Tell The Story

May 21, 2014 (2)Any seasonal planting begins with an idea.  An organizing metaphor.  That collection of ideas and the resulting metaphor makes for a story.  A story you wish to tell with plants. Plants are one thing, but the plants you choose for a particular container should live together in a meaningful way. The design of in ground annual plantings and container plantings takes many formal design issues into account.  Color, texture, mass, line-these are formal elements of design that apply to any creative expression. The deliberately chosen relationships between all of these elements tell a story.

May 21, 2014 (44)Some containers I plant, the color is the story.  Others, the texture and mass is the story.  Others echo or repeat a story about loss, or love.  Others recreate a moment from the past.  Some stories are about joy. Those stories may be on fire. Some stories are pastoral, or a longing for another place and time. Other stories echo a family history.  Another story may be about refuge. Some stories have to do with agriculture and farming. Important events have stories attached to them.  Some stories are witty, saucy, or funny.

May 21, 2014 (5)All of my clients have their own particular story. Their likes and dislikes.  How they would choose to represent the beauty of a garden is particular to them.  For those with whom I have a long history, I plant in service of what I know of their story. I may not be dead to right in every regard, but a client who returns year after year must feel that I hear them.

May 21, 2014 (38) A plant is a thing of wonder in and of itself.  But a great container planting is not a collection of plants.  It is a community of plants that when planted in a confined space creeate visual and emotional meaning. This client likes green above all. She likes a planting which is serene and quiet.  She likes the relationship between old plants of formal shape, and meadow like plantings which include lavender and other herbs.  She likes plants that remind her of a conservatory, as in ferns.

May 21, 2014 (41)This stone wall/planter has had a lot of things in it over the year.  One year, Chicago figs.  Another year, white nicotiana.  This year we have sky blue Cathedral salvia, icicle helichrysum, variegated licorice, and strawberries.

May 21, 2014 (16)This variegated boxwood also has variegated licorice, as it is near by. And the coloration of the leaves echo one another, and contrast in size and shape.  The little pot-a single Spanish lavender plant.

May 21, 2014 (15)The double ball boxwood topiary in the corner is quite old.  The lavender topiary is new, and beginning to bloom.

May 21, 2014 (40)The long troughs have a mixture of blue green leaved plants, and silver leaved plants.

May 21, 2014 (26)The pool yard is a little less quiet.  A duranta on standard is under planted with surfinia sky blue petunias, and artist ageratum. A rosemary topiary is under planted with a variegated sage.  The center pot has 3 elegant feather plants, surrounded by lime green spikes and bicolor angelonia.

May 21, 2014 (36)White lantana on standard, and polka dot plant. The low planters have green echeverias.

May 21, 2014 (4)4 hanging baskets for the porch are planted with a white variegated plectranthus, and a gray plectranthus, mixed.

May 21, 2014 (32)The far pots are planted with white mandevillea, and a host of attending white flowered and gray leaved plants.

May 21, 2014 (52)The plant stand is planted with white caladiums, bird’s nest ferns, white non stop begonias, Jayde pepperomia, and maidenhair ferns.  The big lead pot is planted with a single Kimberly fern.  Very quiet, and peaceful.  Hopefully the story of these containers is evident in all of the choices.  We will see how it reads in August.



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.

Sun Parasol Mandevilleas

white mandevillea

The family of plants known as dogbane includes a genus of very handsome plants known as mandevillea.  Mandevillea is a vining plant native to tropical climes-in central and South America.   Michigan in no way resembles the tropics, but this vine is willing to perform here during the summer.  Older forms of mandevillea, including the cultivar Alice du Pont, regrettably, are magnets for both insects and disease.  In 2003, Suntory Flowers Ltd in Japan released a new series of mandevillea called Sun Parasol.  Their breeding efforts produced plants with great vigor and disease resistance.  Their near continuous bloom and ease of cultivation is as attractive as the flowers themselves.    

mandevillea vine

Mandevilleas do require some sort of support to climb.  This does not have to be fancy, since a well grown vine completely cover a pole, wire or trellis in short order. The vines do not attach themselves to a support, they wind around it. I have on occasion planted small mandevilleas as trailers in containers. Their natural inclination to curl gives them a very lively and wired appearance in a pot.    

parasol white mandevillea

All six containers in the front of the shop have white mandevillea as their centerpiece.  Additionally, the windowboxes at the shop are framed by white mandevillea vines.   That decision was made long before the weather warmed up enough to plant. A cool and rainy summer would not have been so friendly to my choice.  Mandevillea loves hot weather-the hotter, the better.  They also like to be kept on the dry side.  This summer-a perfect summer for them.

growing mandevillea

Mandevilleas only bloom on every third set of leaves.  This means the look of the leaves is every bit as important as the flowers.  The dark green, glossy, and healthy foliage is beautiful in its own right.  My Jeannie le Joie climbing roses are a dream come true in the spring, but the foliage right now is nothing much to look at.         

giant pink mandevillea

This week I have been catching up some of the plantings I did in May.  I was happily surprised to see that every mandevillea we planted was growing strong.  If I plant mandevillea as a centerpiece in a pot, I gradually remove its bottom leaves. Layering plants in a container requires some grooming, so one layer does not shade the other.  

giant pink mandevillea

The dahlias in these pots are healthy and strong, but their peak bloom season will come in the fall.  Of course the petunias have revelled in our heat just as much as the mandevillea.  This mandevillea variety is simply known as Giant Pink.

