Planting Great Containers


Every great pot starts with some rocking good science.  A container needs to be sized to comfortably hold the plants you want to grow when they are full grown. Rhubarb planted in a 10 inch pot-not a good look.  Nor is it a workable idea. Every container needs lots of drainage material; I usually plant large containers with 2/3 drainage material and 1/3 soil.  Very small containers I might fill to the top with soil, with a small piece of landscape fabric over the drain hole.  The ability to maintain even moisture is essential to the health of the plants.  Good soil holds water.  My soil mix is a custom blend of compost, topsoil and sand-I do not grow plants in soilless mixes.  Growers mix is designed for professional growers who require a weed, pest, and disease-free medium.  It takes a skilled hand to properly water and feed any plant grown in peat based plant mixes-every grower has their own formula. For a gardener, the best part about them is how easy the bags are to pick up and carry.  Ease of soil transport is not a factor in planting great containers.  I like to grow plants in soil.  real soil.  I like all the organisms, the micronutrients-I like living soil, not sterile plant mix.
The next issue-where will they go?  Pots flanking a formal front porch may ask for the same plants that you use on your terrace-but how you use those plants is about inspired design.  Great containers have everything to do with good design.  This traditionally styled two tiered wirework plant stand is a completely unexpected choice for a contemporary concrete deck/terrace featuring a stainless steel braided wire railing.  That juxtaposition of the round and delicate wirework with this minimal fencing is a visual surprise.  As for the planting, imagine this planter without its topknot of faux tulips and grass.  You get this-dull.  The additional height breaks the horizontal line of the fence-this makes for great rhythm.  The planting at the same height as the rail-static. The idea that stops short, comes up short. That tulip and grass hat-very sassy.  This single planter holds its own, in front of that somber forest of hundreds of tree trunks.  The big-faced pansies are in the larger bottom tier, and the diminuitive violas in the top; the size of flowers themselves should be proportional to the size of the container.  The restricted plant palette has a contemporary feeling; the mix of colors has a more personal feeling without getting too frou-frou.  I like this planter, how and where it is placed, and how it is planted, relative to this forest dominated landscape.    

Sometimes the shape of a planter will suggest how the plants should be used.  Pale yellow pansies in the center back, and bright yellow pansies on the edges highlight the color and form of the violas in the front.  Light colors do a great job of bringing dark colors placed in front of them to life.  The yellow twig dogwood placed in a row, rather than a bunch , celebrates the shape of the container.  The ivy at the corners-a yellow variegated variety that repeats the yellow of the flowers.  Plants that would thrive in this lighting situation go on to work together well.  This look-a thoughtful and put together look.

Pots in commercial settings need to read well from the street.  I would not want anyone passing my shop to not get a good look.   This can mean generous height, and compelling color.  Subtle works much better up close to the eye.  In this case, a bunch of yellow twig dogwood has been augmented with faux yellow flower stems made from bleached and dyed palm leaves.  Forsythia is common in my spring landscape; passing by in a car, this centerpiece is entirely believable.  More striking than real forsythia, this centerpiece will provide great scale and visual punch throughout the spring.  A pot of tulips in the center can be switched out for fresh when the flowers fade; annual phlox intensia and violas will grow and do well on into early summer.  The red violet, lavender and pale yellow tulip mix is from John Sheepers-they call it the Princely mix.  The color combination is really lovely.  Small pots for a tabletop ask for one thing, well grown.  Small pots have to be placed close to eye level to be appreciated, so  I plant small pots with plants that are easy to grow to perfection.  This pot of violas seems happy-no yellow leaves, no dead flower heads.  It looks good, up close.

In terms of container design, it does not matter whether you are planting a vintage bulb crate from the Netherlands, or a fine pair of antique urns-the container is as much a part of the planting as the plants themselves.  These tulips were planted low, so the lower foliage would not obscure the beautiful surface and vintage lettering on the crate.  The boxes on the roof of my shop-they were constructed of sheet metal, and reinforced on the inside with pressure treated limber.  They are a vehicle for the plants that make my summer roof garden.  These rectangular boxes hold soil, and support plant life.  They are not in any way beautiful.  They are serviceable.  Every space demands a little something different.  At my office front door-I want beautiful containers, well designed, and thoughtfully planted.  On the roof, I want to make but one point.  Anyone who looks at what is growing  on the roof-I want them to see that garden.  A beautiful garden.   

Planting in the ground- a second cousin twice removed from planting in containers.  Big spaces on the ground plane ask for a different approach than containers.  Soil and seasonal flowers, above ground, in containers, could not be more different than seasonal flowers planted into the ground.  More tomorrow-I promise.

