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.  

 

 

 

Container Garden Design

Every move you make in a garden has to start someplace.  Some activities begin for everyone in the same place.  Should you decide to run a marathon, there is a starting gate and a finish.  If you are designing a container garden, it’s your choice where to begin, and where to end.  The inspiration for a container can come from lots of places.  A favorite flower, color, or texture.  A favorite pot, a memory of a garden from another place or time can provide a place to start.  For this container design, I started with my two Julias.  Julia the Mom from whom I inherited a love for flowers, and Julia, my friend.  Friend Julia is a plant afficianado-whether it be a dwarf evergreen, a flower, or a tree.  She spent 20 minutes with me a few weeks ago, extolling the virtue of a new osteospermum called 3D.

3d silver daisy

I decided to design a container around this particular plant. Her enthusiastic praise for its performance was compelling.  The flowers stay open all day-a decided improvement over older varieties.  They bloom strongly all season long; I like this too.  But I was intrigued by the color-an icy white, and a purple that was decidedly on the red violet side.  I laid a few plants out in the driveway, so I could take a closer look.

 

petunia White Russian

Julia was equally keen about a new petunia called White Russian.  Why not see if both flowers would work in the same arrangement?  After all, a pair of great plants might making for a smashing container.  But right off the bat, there was trouble.  Not all whites are created equal.  Color in nature is infinitely varied.  Some color combinations I find more appealing than others.  These two whites together did nothing for each other.

petunia White Russian

The brilliant, almost luminescent white of the daisy looked wrong with the flat white of the White Russian petunia.  The petunia took on a rather lifeless greyish look-to my eye.  But until I had some more plant choices in place, I wouldn’t rule out the combination.

annual heliotrope

Adding heliotrope to the mix was jarring.  The flower is a blue based purple-not at all like the carmine in the daisy.  This was a combination that made everyone look bad.  It looked bad to me-that is.  Everyone sees color very differently.  Whern in doubt-trust your own eye.  It also seemed that having a fine floret sized texture would be better underneath the daisy, rather than on top.  I eliminated the heliotrope.

euphorbia Diamnond Frost

A pot of Euphorbia Diamond Frost moved the arrangement in a better direction.  The bright white color was the right white.  But even better is its contrasting texture.  The daisy has a rather stiff habit in both leaf and flower.  The euphorbia has a fluttery, sparkly texture that would loosen up the composition.  As a centerpiece in a pot, the euphorbia would grow fairly tall and wide-as will this osteo.  They would be fairly evenly matched.

tricolor sage

On a whim I tried adding Cirrus dusty miller to the mix, but the leaf size was overpowering.  A tricolor saga had a little more grace, and that same blue green color that contrasts so well with red violet.  A salvia Cathedral sky blue-the wrong color altogether flower wise, and the leaves were not blue enough.  I thought briefly about some lavender, but if the 3D daisy was to be the star of the show, all of the other colors and textures should be chosen in visual deference to that idea.

cirrus dusty miller

I have a small group of plants here, with a bigger collection of rejects.  I see Rob do this all the time when he is trying to help someone design a container.  He groups plants together.  Then he adds this, and subtracts that until he gets a composition that looks right.

variegated licorice

After putting away all of the flowers that were not going to work, I added some variegated licorice to my group.  That cool green looked good with the sage, and the cool whites.

carex frosted curls

Carex comans Frosted Curls is a very similar color to the licorice, but an entirely different texture.  The delicate blades of grass would be in concert with the habit of the euphorbia.  At this point the arrangement has a subtle and delicate coloration, and just enough contrast to have visual interest.  Subtle does not mean sleepy.

supertunia mini silver

The White Russian petunias proved to be too sleepy.  I switched them out for the supertunia mini silver.  It is a small flowered petunia that grows vigorously.  Those sturdy stems and that vigorous blooming would be a great contrast to the euphorbia.  It would also add a lot of color to the sage/licorice/grass mix.  In a container, I would alternate the petunia with the licorice, and then the grass.  A mix of 3 plants is much more lively and interesting than a mix of 2.

persian shield

Were I to plant a large container with this scheme, I would want to introduce a plant that would grow larger.  A Persian Shield would grow very large, so there would need to be multiple plants of the Diamond frost and 3D daisy.  The numbers of this plant versus that is about balancing the composition.  Little plants may need a bigger voice via greater numbers.

white dahlias

I could also add a white dahlia to the mix, meaning my daisy would have to become part of the supporting cast.  What I like about the dahlia idea is the yellow derived from the bud color, and center of the flower.  It would bring out the red-violet in the other flowers, and contrast with the cool greens in the foliage plants.

nicotiana saratoga white

I still liked the idea of the floret sized flower in this container.  Alyssum, whether it was white, citron, or red violet, would do a great job of that.  Even a mix of all of the colors would work well.

butterflies boston daisy

I could revisit the pale yellow idea with a flower that was smaller and less overbearing than a dahlia.  The butterflies boston daisy has a habit and size more in keeping with all of the other plant choices.

container garden design

The nursery industry has gone to great trouble and expense to include tags in their plant pots.  These tags will give you a brief overview of the eventual size of the plant, and the light and water it will require.  Taking advantage of this information means you will avoid making cultural mistakes.  Making sure you have the right neighborhood in mind for all of your residents will help your container to prosper.  I do think I am ready to plant up this pot.