Planning The Pots



Reluctantly, I planted my first pots, this past Friday..  I was reluctant, as the overnight temperature was 46 degrees.  At 9am, just 52 degrees.  But this particular client spends most of the summer on the east coast.  She needs an early planting, so I am happy to oblige.  She knows there could be damage from cold-she is willing to risk it. She has every hope that when she gets back in late summer that her pots will still look good. What looks good early that goes on to look good late-that is a tall order.  I choose the plants that go in her pots carefully.  This means plants that can shake off the cold.  Plants that have staying power. And a great soil in which to plant.  No begonias or coleus or caladiums for her.  Good planning in the beginning makes for good results.  The big idea here-know your habits, your inclinations, your summer schedule, your availability to look after them-then plan to plant your pots accordingly.

summer planting

I am very concerned that whatever gets planted produces good results.  I am sure you are wondering why I am so interested in results-as if planting summer pots was a competition.  But there is a very real competition going on.  A love of the idea of a gardening life-lots of people favor this.  But then there is the reality.  The expense and trouble versus the effort and the result-every gardener has had that moment when they weigh the effort against the results.   A summer planting that falls down and fails is discouraging.  A successful planting encourages a gardener to keep going, and expand their relationship with the garden.  I like the idea that successful container plantings can encourage people to garden on.  Abject failure makes the time and money involved the most important issue.  I like the benefits of gardening to be the most important issue.

summer-planting.jpgGreat container plantings revolve around three issues.  First and foremost-who are you?  Are you a do it yourself gardener?  Do you work a job, or have kids? Are you a professional designer with clients who expect you to handle the summer season for them?  Are you a person that loves green best of all?  Do you have the time to individually and carefully water, or are you interested that your irrigation system do the watering work?  Are you all in?  Are you new to an interest in the garden?

summer annual planting

This why I favor advance planning.  I like to know how my clients see the garden.  This helps me to plan for them.  A planting that answers the needs of a specific gardener is the right planting.  If you are planting for yourself-ask the same questions.  Ask lots of questions of yourself-before you buy the first plant.   Answer them, as true as you can.  The second issue-where have you placed the containers?  At the front door under a porch roof?  On the pool deck?  In a shady bed?  Narrow your plant choices to those plants that will thrive in the conditions that you have. At my shop, the sun plants are in the sun, and the shade plants are in the shade-this makes choosing the right plants easy.  Most nurseries do the same that I do.  Most plants have care tags in the pots-read, before you leap. Plants are very specific about what they want, and if they don’t get it, they will languish.


Are you a good and faithful waterer? Do you relax, deadheading and grooming your pots?  Do you have little time to devote to the maintenance of your summer plantings?  Are you easy going about the relationships that develop in a container planting, or are you interested in being in charge start to finish?  Do you have pots big enough to handle a day without watering in the heat of the summer?  Do you have easy access to your window boxes?  Will you look after those pots as soon as your family has been looked after?  Are you up north in the heat of the summer?  This is the third issue-are you on top of the maintenance of summer annuals?



Detroit Garden Works-everyone who works for me is ready and willing to help you with a summer planting scheme. But no one knows your summer life better than you do.  Every gardener’s summer  is different.  I so value the diversity expressed by the gardening community. This said, tell your story.  Your story, and our story, in concert, might make for some really  beautiful summer containers.  This is a fancy way of saying that my group likes meeting people face to face.  I will repeat this, as it is so important.  Be willing to tell your story.  A story understood mean a plan with success in its future.

window box

The plants are growing fast-how I love how they look.  I am thinking non stop-what will I plant?    What will you plant for summer this year?


Some Like It Hot

cardigan welsh corgi

The blisteringly hot and persistent heat of the past week has made many a gardener, and the above pictured corgi, miserable.  Howard, who would not set foot outside the door if he thought he would get his feet wet, had an alternate plan for yesterday.  Strong winds were pushing water over the coping of my fountain.  He doesn’t look all that thrilled with his situation, but he had no plans to go elsewhere either. I had to laugh, watching him stand with obvious annoyance in a few inches of water.  Just like the rest of us, there was no getting around the heat.    


