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.

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.