Choosing Containers

Strictly speaking any object that can hold soil and permit water to drain away constitutes a container. The choices are infinite, really. A container planting that considers the size, shape and style of the container as an essential part of the overall effect is especially beautiful to my eye. A choice of container represents a gardener’s point of view as much as the plants they choose. If a cottage garden, and the notion of farm to table enchants you, then a collection of vintage pails, washtubs and crates planted up with flowers and herbs will help to make that point of view visually stronger. If the architecture of your home is clean, crisp and contemporary, then pots of that ilk will look right at home.

If a whiff of history is your idea of a great fragrance, then antique or reproduction antique pots will serve your point of view well. If a planting that flows over the edges of a pot all the way to the ground represents your style and and sense of beauty, then go for simple containers that afford plenty of planting square footage for your sprawling plants. This is all by way of saying that taking the time and effort to find containers that strongly appeal to your aesthetic and style of gardening is time well spent. An enthusiasm for your containers is infectious. It will not only inspire your design and choice of plants, but it will be an insistent call to keep your plantings healthy and growing.

Choose containers that are suited to their placement. Pots on the front porch need to be proportional to the size of the porch an entry way. Front porch pots and plantings that compliment the architecture and can be seen from the sidewalk are welcoming. Pots on an outdoor dining terrace should be scaled such that the plantings are near eye level to seated guests. Containers that screen an untoward view get a leg up from some extra height and width. A container on an outdoor dining table should be low enough to encourage conversation back and forth. A container set in the landscape needs to have sufficient size and interest to stand out, and command attention. A great pot can provide a little pomp and circumstance to an awkward garden transition.

I recommend containers with substantial planting area. A decent amount of dirt space means an idea about color, texture, mass and contrast can be thoroughly explored. This is not to say that a tall oval glazed pot with room only for one 8″ pot can’t carry the day. It can. It is the gardener that has to choose the pot that best represents the style they wish to convey. I like lots of room, so I can put together a collection of seasonal plants that have enough room to grow up together, interact, and shine. Big containers mean a big soil mass. Large pots make it easier to maintain a sufficient moisture level throughout the heat of the summer. A pot that will forgive you if you are late taking up the hose is a pot worth having. Small pots that need water several times a day would not work for me. I work long days, and coming home to a container whose plants are flopped over from lack of water makes my stomach churn. Water stressed plants stress me. Big pots?  Bring them on.

Knowing the gardener in you through and through should inform your choice of pots. A beautiful pot is a sculpture that invites the addition of plants to complete its beauty. Or not. A beautiful pot, sitting empty in a landscape, can be breathtaking. Great pots can be addressed by a gardener any number of ways. But no matter the planting or the not planting, that pot is an ornament for the garden that should be a treasure.

A collection of great pots can be had all at once, or assembled over a period of time. Some great pots are inherited, or come from a county flea market. Others have been stowed away in a shed, unused, for years. Still others can be repurposed from a kitchen or barn. The pots pictured above are made from recycled tires.

Recycled containers, especially those made from galvanized metal, are a favorite of Rob’s. They are a great addition to a cottage style garden. They look equally at home in a more contemporary setting. The steel in these vintage containers is much thicker and more weather resistant than sheet metal containers being manufactured now. Will these eventually show signs of the galvanized layer wearing thin?  Probably. But considering that these are already in excess of 40 years old, I don’t see that happening any time soon.

Vintage and reproduction pots can have just as much charm as antique ones-especially if they have been outdoors long enough to have acquired a patina of lichens or moss.  The lichens on the rim of this vintage pot will spring back into action, as soon as they are exposed to weather.

Weathering is an inevitable consequence of being outdoors. Any surface which absorbs water can provide a foothold for colonies of small plants. For those gardeners who like a clean look, choose pots with a surface that resist the weather. Glazed or enameled pots do not absorb water from the outside. They can easily be cleaned with soap and water. Pots that do not absorb water do not breathe.  This means water only evaporates from the surface of the soil that is exposed at the top. This is a good choice of container for the gardener who has a long list of responsibilities besides watering every day. I helped such a gardener pick pots some years ago. She fills a collection of waterproof containers every year with waterlilies, lotus and floater plants.