It may be stating the obvious, but plants evolve in response to their environment.  Though last week’s Garden Designers Roundtable topic focused on texture in the landscape, there was quite a bit of discussion about how the surface of a leaf says everything about a mechanism for survival.  I had never really thought about it before, but plants that live in environments where rain is extremely scarce have evolved to minimize the evaporation of water.  Those leaves are thick skinned.  Tropical plants where rain is frequent and heavy can survive just fine with thin and jumbo sized leaves.    

Petunias are native to Argentina.  Many species of helichrysum, like the variegated licorice pictured above, are native to South Africa.  The blue-green frosted curls sedge is a cool season grass, meaning it grows best before the advent of hot weather, and after the cessation of hot weather.  It tolerates, but does not grow much, in really hot weather.  These plants are equipped to handle the heat.

sunny window boxes

Most of the plants I use in containers are hybrids of non-native, tropical plants.  The petunias like to be grown on the dry side, and usually do well in the heat of our summers.  They come from places that are routinely hot.  New Zealand sedges, of which the hybrid Frosted Curls is an example, are native to a far more temperate zone than mine. They can tolerate our midsummer heat.  But not all heat is created equal.  Extreme heat is one thing, but extreme heat that goes on for an extremely long time takes a toll.

heat loving annuals.jpg

The petunias are fine, and growing lushly-at the moment.  They are dealing with this weather far better than I.  The white mandevillea will sit until the weather gets hot-they are native to central and South America.  Many mandevilleas are native to Brazil.  They grow and bloom like crazy in hot climates.  I expect this white mandevillea will get bigger and bloom more should our hot weather persist.  Nicotiana species can be found in environements all over the globe.  I find mine do quite well over the summer, and rebloom profusely.  Nicotiana mutabilis in particular will rev up in the fall, and send out substantial new flowering stalks.


Cassia didymobotrya is commonly known as the popcorn plant.  The fragrance of buttered popcorn is strikingly apparent, should you run your fingers across the stems and leaves.  It is a shrub, native to South America, that will grow 4 to 6 feet tall in one season.  They may grow larger, given a hot season.  They make a substantial showing in a container garden.  They throw yellow flowers on and off all summer. I am particularly fond of the pea-type leaves.  Cassia is a tropical plant with a very airy appearance.  Planted in a cast iron cistern placed at the edge of our asphalt street, it looks stress free, and is growing well.

Texas sage topiary

Texas sage is as it suggests-it thrives under desert conditions.  I have never had a leucophyllum bloom for me, but perhaps this year I will get lucky.  They like desert conditions, but oddly enough require some humidity to bloom well.  I cannot believe the usual Michigan humidity is far behind. I know that many grey foliaged plants are native to dry places.    Lavenders and grey salvias will not tolerate too much water for long. 

I do know there can come a point when heat can severely damage plants.  The first line of defense against life threatening damage is to go dormant.  Both plants and animals will aestivate, meaning they slow down their activity, in order to conserve moisture and energy.  Petunias and impatiens will go out of flower, if they temperatures get too hot, and stay too hot. Our drought-like conditions are not helping one bit with the effects of the heat.  Many lawns in my area have gone brown and dormant-they are aestivating.  Should the soil temperature gets too high, roots can literally cook.  I remember a summer in the mid eighties where many growers in the Cleveland area lost nursery stock from soil temperatures that soared over 100 degrees.  There is nothing that can be done to defend against extreme weather like this.

white nicotiana

The best I can do to help my plants survive a bout of unusually hot weather is to water them when they need it. Even if that means I am outside with a hose when I would rather be anywhere else.  So far, so good. 