Pots And Boxes

Pots and boxes-this client has plenty.  Sixteen window boxes on three sides, of the house, and close to thirty pots. It is the better part of the day start to finish to get then dressed for the summer.  The shopping and transport is time that doesn’t show here.  This plant comes from that place, and that plant from somewhere else miles from stop number one.  There is the loading, the driving and the unloading.  But the big story of this entire week’s planting-the heat.  I call 90 degrees since May 21st extremely unseasonably hot weather. Making sure the plants survive in spite of their very small rootballs, a time consuming challenge.    

This gorgeous pair of Mital terra cotta pots handmade in Impruneta Italy on attending plinths are giant sized.  Placed outside a small side terrace, they add a lot of punch to a large drivecourt near the rear of the house.  The banana in the center will grow to a substantial size.  Fisdh and bananas have this in common-they will grow according to the size of their environment-whether that be water, or soil.  If the heat we are having persists, this pot will grow fast.

The side terrace is home to a collection of glazed French terra cotta pots.  Sonic New Guinea impatiens will thrive in this spot; the light is strong for 6 hours a day.  Flanking the couch, a pair of lime irisine grown in tree form.  Sporting green and lime leaves atop red voilet stems, they have a distinctly tropical feeling.  They will have to be pruned regularly, as they grow like weeds. 

This is one of the most beautiful pools I have ever seen; the pergolas are stunning as well.  None of this was designed by me-I just plant the pots.  My client was the force behind the Italian pots-he likes them.  The DeGroot spire arborvitae spend the summer in the pots, and the winters in ground.  They are a reasonable approximation in shape to Italian cypress. If I could petition nature to let just one plant run around the hardiness zone rule, it would be the cypress.  As sculptural as they are stately, they bring Italy, and Italian gardens to mind. 

The color scheme this year-yellow, lavender, purple, white-and cool green.  The pots have lots of variegated licorice.  This green of course is a nod to the starring figures-those 6 Degroot Spires.  Most of the color is not so evident yet-the plants have a lot of growing to do.  Yellow and Vanilla Butterflies argyranthemum are lively, mixed. Popping up between them, yellow and white dahlias gallerys series dahlias. 

Pool decks tend to be very hot places; white in the composition keeps everything looking cool and fresh.  The trailing verbenas have shed their penchant for mildew; the Lanai series is particularly healthy growing.  If they are kept deadheaded, they bloom nonstop long into the fall.  This very dark purple reads well in the company of white petunias. 

This picture in no way reveals that it was cooking hot on that terrace-you will have to take my word for it. The window boxes were especially challenging in that heat. All of the plant material had to be hauled up our extention ladder. This kind of planting is not for the faint of heart.  

It is finally warm enough to bring the heliotrope out of the greenhouse.  This new lavender variety is especially attractive. I am sure you can tell that I like it-I used lots. 

An old iron trough is planted with black leaved orange cannas, and black leaved Fascination dahlias. Wild Lime coleus, Tricolor and Caliente orange geraniums add an unexpected dose of hot color. These big individual cabanas could use it.  

There is much that is yet to come for this terrace.  I can see the pots grown in, and people in the space.  Lovely.

Those Other Places

The next in my series about containers is about those other places that might ask for pots besides the front door.  I alluded to this in my last post; containers can be a vastly more civilized and interesting version of a road sign, bollard or directional symbol.  In this case, they say please do not park on the sidewalk.  They are also providing fresh lettuce for spring salads.

I do have a thing about driveways, and their landscape.  Those places that people drive out of, and up to, every day-it is a very important space.  I may not cruise my entire garden start to finish every day-but I drive out and up  that driveway-daily.  At the end of my driveway-a little garden punctuated with containers.  They say, welcome home Deborah. Those flags and brass band greet me every night.  In the summer, the corgis go right up those steps into the garden-no garage door entry for them.  Those pots make the transition from my day, to my garden, a pleasure.

A terrace that is big enough to hold a dining table and chairs, lounge chairs and a coffee table, a chaise or two, the grill-a big space.  By this I mean that my deck terrace is bigger than my dining room.  A pool terrace might be three times this. Terraces ask for some punctuation, enclosure-some balance.  Great containers and beautiful plantings can transform a terrace into a garden. I am a lunatic gardener-my terrace is home to 14 containers-maybe more.  When I have dinner outdoors, I am in the garden.

My shop has a very simple landscape.  Linden trees in the ground, and gravel.  That’s all.  This may sound sleepy, but Detroit Garden Workds is in fact a very lively place.  Containers, urns, pots, boxes-everywhere.  It is my idea to visually explain to people that a planted container is in fact a garden.  An alternative garden to those planted in ground-but a garden none the less. Should you have a spot that needs some punch without the dirt space and hoopla that a garden requires-consider a container.  Would you guess these hyacinths and alyssum were planted in a vintage collander?


A few not at all fancy containers casually placed on this old bench -a good look.

