the next time around. If you lose a plant in a pot, replace it. There is no rule that says you need to look at a dead plant, or a gaping hole, the rest of the season. But most of all, enjoy them. From the design to the planting to the care to the finish, planting containers for the summer is such a pleasure.

At A Glance: A Run Of Cold And Rainy Weather

August 16 2014 020We have had a long run of cold and rainy weather.  As in overnight temperatures in the high 40’s and low fifties, and close to 6 inches in one day, last week.  I don’t think the pink fittonia has grown an inch.

August 16 2014 047However, this variegated tradescantia is really thriving-the color is so beautiful. It almost looks like it is blooming.  I will plant this again, no doubt.

August 16 2014 002The begonias have held up amazingly well in the cold rainy weather.  The caladiums and alocasia are so so-I would guess they are shuddering from the cold.

Aug 16 2014 004The Persian Shield on this north wall is such a beautiful iridescent purple. In full sun, the leaves green up-the resulting purple/green mix is a muddy color. This pot is holding its own.  I have had the Persian Shields grow 3 feet in a single season.  Not this year.

Aug 16 2014 002This lavender New Guinea impatiens is completely out of bloom, but is setting buds. They hate chilly weather.

Aug 16 2014 003The nicotiana has had quite a bout with white fly. I can’t remember ever dealing with that before.  I sprayed the foliage with water every day.  Who knows if that helped.  The cold may have slowed them down.  I don’t see them anymore, but the nicotiana were damaged. The coleus is filling in for them.

Aug 16 2014 013The plants in this pot seems to be thriving.

Aug 16 2014 005The cool and rainy weather has not fazed the heuchera one bit. They have put on some weight.  Aug 16 2014 007The geraniums have not been happy.  They like it hot, and on the dry side.  But these Caliente geraniums are bravely budding up.  It is hard to keep a good plant down.

Aug 16 2014 009The scented geranium topiary is shedding interior leaves.  This is a sign of water stress-either too much, or too little.  The scotch moss is loving the sun, the rain, and the cool.

Aug 16 2014 010I have no complaints with the Italian olive jar.  Every plant is bearing up, in spite of the unseasonably wet and cold weather.

Aug 16 2014 012Container plantings are a joy, and a trial.  Our summer has been cold and cool-no tropical plant loves this.  I keep hoping for that warm up that never comes. By this time of year, my deck pots are usually overflowing.  Do I have any complaints?  Not really.

014I could be looking at this.

 

 

 

 

 

Peak Season

 

The containers on my deck have grown like crazy in the past month-we are  approaching peak season.  The weather has been perfect; most days have been sunny.  Even so,  we have had night temperatures lately in the 60’s.  There are signs of summer’s end, as much as there are signs of summer’s peak. Though I could easily do with this weather a few more months, September 1st is just 2 weeks away.  Once labor day comes, our summer is in decline.  The nights are colder; it seems like less heat and energy comes from the sun.     Annual plants grow and bloom with one end in mind; they need to set seed, before they are done in by frost.  This is an exhausting task. All the while my container plants are putting on size and blooming great, there are signs of stress.  The mildew I have struggled to avoid on my dahlias-it has claimed a few stalks.  The fancy leaved geraniums pictured above are so rootbound I have to soak them every day.  The Japanese beetles have discovered my canna flowers.  The coleus despises the cooler night temperatures.        

The mildew seems to be spreading to my petunias, for heavens sake.  And the aphids on my licorice-this is a first for me.  Do all of my containers grow to perfection-not even close.  Just close enough to provide me with a lot of pleasure, looking after and at them.  There are a few things I do to make the best of the last leg of the summer.  I do feed my pots with liquid fertilizer regularly.  Geraniums like lots of feed-ferns, not so much.  Each one of my containers has a lot of plants in them, or plants that have grown large. I soak my pots with water, and then soak them with feed.  Liquid feed is like a shot of B-12; I avoid the next watering as long as I can, so the plants benefit before a watering washes it all away.  I am sure to flush my pots through between waterings, to prevent a build up of salts that can become toxic.   

  Most of my containers have grown skirts by now.  When I water, I lift the plants up so I can see the soil.  I water the surface of the soil-not the plant leaves.  There is no sense encouraging mildew to spread. I soak them thoroughly, and then let them get quite dry. The rectangles on my north wall only get water twice a week.  Overwatering begonias in hot weather is asking for rot.  Caladiums will hang their heads when they need water.  I snap off the old leaves out that get too tall, and threaten to engulf my chartreuse Janet Craig dracaenas. 

Growing plants in containers is a live and learn proposition.  As in-this rainbow coleus is a very big grower.  This means there are big sections of stalks between sets of leaves.  This makes it tough to get a good shape from the plant in a container.  These Italian terra cotta urns look like they have top hats-funny, this.  This variety would make a great hedge in the ground.

