Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Grouping Containers

What’s better than one container? Two containers! (Or more). Yet putting together a group of containers can be daunting for some. Do they have to match? Should there be an odd number? Do I need symmetry?

A classic group of three containers; the same elegant
color and finish yet the variety in texture makes this
more interesting. The largest container is planted as
the focal point with the smallest having just a single
New Zealand flax to achieve balance and a sense of
order. My design.

At the end of the day, if you like them, they’re fine. Unless container design is your profession then stop worrying! Just play with placement and move things around until you’re happy. Here are a few tips that might help get your started and take some of the guesswork out of it though.

Do all the pots have to match?

These three rustic containers are
clustered together, yet the larger pot on
left is brown whereas the others are dark
red. Since they share the same style and
 are a similar shape the group works well.
My design

Well think of your interior furnishings. The days of the traditional ‘three piece suite’ for the living room are long gone. Certainly a matching set can be used but the main thing is to have all the pots relate to each other somehow.

I start by assembling a group that has the same style i.e. rustic, contemporary or traditional. Typically that decision is driven by the architectural style of the home itself as well as the setting. 
Style? WACKY! Color? LOTS! So why does this work?
The rooster is the key element here and all the colors
relate to him. In addition, each color is somehow found
in each container, whether in plants or artwork (or
peacock feathers in the tallest one!)
My design.

Next I consider color. Again the initial choice needs to take the surroundings into account. I may choose to have all the pots in a rustic red or perhaps a rustic blue, brown and red grouped together. Either can be made to work. In the latter case, in order for the association to remain strong between all the pots I would include red and blue flowers or foliage in each of the pots to tie things together.

Shape and texture are two aspects that I find homeowners are most nervous about – relax! If you have taken account of the above tips on style and color then you’re already heading in the right direction. Varying both the shape and texture adds interest to a grouping. You might choose to combine containers which are smooth, ribbed or dimpled, or keep a sleek non-embellished look for all. Either can look elegant or informal depending upon your other choices but for a contemporary look I will always choose simple shapes and clean lines. 

These two black cauldrons are the same size
and each is raised to the same height. This
duo visually reads as a single unit however
as the container to the right is planted
more simply and acts as a supporting player
to the star. My design

The main problem with placing a group of containers together which are all the same size is that you won’t be able to see the ones at the back. You can easily cheat by raising pots up on small outdoor tables, platforms, bricks or even upturned pots to stagger the heights. The ‘workings’ will be hidden as the plants grow in.

Do I have to use an odd number of pots?

Of all the misconceptions this one is the biggest. The short answer is NO! If a group of 2 looks awkward try adding a unique third element such as a gazing ball or other piece of small statuary. Maybe an over-sized hurricane lamp with a candle to match the design will add the final touch? Perhaps add something which relates to your culture or travels such as a decorative Indian elephant or some Balinese wood sculptures.

Although the two middle cedar planters are identical, 
those on the outside are each a different size.
This custom group was designed to resemble the
gentle shape of a garden border with varying 
depth and height. My design

What about symmetry?

Some people love strong symmetry and others prefer an asymmetrical look – either can be made to work. I recently had an interesting challenge where I was adding containers to a beautiful home entrance, flanked by two pillars. The obvious thing to do was add one container to each side. However the homeowners felt that perhaps this was a little too much of a good thing taking into consideration other containers nearby. The solution in this case was easy. The front door, seen beyond the pillars was not centered on the pillars themselves but slightly to the left. We therefore kept one large container by the left pillar and added a smaller but otherwise identical container to the right of the door. This moved the eye diagonally through the space, making a strong connection between the two but eliminating the need for symmetry.
Do you have an overabundance of small containers? Try grouping them around a feature such as a birdbath or fountain or use them to line outdoor stairs. Many years ago in France I was struck by the sight of humble red geraniums in bleached terracotta pots, lining a flight of weathered stone steps. There was beauty in the simplicity.

Three identical containers in style, color, dimensions and
contents, each planted symmetrycally. These clean lines
and repetition ties into the contemporary
architecture of the home.
My design.

So assess you containers with new eyes. How can you group them to get a greater impact? Do you need to ‘retire’ a few for the sake of a more cohesive look? Perhaps a shopping trip is in order? Whatever you do have fun, add plants and enjoy your creation.