The right pots? You’ll know when you see them, and can’t forget about them.

The Summer Container Plantings

The demand for landscape design and installation has been one after the other this spring.  I am sure you can tell, given how few and far between my posts have been of late. Our persistently chilly weather has given way to some gardening friendly weather. Suddenly, the summer container planting season is here, and my board is chock full of projects that will need doing beautifully, and with dispatch. The summer plantings begin later in May, and finish up in late June.  Late June? The spring plantings are just beginning to come in to their own now. Clients with spring plantings are not in a rush to plant seasonal tropicals. Given that tropical plants dislike cold temperatures, and hate cold soil, a spring planting can stave off that urge to plant summer containers too early.
Of special interest to me is the unique role played by containers in the landscape. No news here,should you be familiar with Detroit Garden Works. For 23 years now, the shop has been a premier source for great ornament for the garden.  I am happy to say that our reputation in recent years has become a a national phenomenon. Jackie deals with clients all over the country, and manages a steady stream of shipments going out. The shop website is good, and easy to navigate. Jenny keeps it fresh and lively.

Of course the lion’s share of our focus is on containers of every conceivable period and style. Vintage dolly tubs and new locust wood casks belted with galvanized steel rub elbows with a select collection of European and American antique urns. Of course the choice of a container is a significant factor in container planting. It is as much an important part of the container arrangement as the plants. That empty container represents the opportunity to throw a party in celebration of summer. The limited square footage imposed by the edges of a container means the design idea has to be simple. And it has to be visually strong.The plants need to be companionable, or at least tolerant of one another. Container plantings at war with nature make me uneasy. Given the almost limitless number of plants that can thrive in a container, it would take several gardening lifetimes to even make a dent in all of the possibilities.

A container planting matures in but a few months. What a pleasure to be able to watch that process. Mercifully, it all comes to an end with a hard frost. One can abandon a scheme that disappointed. Or explore a new idea come the new season. A collection of containers is a visual diary of what is on a gardener’s mind at that moment. A landscape and garden involves a long term commitment. There is strategy and planning involved. Decisions that are made one year are not so easy to change years later. An old tree that succumbs to an illness or bugs can make for chaos in the garden below. Growing a landscape on can feel like a full time job. The blooming of the double bloodroot, dogwoods, lilacs and peonies are ephemeral, but the gardener gets to enjoy them year after year, barring a disaster. A collection of containers set within that landscape keeps the garden dialogue fresh and interesting.

Containers do not need to be large to be good. I still like this planting, 10 years after the fact. I like the color of the gold marjoram complements the color of the glaze. The lavender star trailing verbena is a lively contrast to the yellow petunias.  The overall shape is relaxed, and proportional to the container.  Small containers ask for small growing plants.

Hot sunny places are the perfect location for seasonal plants. The profuse bloom on these petunias and mandevillea speaks to those conditions. Seasonal tropical plants are a way to have flowers every day all season long. The plastic liner in this wicker basket helps to keep the wicker from deteriorating from constant exposure to moisture. And that plastic means a basket this size will not require watering every day in the heat of the summer.

Double white petunias are leggy, and those legs are not so attractive. Pairing them with euphorbia Diamond Frost disguises that unfortunate trait, and holds up those heavy double flower heads. The datura  provides a contrasting texture both in leaf and flower.

This wooden trough features a large collection of different plants, all arranged in a very informal way.  Insouciant in feeling, this.

Any container planting can be endowed with a contemporary feeling-the design plays a major role in that.

Lush and lavish by summer’s end speaks to months of consistent maintenance. For those whose life means picking up a hose comes last, an irrigation contractor can install watering lines that can buy you some time. If the need for low maintenance is a deterrent to planting, many tropical plants don’t need dead heading, staking or frequent water. A clear understanding of what kind of gardener you are can inform the plant selection process. The big idea is to enjoy the process as much as the results.

 

I planted trees, shrubs and perennials in my own pots last year. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed that. What will I do this year? I do not have a clue, yet.