I know Milo is pretty handsome, but the message here is about keeping things clean.  I remove dead or diseased foliage.  I sometimes thin plants to improve air circulation. And I pick up what falls on the ground.  I leave no debris.  What I would gladly let decompose in my garden I don’t think is good for my containers.  My big Norway maple is raining disease ridden leaves; I pick them up, and throw they away.  Fungus can live over the winter.  Sometimes clean gardening practices is your only defence.      

My terrace is my version of a kitchen garden.   Buck cooks here, and I look after the pots.  My small bi-level deck has 14 containers.  It is a rare evening that there is not something to putter over-I like this.  I only get into trouble when I let them go too long.  Consistent attention is much better than an occasional look.  Hauling the containers here from the basement, filling them with soil, and planting-that’s real work. The work now is not that tough, and at some time during the process I plain start to feel better.  

The jumble pot of petunias and trailing verbena has been great, and still looks great-even on the inside.  I have been very careful to pick up the plant mass hanging over the edge, and deal directly with the soil.  I have kept this on the very dry side-a strategy that seems to be working.     

I only had one shot left on my camera before the battery died the other morning.  The pink light at dawn-wow. My little garden is anything but perfect, but at moments like this, I am very glad to have it.

Green Schemes

Containers planted with an all green color scheme can be very beautiful.  Eliminating color as an element in container design means that other elements, such as texture, mass, form, scale, and proportion, become very much more important.  The frosty white Victorian parlor ferns in this planter are a lacy contrast to the big leaves of the white caladiums.  The languid and lax habit of the tradescantia fl. Variegata contrasts to the tight soil skimming habit of the lime green club moss, known as selaginella.  Overall, the planting is loose, and airy-just like the container.  The container itself is such an important element of the overall composition. 

I planted this pair of Italian pots with 2 gallon size zebra grasses, and finished up all around with lime variegated plectranthus.  The colors in one plant mirror the colors of the other-so all of the visual interest is the contrast of the tall narrow grass blades, and the thick felted trailing leaves of the plectranthus.  I pinched the plectranthus, which is related to coleus, all summer long.  This made for an overall shape that was widely horizontal.  The tall grass, in contrast to the very wide plectranthus-a certain visual contrast that satisfied my eye.  The glimpse I still see of the pot at the bottom is just enough to complete the picture.  The planting does a good job of describing what the planter looks like, though you cannot see so much of it. This is a very simple planting which to my eye is very visually engaging.     

Big leaves-do you not love them? This severely contemporary v-shaped limestone  planter benefits from a planting of the paddle-leaved tropical plant dieffenbachia.  The pale yellow green leaves can dramatically lighten a very shady spot.  The yellow variegated ivy once established, I kept trimmed to the inside edge of the stone, as the container itself makes such a strong statement.  The overall shape of the planting seems pleasing to me.  This planting greatly complements the container.      

This planter located on a city street got planted with a lime green version of dawn redwood-a lime green version of Metasequoia.  Small trees can be great in containers; they can be planted in the ground at the end of the summer season.  The  fiber optic grass and Scotch moss are just about the same shade of green.  This planting is simply about texture, and plant habit.  The relationship of one plant to another is enough to keep me gardening.   

The lime green dracaena Jenny Craig is another great tropical plant suitable for containers in shady places. The strappy leaves cascade like water from a fountain.  The variegated licorice petticoat pictured above provides some width that helps to balance the composition.  The detail of the urns is still visible.  I spend a lot of time picking and choosing what of a container gets hidden by draping plants-and what stays exposed.   

This cardoon is a very architecturally striking plant.  The leaves have a prehistoric, slightly menacing look about them. They have an aura which is so strong-they have the visual power to organize a space. The blue green succulent planted at its base-I have no idea what this is called-sorry.  My eyes and my instincts just told me they would work in this container.  These succulents do a great job of softening the look of the cardoon-even though the foliage is stiff, and needle-like. The silver falls dichondra drapes down the corners of this lead container, and puddles on the ground-a languid, and gorgeous contrast to those stiff cardoon leaves.  In general, it is easier to achieve a balanced compostion with three elements, as opposed to two. A container with one or two elements will need thoughtful work on the shaping as it grows, to keep the arrangement visually interesting.  A single well cared for topiary plant in a pot would be a good example of this kind of grooming.  

The lime green flowering nicotiana alata is one of my favorite flowers.  Green flowers-not so ordinary, but eminently satisfying.  The tuft of verbena bonariensis at the top loosens up the entire planting.  The wide outer border planting of white million bells, green and white plectranthus, and Kent Beauty showy oregano, softens the top edge of the container, and balances the height of the nicotiana and verbena.    

These bronze containers are very intricate, and beautiful.  Given that they flank a front door, I plant them tall.  The King Tut papyrus provide great height.  The tall white zinnias read mostly green.  The lime sweet potato vine- they speak strongly to lush. A planting of white mini petunias add some froth where some width is needed.    


Any predominately green composition gets attention from me on lots of  levels.  I cannot really explain this-except to say that great color enchants, and distracts me.  No doubt beautiful color gets my attention.  But when I design, I imagine every element in black and white.  Composing containers in green and white is like looking at the natural world in black and white.  Black and white-this teaches me plenty.