Containers in photos 1, 2 and 6 are from AW pottery

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Getting the ‘Abundant’ Look in Small Gardens

I have a ‘no bare earth’ policy when it comes to my garden. I don’t want to see the soil – just lots of billowing mounds of color and interesting textures. My excuse (as if I need one) is that the weeds aren’t a problem as you either can’t see them or they’re 3’ tall when finally spotted so I don’t even have to bend down to yank them out!
'Graham Thomas' rose acts as a trellis for this clematis. 
A second, later blooming clematis could also be added to
extend the flowering season still further.

Getting this look is easy in deep borders where there’s lots of room to plant in tiers but what do you do in small spaces? The answer is in layering; either under or snuggled up close.

Spring bulbs are so welcome after months of grey skies. Sunny yellow daffodils and jewel toned crocus brighten up the garden for sure but leave a gap when they have finished blooming - or worse still their dying foliage is visible for all to see. It’s easy to solve this by planting other things directly on top of these bulbs or just slightly to one side. These bulbs will easily push through fine root systems of most grasses and perennials creating a multi-layered effect. 
Japanese forest grass hides the spring
blooming grape hyacinths as they
become dormant.

Crocus and grape hyacinths (Muscari) naturalize freely in garden borders and their sweeps of color can be spectacular. Plant these underneath the cascading Japanese fountain grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’) for example and just as the bulbs fade the grass begins to grow, hiding the yellowing leaves and allowing them to go dormant naturally. A bit like sweeping the dust under the rug!

Tulips can be a little trickier as depending upon the variety they may bloom quite late in the season. I get around this by placing them next to perennials with large foliage. When the tulips finish flowering I cut their tall stems by half and then allow nearby perennials to grow up over the rest. ‘Princess Irene’ tulips work well with ‘Peach flambé’ heuchera as there is a perfect color echo between the rich coppery tones of the tulip flowers and heuchera foliage, while the glaucous tulip leaves provide contrast. As April turns to May the heuchera put on new growth so quickly divert attention away from the spent tulips as well as covering the last of their stalks.

Perfect color partners; Princess Irene tulips
and 'Peach flambe' Heuchera

I love to grow bleeding hearts (Dicentra spectabilis) in the shade garden and their arching wands of delicate pink and white flowers bring joy every spring. The lacy foliage is reminiscent of ferns but sadly only lasts until mid summer. For a few months however they will make a lovely companion to bolder leaved hostas which in turn will eventually fill the gap left behind by the bleeding hearts. Make the most of their brief association by using a green and white variegated hosta such as ‘Francee’ which will repeat the white of the flowers.

Ornamental onions explode like fireworks from a carpet
of white 'Biokovo' geraniums.

Ornamental onions (Alliums) have spectacular spherical flowers followed by equally beautiful seed heads. Sadly their foliage is already dying by the time the flowers open and the ugly yellow leaves don’t add much to garden design! Cutting them off looks even worse as the allium globes look like top heavy lollipops. The answer is to give them a carpet through which to grow such as a groundcover or low growing perennial. I pair geranium ‘Biokovo’ with 'Globemaster' alliums. The alliums look like purple sparklers held above a froth of white flowers. When the alliums go to seed and the stalks dry I snip off the spheres and set them directly on top of the geraniums to add a fun and unexpected accent – rather like adding garden art.

Magic waiting to happen

Another option is to grow them through the front of a small shrub such as a barberry. This taller variety of ornamental onion look like minarets against the golden foliage but the real magic will happen when the buds open, providing exciting color.

One of my favorite oriental poppies;
the frilly orange-red  'Turkenlouise'
Early blooming perennials can really leave a big hole by mid summer. Oriental poppies (Papaver orientalis) are magnificent with their oversized blowsy flowers in shades of white, pink, red and purple definitely making a statement in the garden during late May and June. When planting these add a group of coneflowers (Echinacea) or black eyed Susan’s (Rudbeckia) immediately adjacent. These don’t really get going until after the poppies have finished. Cut back the ratty poppy leaves and allow the other plants to hide the stalks, adding fresh color and a new look for mid-late summer.
Since coneflowers bloom late in the season
they are ideal candidates for filling in the
gaps left by earlier stars.