Planting Window Boxes

A window box is just about my most favorite container to plant.  They represents the best of all possible worlds.  The planting area is larger than most containers; I like having lots of space to plant.  This means lots of possibilities.  Window boxes come without any of the headache of planting large areas in ground.  My ground holds water too long.  Standing up to plant is a treat.  Having planted all manner of plants in the ground the past 30 years, I like having a big body of soil, and a raft of plants, at eye level.  The year I broke my leg, this feature was especially appreciated.

These boxes we built and mounted on the exterior wall of a sun porch.  The view from inside is swell. The Persian Queen geraniums, petunias, sweet potato vine and what all else is in these boxes can be easily appreciated at eye level.   

Many of the boxes I plant, I have constructed. My main complaint with commercially available windowboxes is that they are not correctly sized to their companion, the window.  They are often too narrow, too shallow, and too short-perfect for UPS shipping regulations, but not so great for your garden. A window box needs to be generously sized; a big soil mass will hold water long enough for you take a breather once in a while from your watering chores.  If your idea is to have a back row of plants, a middle row, and a front finishing row, the box needs to be 12 inches wide.  I like 16 inches deep-lots of soil and drainage material.   I like even better a box which is longer that the window in question.  Ths permits tall plants on the outside edges that do not obscure your view out.  My shop boxes are sized this way.  I had room this particular season for datura, cardoons, and cup and saucer vines growing on the walls.     

One year I grew white mandevillea on wires on either side of the windows.  OK, I was not much looking out of my windows at this point in the summer.  But the view is entirely in your control-maybe your boxes need to be mounted to the wall lower that you think.  Think about the mature height of the flowers-where do you want that to be? I like my boxes on the wild side-the Sonata white cosmos and lime nicotiana grow large.  My boxes are plenty large enough to handle them .  

Second story window boxes have a very European flavor.  I am sure you have seen those pictures of window boxes stuffed with trailing geraniums on homes and businesses in Switzerland, or the window boxes on the shop walls in London.  The planting of window boxes dates back to Roman times, when wall hung boxes were used to grow herbs.  The first gardens were of course devoted to growing things to eat.  Later, gardens were also devoted to ornamental plants.-I can think of nothing else that will dress a window better for summer than a box stuffed with flowers. 

The generous size of a windowbox means you can explore a planting idea in greater depth. Should you be interested in exploring color relationships, you have the opportunity to introduce various shade variations on a theme.   If your point of view tends to the contemporary, a box full of one favorite architectural might be just the thing.  Should a cottage style garden interest you, a big box will permit you to go wild to your heart’s content.

Most annual plants are happy in a big box.  The soil is good, the drainage is even better.  The plants are easy to groom and dead head.  The landscape at the shop-trees in the ground, and a decomposed granite covered ground plane.  The only flowers I have are from the 7 window boxes, and containers that I plant.  The overall impression is of a profusely flowering garden. 

The boxes put the flowers above the level of the boxwood hedge; it is easy to see them.  The 11 boxes on the roof can be seen from blocks away.  Granted that your taste in gardens may not run to this level of exuberance, but I see part of my job as encouraging people to take up gardening.  And that one’s choices of plant material and combinations are many.  

This lime, brown and lavender box had a moody feedling to it-I still like it.  I cannot remember the name of the copper flowered nicotiana, but it was beautiful.  The color of brown sweet potato vine looks great with other colors besides lime-I like it with orange, yellow, and cerise justg as well. 

The first year that Perfume Purple nicotiana came out, I was entranced with the color.  This box was composed around that one plant.  That red-purple color is very unusual-I shoopped all over for plants that might compliment that color. The red markings on the Persian Shield was much the color of the nicotiana. The lavender star verbena and petunia of unknown name did a good job of repeating that color as a pastel version.  The blue-green succulent I recently learned is a senecio, and a blue-foliaged kalanchoe (??)  seemed like a good foil.  What will I do in the boxes this year?  Don’t know yet.