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.

A Dirty Little Secret

I happily buy pots from Nancy LaMotte.  Her firm, Anamese Garden and Home, which is based based in Louisiana, designs beautiful glazed pots which are made in Vietnam.  The shapes are beautiful; the construction is superb. She asked if I would write an essay about planting pots for her newsletter.  Why not?  As I am ready to post a tutorial or two about my methodology for planting containers, I am happy to plant a trio of her pots.  How beautiful they are; these glaze drips running over the interior terra cotta surface are a preview of what is to come.   

Successful container planting is much about the dirt, and the drainage of that dirt.  Once you have chosen a beautiful pot, container, or urn-what stacks up on the inside has much to do with a planting living up to the beauty of its home.  Number one for me-insuring good drainage.  I fill every pot at least one-third full, maybe more, with a porous well draining material.  Coarse gravel, bark, terra cotta shards, cell pack plastic liners-a thriving pot planting drains instantly. A layer of non-woven landscape fabric will keep your soil from sifting down into, and plugging, the drainage material.  Most plants love regular and reliable water, but they hate sitting in it. 

Perhaps even more important-the soil.  Every gardener has a mix-I am no exception.  I like a heavy soil, leavened with lots of compost and a big dollop of sand.  Though plenty of garden centers sell giant bags of peat based “planting media”, I am a fan of  topsoil.  As in the closest thing to good garden dirt that is available.Peat based plant mixes are light-you can carry a giant bag to your car.  But peat based planting media implies a professional grower on the other end who will feed that sterile soil at whatever parts per million it needs to produce good plants.  My dirty little secret-good and hefty soil is essential for great plantings.  A compost based soil that does not dry out too fast, that has nutrients, is perfect for garden variety gardeners.  I am no fan of hauling forty pound bags of soil around-so I farm that job out to whomever I can persuade to help me.  This is worth the trouble-making sure the pots get filled with great soil.

I topdress my soil with Osmocote, a time release fertilizer. A small amount gets released, or osmoses through the wall of the granule, immediately.  The rest will release over time in response to temperature.  The warmer the weather, and soil temperature, the faster the rate of release.  The plants you buy at nurseries and farmer’s market’s are grown in fertilized soil, but at a certain point, the care and feeding will be up to you.    

I mix the osmocote into the top 4-8 inches of soil-this is an essential part of the process.  Potted nursery stock that has osmocote on the surface-the person who applied that is very careful not to do too little, or too much.  Too much feed is worse than no feed at all. 


These gorgeous pots are ready for some plants. How will I choose?  Nancy calls this glaze “swamp”; this color has a lot of possibilities, does it not?  The next essay-all about the sheer fun of planting a spring container.

Fending Off Fall

June 30 012
By the end of June,  the promise of summer is in the air. Flowers I planted June first are taking hold, and growing. But this summer’s promise came with strings attached; night temperatures hovered in the fifties.  Our first night over 60 degrees would not come until mid-July. Though small the end of June, the window boxes still had that going forward fresh look.

July2 010No matter what you fancy in your garden, nothing in it ever stands still.  A garden actively grows, or actively sulks, or goes down.  Some days I wish I could shift into neutral and coast, but I know better. I also know that as much as I would want to devote a chunk of time to nurturing all my plants, every day, that rarely happens.  I have a demanding work life; moving that along every day takes priority.  I hedge my bets some with plants that seem to handle the hit and miss nature of my care.  Petunias thrive on this treatment; this is one plant that the more I fuss with them, the more they resent it.  A trim once in a while is enough.  Angelonia does not like cold weather, but it’s not a prima donna either.  Once the hot weather comes, they come on strong. 

July2 001Blue salvia is puny early on; it is a late season annual.  In a good year, they handle cooling fall temperatures with aplomb.  I knew I would have these late.  Planting the blue star-flowered laurentia was risky.  Not only am I not so familiar with its habit, it has that look of an early season annual destined to peter out. This I cannot really explain, except to say some plants just look like they won’t do.  The heliotrope was stuck in first gear; this plant likes hot weather.  But for the moment, the lime nicotiana alata has my attention; the weather was instrumental in making it look perfectly happy. Every year, the weather is perfect for something;  I thus follow the National Weather Service three month predictions with a lot of interest in late winter. Occasionally that helps.  

Aug1 013By August first, we were getting an 80 degree day once in a while.  You can see the effect on the licorice and heliotrope; too little heat, too late. The flowering on the laurentia is slowing down, as I thought it would.  Though the flowering is so- so, the plants are growing fine.  The overall shape and the interaction of the group is the success of the box.  Cool and dry made for unusually few bugs and no disease .

sept11b 042By early September, my balanced box has gone too tall-bad maintenance on my part.  Trimming plants back keeps them stocky, and encourages them to reflower.  However, this height is a great look from the street; the flowers are visible over the boxwood. 

sept12b 008As I predicted, the laurentia bloomed out, and needs replacing.  By September 15, our weather is in transition.  I expect night temperatures in the high forties this week yet.  However, I am not willing to rip the boxes yet; I hold on to my summer season as long as I can.   We are having our warmest daytime temperatures of the season.  As there are plenty of plants that thrive in cool night temperatures, I will replace as needed. 

Sept 15a 004A good haircut and deadheading came first; late is better than never. As long as the warm weather holds, the coleus will respond quickly to the trim. There is no reason to give up what you have looked after all season.  There is every good reason to keep what is good, and replace what isn’t.

Sept 15a 003
This looks better. I have unhooked all if the tall plants from their stakes; I like the loose, almost overgrown look for late summer.  The laurentia has been replaced with a lavender pansy mix and a pair of frilly white kale.  In another two weeks, we’ll have a different look going on here.