In a small garden everything has to earn its place and there is no room for part-timers! Witchhazel (Hamamelis mollis) is at its peak during fall and winter but doesn’t contribute a lot other than a green backdrop during the main summer season. I got around this by fronting it with the 5’ tall Joe Pye weed ‘Gateway’ (Eupatorium maculatum), ‘David’ phlox (Phlox paniculata) and a large fountain of green and white variegated maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Variegata'). As these grew they hid the witchhazel  from view all summer. By the time the perennials were past their best I could cut them down (in the case of the grass to about 2’ but the perennials were taken to the ground) revealing the yellow and orange fall colors of the witchhazel.

Make the most of taller plants and grow climbers through them. Roses and clematis are a classic combination or use a rose to support an annual climber such as sweet peas. Double the fragrance and twice the color from one small spot. When planting containers I often joke that if there is room for one more plant, I’ll add two. This is a similar philosophy. Go under, in front of or snuggle up close and you’ll have multiple plants and season of interest from the smallest patch – and no room for weeds.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Bellflowers of all Shapes & Sizes

I love the color blue and I love bell shaped flowers so the fact that I love bluebells will come as no surprise (read my 'Ramblings of a Romantic Gardener').
The perennial Serbian bellflower loves to cascade over large boulders and
rock walls.

My love affair doesn’t need to end so early in the season however. Did you know that there are many species, varieties and colors of the perennial bellflowers (Campanula) which range from just a few inches tall to over 5’ and offer blooms from May to September?
The dainty 'Fairy thimbles' is
reminiscent of the wildflower form

The babies of the bellflower world are at home in the rockery. Carpathian harebell (Campanula carpatica) is one of the most popular with ‘Blue clips’ and ‘White clips’ being favorite varieties. These bear large cup-shaped flowers from June-September and although they stay under 1’ tall they spread  to a tidy 2’ mound. Dead heading is a good idea if your back can handle it but otherwise they just ask for water and sunshine.

Fairy thimbles (Campanula cochlearifolia) is even daintier reaching just 3” high and being smothered in petite pendant bells in blue or white. It fills in gaps around boulders beautifully without ever being invasive.

Don’t even ask me to spell the next one; we’ll just call it Serbian bellflower! (OK for the botanists amongst you the ‘proper’ name is Campanula poscharskyana – I warned you.) This is the classic weed smothering, self seeding, nook and cranny filling bellflower. Some call it invasive but I just find it charming as it keeps on creeping but stays about 6” tall. When it eventually finishes blooming (I’m too lazy to dead head it) I just tug gently at the flowering stems and they come away cleanly leaving nice trim mounding plants. ‘Blue waterfall’ is a well known variety and as the name suggests it is fabulous when allowed to drape over rock walls and boulders.  I planted mine underneath the burgundy leaved ‘Bloodgood’ Japanese maple where it received morning sun.

Just plain funky! 'Pink Octopus' bellflower.
Photo credit; Heronswood nursery.

Then there are the weird ones which are neither bell shaped nor blue; ‘Pink Octopus’ is one example of a new hybrid which looks like waving tentacles. At 10-15” tall this is for the front of the border but is an upright grower rather than a spreader. It will certainly pique the curiosity of your garden-savvy neighbors.

Clustered bellflower forms a 
tidy clump in the perennial
For the middle of the border try clustered bellflower (Campanula glomerata) which grows spheres of deep blue bell shaped flowers on its 2’ tall, stout stems. The best known variety is the violet-blue ‘Superba’.

A little taller at 2-3' is the peach-leafed bellflower (Campanula persicifolia). To me these are an essential part of any English garden in both the periwinkle blue and pure white forms. If you snip off the dead flower directly behind each bloom (rather than the entire flowering stem) another flower will appear from that node in just a week or so. It’s a messy, rather sticky job but worth it for the extra flowers. I used to keep mine blooming until September doing this. Place them near a dark leaved bugbane (Cimifuga syn. Actaea) to add depth and enhance the blue tones.

'Kent belle' has exceptionally large blooms

Kent belle’ is a newer hybrid from England and is known for its trusses of 2” long dangling blue flowers all summer long. Try it with variegated iris (Iris pallida ‘Alba-variegata’) which has rich blue flowers and variegated blue-green and white foliage or the metallic blue sea holly (Eryngium) for a ‘rhapsody in blue’ moment in the garden. 2’ tall.

Towards the back of the border the giant bellflower (Campanula latifolia) reaches 5’ in good soil yet stays remarkably erect even after heavy rain. The flowers on this variety are shaped like long tubular bells which point downwards along the stem. The spires of white or blue flowers seem to last all summer and like all taller varieties make excellent cut flowers. I could never be bothered to dead head these and they still bloomed forever!