A Blast From The Past

Anyone familiar with my garden knows I am a fan of evergreen plants. That makes sense. I live in a gardening zone notorious for its lengthy off season. Not only are our winters long, but our early spring and late fall can also be cold and anything but green. So I grow yews, and arborvitae, and of course, boxwood. A landscape that has something to say all year round is a good landscape. I would say the signs of spring probably presented themselves seriously a week ago or so.  The maples in the tree lawn are dusted with their chartreuse blooms. The grass began greening up. The hydrangeas in the foreground of the picture about are just beginning to leaf out. My large concrete pots are more visually important now than they will be at any other time during the season. They are beautiful, just so. unplanted. But the front yard landscape at this moment is really all about the boxwood. It is green and robust in much the same way it has been all winter.

The boxwood is quick to shed its winter coloration, as are the arborvitae, yews, and the old spruce in the background of the above picture.  I never tire of any of the evergreens, as the weather from one event to the next changes their appearance. The surfaces of the evergreens shimmering with rain drops in the spring is as beautiful as those same surfaces hatted by leaves in the fall, and snow in the winter. They are a crucial part of my landscape.

The role they play is never easier to see than it is now.  I can walk between the pruned and leafless hydrangeas, and see what a prominent role they play in the landscape. And I can even more appreciate the longevity of that service. Most of my boxwood at least 15 years old.

But cultivating evergreens in very cold climates comes with a price. The street side of my boxwood paints a different picture.  Extremely cold and windy winters can damage them. It is important to water evergreens well before winter. Once the ground freezes, the roots will have no opportunity to absorb water again until spring. Needled evergreens present very little surface area to the elements. That structure helps them to naturally conserve moisture over the winter. Though boxwood leaves are small, they are much more broad and thin compared to evergreen needles.  Extremely cold and windy weather can can quickly desiccate the leaves. If you have ever had a cut boxwood wreath on your front door for the holidays, you are aware of how incredibly long cut boxwood branches stay green. The same is true for cut evergreen boughs, or Christmas trees. This damage I am seeing now occurred months ago. The return of the warmer weather is revealing the result of terribly cold weather we had the end of January.

The polar vortex which occurred in January of 2019 is again part of the conversation. The intense cold that gripped a significant portion of the northern midsection of the US set records for cold and wind chills in a number places. I do know what I was doing then. I stayed at home, and only let the dogs out for a few minutes at a time. It was the coldest recorded winter temperature event for Chicago in 25 years.

From Wikipedia   “In late January 2019, a severe caused by a weakened around the Arctic hit the and , killing at least 22 people. It came after a brought up to 13 inches (33 cm) of snow in some regions from January 27–29, and brought the coldest temperatures in over 20 years to most locations in the affected region, including some all-time record lows. In early February, the polar vortex moved west, and became locked over Western Canada and the Western United States. As a result, February 2019 was among the coldest and snowiest on record in these regions. In early March, the cold once again shifted east, breaking records in many areas. In mid-March, the cold wave finally retreated, but combined with above-average temperatures, precipitation, and a deep snowpack, ensued in the Central US.” Yes, it was a vicious weather event.

The impact of that extremely cold weather is beginning to be seen. I was faint with surprise when I saw the entire top of this picea mucrunata was dead. If you look up the phrase  “top of my spruce is dead”, most articles cite winter winds and extreme cold first. I see no eveidence of disease or insect damage. Could the polar vortex be to blame?

Of course the time to think about safeguarding evergreens from winter damage is in the fall. I have never seen damage on the boxwood cultivar “Winter Gem”. I plant it extensively now. I rarely plant “Green Velvet” anymore, which is the cultivar I have at home. Thankfully it rarely gets any damage, as I live in a neighborhood where the wind is broken by multiple buildings that surround my landscape, and the sun is tempered by large trees. I have never seen winter damage on boxwood that has been sprayed to the dripping point with VaporGard in the fall. A dry day when the daytime temperature is above 50 produces optimum coverage. Later in the fall, a windbreak of burlap can help. I would have never thought to protect my spruce, but maybe I should. A last bit about the boxwood.  Given the extreme cold we have had in the past years, the price of boxwood has skyrocketed. Replacing my damaged boxwood will be very expensive. Hopefully I will remember this day come the fall.