I put them at the road, next to the mailbox.  On the terrace.  At the end of the drive.  In the middle of the lawn.  In a bed of pachysandra-or in this case-boxwood.   On the terrace.  On the pool deck. On the outdoor dinner table.  Next to the back door. At the four corners of the rose garden.  Between the car bays.  At the entrance to a garden room. 

Containers mark the entrance to a space.  They enrich the terrace where you have dinner in the summer.  They advise guests how to get to the door.  They greet you when you get home.  Try some.

Backing Up The Front Door

Apparently I am still stuck at the front door; bear with me.  The architecture of homes in any given community varies widely. We are, after all, the land of the free and the home of the free speaking.  But one issue applies to all-the front door needs backing up with containers and plantings of sufficient scale to make a visible difference. This front door is overscaled and imposing; small non-descript containers would add nothing.  My rule: any container that does not contribute substantially and solidly is not the right choice.  Pass them by.  If smaller scaled pots appeal to you, consider some pedestals underneath them.  The big idea-get the pots, and the plantings close to eye level .  What you have to look down on, you won’t love so much. You will appreciate, and maybe love, what you see, eye to eye. 

As I said, not all front doors are created equal.  This home, symmetrical in every detail, has an awkwardly and asymmetrically placed front door.  The landscape which disguises that placement-and the overscaled single planter centrally placed, do not frame the door.  They do a different job; they both signal how to get to that door.  The container says ” Welcome.  Come up here; I will tell you where to go next. Visual maps-containers can be just that. 

Some homes are very large.  Though this door is massive, it seems quite intimate in scale given the overall size of the home-as it should.  Who wants to be intimidated by a front door, unless they are at the Met, or the Lincoln Memorial?  This series of four French Jardin du Soleil boxes provides weighty company to the door, and balances entrance to edifice. The v- shaped lead pots flanking the front door need not be so large; they are just two of six. The stair piers provide the height those pots need.  The planting height, topping out at just below the lanterns, frames a view without obstructing a single detail. 

Some front doors lie at the back of a roofed porch.  This makes the door hard to see.  15 years ago when I was renovating the shop building, the architect told me I needed front doors with glass.  He told me my clients would not feel comfortable opening a door into a space they could not see into, in advance.  Speakeasies and poker joints have solid doors with a peephole-retail stores telegraph their entrance moves, and thereby say welcome.  This front door is dark.  The planters flanking the porch are tall.  You can only see their topknots of white New Guinea impatiens from the street. As dark as the door might be, the landscape, containers and plantings arranged around that door are light. 

This front door is not so far from the city sidewalk.  A centrally placed rusty obelisk bisects that door-though the walk is short, there is a route around that obelisk that has interest. The obelisk, and its placement-on purpose. Pots on that walk would be obstructive, and not in keeping with the overall structure of the landscape.  Two urns on pedestals, widely placed to the sides, do a great job of saying welcome, gracefully. 

Some driveways slide by the front door.  A perpendicular drive up to a formal home-not the usual.  Beautiful containers can bring formality at the same time that they signal the slow down you are here zone.  These subtly exquisite French boxes, planted tall with arborvitae are the best version of a traffic light I have seen.  It can be of help, to picture yourself as a guest coming to your own home.  Containers, properly done, can give the visual cues you have in mind. 

This arts and crafts bungalow has a low slung profile, and a giant front porch. There are a number of shallow, and not so wide stairs to that porch. The stair piers are narrow. The placement of two cast stone Italian vases in the landscape adds width to that approach; the glazed French footed pots a top those stair piers are in scale with their greater base. More importantly, those pots do not need to be big-they are part of a bigger scheme that says hello.  The Italian vases, the French pots and their greater landscape, shoulder the work of saying hello.

A giant pair of Bulbeck lead egg cups flank this front door.  Not that you could make that out from here.  In the interest of addressing a proper scale, a planting in ground can strengthen the impact of a pair of pots from a distance.  Up close, the lead cups reads beautifully.  The lesson here?  There are multiple views to consider, in choosing containers.  The near view, the far view, the view from inside.   


The last of what I have to say about containers at the front door-some choices may not work so well, but a lot of choices do work.  I love these Kenneth Lynch lead round containers.  The choice of the architect, they beautifully echo the tower window with the round detail.  I admire that they in no way impinge on an appreciation of the architecture.  What would I have done?  I have not thought about it.  I have my own home where I can do as I please.  A client’s point of view is very important; people have reasons for their choices-you just have to ask.  Were they ever to ask how I see this, I would tell them.  But for now, I just plant them. No designer can really rescue you.  Trust your own eye, and use it. Photograph that front door, and take that photograph with you, when you are shopping for pots.  Should you feel you need help, ask. There may be someone out there that could look at your pictures, and answer in a way that makes sense to you.