One for the back of the border, 
'Loddon Anna' is a soft pink variety of 
milky bellflower.

Finally milky bellflower (Campanula lactiflora) is another taller growing variety whose open flowers are borne in branching heads. ‘Loddon Anna’ (pink) is popular as is ‘Pritchard’s variety’ (lavender blue).

Of course there are many more I could mention and we all have our favorites, often steeped in nostalgia. (Didn’t your grandma have one or more of these?) Seek these out at your local nursery or order online from perennial specialists and see which one you like best.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Downsizing (briefly)

An English garden - container style
As featured in Fine Gardening magazine

In order to maintain a modicum of sanity, I will just publish posts once a week (on Wednesdays) until mid June. This is to allow me time to plant up hundreds of containers and baskets - and enjoy doing so. I've got some great articles planned for you, however, so do continue to check in.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Landscaping on a Tight Budget

Whether you are creating a new garden or redesigning an existing one, the reality is it won’t be cheap. When the budget is low but the ideas are big, follow these four steps to stretch the dollars you have and prioritize where to spend them effectively.

A beautiful pathway doesn't need to cost a fortune.
Simple stepping stones set in mulch surrounded by billowing
plantings give this small side garden an abundant
look without breaking the bank.

 Create a Master Plan. Hire a professional landscape designer to draw up a master plan and develop a phased installation. Having a clear direction will help you avoid costly impulse buys or missing an opportunity to create something unique. 

Before -A concrete pad and view of the 
neighbors was all this garden had to offer

 Hardscape First. Creating a garden is like building a house. You need to build the walls before you can hang the pictures. In the same way the framework of paths, patios, fences and arbors (the hardscape) needs to be set in place before the plants. This is the most costly part of any landscaping project but there are ways to ease the budget. Consider concrete pavers instead of stone for a patio for example. Or just lay gravel initially which can be the base for a patio later. A mulch path can also be an interim solution for a future flagstone pathway. Doing some or all of the work yourself will save on labor costs and working a design around standard sized fence panels and arbors will avoid custom charges.

After -An intimate patio, raised planters
and an archway transformed this space.
Plants were then added to the framework 
and since the homeowners did most of
the work themselves, they were able to 
get the look they wanted at an 
affordable price.
My design

Soil Preparation. Don’t spend a penny on plants until you have spent a dollar on the soil. This is NOT the place to cut costs except to do the shoveling yourself. Without this step any money spent on plants could be wasted. At the very least take the opportunity to add compost to your soil. Heavily compacted or clay soils are likely to need more extensive amendment; ask your landscape professional for advice on the best approach for your project.

Plants - at last! For most of us this is where the fun starts and it is also the easiest way to stretch your gardening dollars. Start with the trees as they take longest to establish but lend an air of immediate maturity to your garden. Buying these as bare root plants in early spring is cheaper than after they have been potted up. Buy smaller sizes of shrubs (1g rather than 5g) and be patient! A 1g shrub may only be $10 whereas the 5g size could be $40 or more. If your plan calls for perennials and grasses you may be able to divide these into several plants.
Small plants quickly fill in to form a beautiful tapestry
My re-design of an existing border

Good planning is the key to staying on track financially while still enabling you to realize your garden dreams without sacrificing style.

This article has been adapted from one which I originally wrote for the Washington State Nursery & Landscape Association.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Planting Hanging Baskets

There’s nothing quite like European style hanging baskets overflowing with colorful summer annuals. Their sheer exuberance always makes me smile. Here I’ll share my tips and tricks for creating your own hanging baskets that will look good from May to October and have you smiling too.
Two hanging baskets and a window box set this shady spot ablaze with color.
My design

I prefer baskets where I can plant the sides as well as the top to achieve a really full look. That means using a wire frame with sufficiently large gaps between the struts that I can stuff plants in-between. If the spacing is very wide I might need to add a layer of chicken wire first to stop moss falling through.

Next comes the lining. There are several options here. The traditional method is to use sheet moss soaked in water, then starting at the base push this against the sides of the basket extending to just above the rim. You are aiming for an even cover about 1” thick. This can be time consuming and messy as you have to patch up holes like a jigsaw puzzle as you go but it definitely gives the softer and more natural look which I like.
One example of a myriad
of possibilities. This copper
frame is lined with coir.