On a positive note, the below freezing temperatures and snow forecast for this past weekend never materialized. I am pleased to report my magnolia stellata is still in full bloom.

The Cloister Style Pergola, Part Two

You may not have read in November of last year a post about a landscape renovation that we have had underway since June of 2018. A part of this project in process involves the design and fabrication of a large scale cloister style pergola. The story behind the design and fabrication? Click here for the details.   the design and fabrication of a steel cloister The 2018 story concluded with that moment when 18 tons of steel sections and parts finally made their way to the site for installation. Of note was the fact that wet weather necessitated building a road back to the installation site. A structure of this size had to be assembled on site, so Buck engineered it to be put together and set up one section at a time. Just before Thanksgiving, a large boom crane moved in for the duration, as each section of the structure would be far too heavy to maneuver by hand.

It was slow going. The weather was bitterly cold and muddy. The finished size of this structure is 47 feet long by 36′ wide. I have no idea how many pieces there were in total, but there were enough to call the installation of this pergola a puzzle of enormous size. To make every section line up perfectly so it could be bolted to the previous section was daunting. The process made my eyes water.

Eventually the structure took shape. Seeing it go up was an experience like no other I have ever had as a designer. The model I built my client was the size of a piece of copy paper- 8.5″ by 11″. Of course the model did not at all describe the actual structure that was to enclose 1700 square feet. The model was a not so accurate expression of a structure as it was an attempt to express an idea of the landscape shot through with romance. What?? Romance is my middle name. Ha. As much as I admire classic French landscapes for their edited expression, and coolly compelling geometry, Italian gardens and landscapes have that element of romance that I find irresistible. As for this steel cloister, suffice it to say the design is as more about my client and her love of the garden than anything else. Though I had spent hours going over every proportion and detail, at some point I had to commit to a design. And a presentation of that design to my client. In May of last year, she decided to go ahead and build.

Cloister? In its simplest form, a cloister is a covered walkway. This structure has a six foot wide walkway all the way around the perimeter. That walkway is covered by roof panels constructed in an open and elongated diamond pattern. The cover will provide some shade, but will permit light and rain to come through. That pattern is repeated on the fascia panels at the top. There are 32 round columns, each of which is bolted to a concrete foundation that goes 42″ deep into the ground. Between each pair of columns is a pair of curved steel brackets. This curved detail compliments the roundness of the columns, and the solid steel spheres that ornament the structure.

Buck’s first drawing of the cloister showed square columns. The look on his face when I told him that I wanted round columns was an unmistakable sign that I was asking for the moon.  After he explained that engineering flat surfaces to perfectly line up and be attached to a curved surface would be just about impossible, I paused. The roof and fascia panels would be built from round rod, and each panel would feature steel spheres. The round columns would be essential in giving a structure of this size a graceful appearance. The architecture of this stately old home was not asking for an industrial look. Please? He relented.

Buck did a superb job of engineering, and his group did an equally fine job of fabricating. My client took this photograph and the following one after a snow storm this past winter. I was delighted to see how the snow outlined and described every detail of the structure. It will be a feature of the landscape every season of the year. As planned, the cover over the walkway was permeable to both light and water. In the immediate foreground of this picture is the roof of a very simple version of the cloister over the dining and grilling terrace that is directly adjacent to the house.

The snow made it easier to see the long diamonds and dots pattern on the roof, fascia panels, and the main entrances into the space.

Now that the long winter is over, we are back on the project. I have every confidence that come late May, this landscape will be ready for her to enjoy. We have little to do in the interior of the pergola. Bringing up the soil level to grade, planting the roses, installing the edger strip and grass is about it. The irrigation in this area is underway, and the tile for the fountain pool is due in May first.

This was the first time I had seen the completed structure since the work began. I was thrilled with how it looked. And incredibly appreciative to have a client who made it possible. Their are limestone stepping stones yet to come. I had the roses custom grown several years ago. Dan and David have been growing them on, so we would have plants of some size from the beginning. The furniture and pots for this area have been in storage at our landscape building since last September. Though I will probably post about this project again when the landscape is complete, this is a very special moment for my entire group. The best part?  Our client is pleased.


In the homestretch now.

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