4 10′ natural bamboo stakes provide support for the vine.  We wind individual tendrils around each of the stakes, and tie them up with flexible garden tie.  If new tendrils sprout from the base, or loose their grip on the pole, we may provide more ties. The Surfinia sky blue petunia in this pot-another outstanding annual cultivar bred by Suntory Flowers.  

Red flowered mandevillea is an intense and deep crimson red.  No so many summer flowering plants sport this color, but the Caliente deep red geraniums in this container come close.  This vine is supported by 4  1/4″ diameter steel poles.  The part of the pole that goes in the ground is straight.  The upper part of the pole angles out slightly.  We make these poles to mimic the natural growth of the plant.  Once the vines reach the top, they can be left to their own devices.

What the small flowered cultivars lack in flower size, they make up for in sheer numbers.  In another few weeks, these vines will be completely covered with flowers.  Though I primarily use them in containers, they can be equally effective planted in the ground near a light post, railing, or fence. 

The large flowered mandevilleas are slower to come into bloom than the smaller flowered cultivars, but if the warm season is long enough, they will catch up. Given how difficult our summer season has been, I really appreciate the breeding that has made this plant weather tolerant, florifierous, disease resistant, and easy to grow.   


This is the hottest spot of any spot I garden.  A stone terrace and brick wall facing south makes this terrace feel like the desert on a hot day.  I see no signs of stress here whatsoever. 

Mandevilleas are not tough to overwinter.  The need a spot which does not dip much below 40 degrees.  They will drop some leaves when brought in.  I water them on occasion over the winter-not much.  I do cut them back, but not much.  They will need those stems to get going again in the spring.

The CC Rule


I have a young and active client with three very active children.  Her daily schedule makes mine seem sedate.  She ferries kids, entertains friends, and maintains very active family relationships.  When I can catch up to her, she is strong minded and decisive about a beautiful landscape.  Every year we do something.  We did plant a run of Belgian fence for her a few years ago-she harvests and eats those pears.  Whenever we get there to prune them back into shape is ok with her. If she has to search for her pears in a tangle of foliage-so be it.  Only very rarely does an emergency arise in her garden.


CC has an uncanny ability to decide when to fuss, and when to go with the flow. Make no mistake-this is a very valuable skill.  She knows how to get through a day.  This means that she is content to let nature take its course-as opposed to opposing whatever nature has in store.  I have been known to throw myself at every issue in my garden like I have but 10 minutes to live.  I so admire how she coolly and adeptly assesses a situation, and acts.  Or not.  The “or not” part is a choice, actually. My friend Janet came to see my garden at 7 am this morning.  Buck was a little appalled about entertaining at that hour.  But we both had watering to do-before it gets hot. We were sitting in the garden when she asked me if I ever sat in the garden.  I do every day, after work.  For a little while.  Then there are things to do.  We both make a fuss.  The car pictured above obviously belongs to an obsessed gardener I know and like who would put put his top down, and ever so slowly drive a group of giant dahlias home.  

 CC is not at all that way.  Once she has made a decision about what she wants me to plant for her, she never touches, grooms, feeds, or otherwise interferes with what I have planted.  In September, I stop by and see that every plant in her pots has interacted, and grown together. Not one plant has been trimmed, deadheaded, or groomed.  Miraculously, this lack of intervention on her part works beautifully.  This window box was planted in the early years of the store.  The shop consumed so much time there was little left over to put to this box except to water.  Did I like it then-not so much?  I greatly appreciate it now. 

An absentee attitude is a good thing on occasion.  That which nature provides, or doesn’t has charm and appeal.   Every plant has a space to start with.  They duke it out, and come to some agreement.  The begonias may be miffed that she does not cut off those dead flower heads every day, but they keep on growing.  This pot of mine is is a little heavy on the chocolate sweet potato vine, but it has a naturally flowing appearance. 

There is no doubt that I interfere with the natural order of things in my garden.  Sometimes I water too much-I never err on the side of watering too little.  Every nursery person I know will say that more plants are lost to overwatering than anything else.  I worry my plants.   I plan as if planning were the crowning achievement of a gardener.  I move things around.  I desert some plants, and plant loads of other plants.  I like getting my own way.  This spring planting I photographed in August-a community had been created without me.  So I chose to do nothing about it, except enjoy it.

When I saw this CC plantings last September, I put my elaborate and intense program on pause.  The natural order of things made for a planting that was exquisite.  Exquisitely natural and unassuming.  Enchanting-of course.  There are but a few bits of heliotrope still representing-but is that not enough?  Her white non stop begonias wre breathtaking. 


 green container plantings

I would interpret the CC rule thusly.  Scheme, draw, plant-and then step back.  Let nature react to your plan.  Give nature plenty of time.  What you see in the end should inform your ideas about gardening.  Lots of plants resent too much touching.  Too much supervision. Too much fussing can drain the life out of a garden, or a planting.  This pot I have at home I have not touched, except to water.  And I water it as little as possible.  

This petunia and licorice pot has been sparingly watered, and shows no signs of any awkward trimming.  It is a prime example of benign neglect.  And a recognition that most plant have an incredibly powerful will to live, if you let them.  

That is not to say I won’t intervene with noxious weeds, or dry soil, or any plant clearly asking for help.  But making a huge issue of a stray this or that can put a damper on your garden party.

What a difficult gardening season this has been-from the magnolia flowers frosting off, to the poor early show on the roses, to the heat and drought.  And now more heat, starting up again.  My 3D osteospermums have been sulking in the heat.  But for sure my containers have some robustly growing osteo bushes that will start to bloom again when our temperatures cool down.  The CC rule-in some cases it is the only approach that makes any gardening sense.