Pre-shaped liners are an alternative and these can be moss which is attached to a mesh making it easy to work with, or either coir or coco fiber which look like dead moss (i.e. brown)! It’s not my favorite option and is tough on the hands but I know that some folks like it, is more readily available and it lasts for several years.

Now get plenty of planting mix ready. I combine 80% soil-less potting medium with 20% organic matter; either fine compost or a product such as Gardner & Bloome ‘Blue ribbon potting soil’. For every cubic foot of planting mix I add about 1 tablespoon of a granular slow release balanced fertilizer such as Osmocote. I don’t usually include moisture retention polymers as most of my clients have drip irrigation systems for their baskets so adequate watering is not a problem. However where hand watering is the only option it might be a good idea to add these. Experience leads me to suggest that you use just half the recommended amount, however, as I find they actually hold too much moisture and the soil can become overly saturated. In this situation plants such as coleus can rot.

'Midnight blue' Torenia and 'Bonfire' begonia make great
partners in the shade.
My design

Place the basket on top of an empty plant pot to raise it up to a good working height and keep it stable. If you have a ‘lazy Susan’ it helps to set this pot/basket combination on top to make turning easier.

Decide how many tiers of plants you are going to add to the sides; two are usually about right. Add enough soil to come just underneath where you want the lowest tier of plants to be. Gently make an opening in the lining either by pushing the moss to one side or cutting a hole in the liner. Using 2” sized plants (often called basket stuffers), remove them from their pots and wrap the roots in a little cling film to make sliding them easier. Gently push the plant roots through the hole, rest them on the soil surface and remove the cling film. Repeat as desired adding more soil to reach the next level, staggering the 2” plants on each tier to vary color and texture and allow for even coverage.
Even I had a hard time to squeeze any more
plants in! 
My design

Now you are ready for the top. Start with an upright plant in the center then add other trailing and mounding 4” plants around the edges. If there is room squeeze a few extra 2” plants into this layer too. You’ll probably have to squish things in a bit, moving root balls around to find space for everybody. Aim to have a good thick layer of moss at the rim and finish the soil ½” below this.

Water the basket gently with a fine shower setting on the hose, being sure to completely saturate the sides as well as the top until water drips freely. Remember some of these roots systems are tiny and a long way down!

For clients I try to grow these on in my unheated greenhouse for a week or two before delivering and hanging them, but if the night temperatures are above 50’ then they can be hung outside straight away.

The baskets will need watering every day unless it has rained heavily, and even twice a day in high summer. Adding a drip irrigation system is the easiest way to accomplish this but otherwise use a hose to saturate sides and top thoroughly. You will be well rewarded with visits from hummingbirds and compliments from neighbors!

How many plants do I need?
For a 16” diameter, 9” deep basket;
18 x 2” plants (3 each of 6 different varieties*),
6 x 4” plants for top layer,
1 x 4” upright plant for the center.
*You will use 6 x 2” plants on each of two side tiers and the final six on the top tier.

Favorite trailers and edgers plants for sun;
Lotus vine, silver falls (Dichondra), purple bell vine (Rhodochiton), million bells (Calibrachoa), verbena, Fleabane ‘Profusion’(Erigeron) , trailing geraniums, fan flower (Scaevola), sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas) - if not too hot, lantana, bacopa, Alyssum
Newly planted - the moss will be completely hidden in a
few weeks.
My design

Favorite trailers and edgers for part shade;
Black mondo grass, impatiens, cuphea, purple bell vine (Rhodochiton), Swedish ivy ‘Troy’s gold’ (Plectranthus ciliatus), purple heart (Setcreasea pallida) verbena, begonias, fuchsias, fan flower (Scaevola), wishbone flower (Torenia), sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas), asparagus fern, periwinkle (Vinca), ivy

Favorite upright plants for sun;
Dwarf varieties of New Zealand flax (Phormium) such as Jack Spratt, upright geraniums

Favorite upright plants for shade;
Coleus, ferns, taller Heuchera, Croton, orange hair sedge (Carex testacea), upright heliotrope

I avoid plants which need endless deadheading such as marguerite daisies (Argyranthemum) or African daisies (Osteospermum) and use million bells over trailing petunias as they perform better in our unpredictable summers. I also prefer zonal or fancy leafed geraniums rather than Martha geraniums as the latter do not give enough color.