Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Garden Designers Roundtable: The Garden Contained

Welcome to Container Day at the Garden Designers Roundtable. What a huge topic! I could approach this in so many ways, like taking you to my favorite pottery resource, Pottery Planet; but I've done that already.

I could show you lots of pretty pictures of containers I've designed professionally, and tell you things like how long it took to find just the right bonsai-clay bowls for this terrace.

Or how I prefer container plantings to have one main plant (like this Chamaecyparis) with soft underplantings that change periodically. But I think instead I'd rather show you how I use containers myself.

I have a close, personal, long-term relationship with container planting. When I was about 8, a little boy at school gave me a white petunia in a small pot. I don't remember his name, but I can still see that little plant and feel the unexpected delight that this perfect, living thing was mine to hold. During my teen years my obsession turned to houseplants; I had dozens of them, displayed in a stunning array of macramé plant hangers.

My outdoor gardening began during my stay-at-home mom years; I started with annuals and planted them everywhere. I did this corner just before my daughter was born. She turns 20 today.

Planting something in a container gives a gardener more responsibility for and ownership of a plant. Like capturing a bright butterfly or a tadpole and putting it in a jar, a plant in a pot is like a pet or an infant; it relies upon you for everything. So who are my current infants, and how do I use containers now? Read on.

I use containers for growing plants that need different conditions than my garden beds can easily provide, like the acid soil that blueberries prefer (they won't find that next to a new foundation, but a red glazed pot filled with azalea mix does the job).

My tomatoes get deep, rich soil and dedicated irrigation in the raised kitchen garden beds. Even when the vines spill over the top of their cages, the fruit is held safely off the ground. A small garden contained in this way is neat, easy to clean, and protected (somewhat) from pests.

Raised beds give herbs the warm soil and good drainage they require to come back year after year, like this combination of marjoram and sage. The bed also provides an architectural element to my overall landscape, as it loops around to provide an informal divider between the patio and the kitchen garden.

I use containers to nurture new plants in a more controlled environment, like this cutting of Corylus 'Rote Zeller' given to me by garden writer Alice Joyce, from her garden. Eventually it will be large, but for now it's having a 'nursery year' in the courtyard (next to gnarly Uncle Harry!)

Or this fragile-looking Fuchsia magellanica I got from Annie's Annuals; it will also become a sturdy shrub in time, but for now, I'm keeping a close eye on it.

Containers allow me to keep plants with me that otherwise might be lost when a beloved garden is left behind. I bought this Fatsia japonica the day I officially started my new career as a garden designer 9 years ago. It has weathered some storms, but planted in this large turquoise pot with regular water it is as graceful as can be.

Plants that might get out of hand planted in the garden grow with more restraint when contained. I have an 8 year old deciduous trumpet vine (Campsis radicans 'Mme Galen') that really minds its manners in a pot. In the ground? It might have eaten the house by now.

Some plants will live for years in a pot, and I treat them like bonsai, shaping them over time. I love a plant that has grown old in captivity; natural, yet refined. I think training plants is one of the most skilled things gardeners do.

Speaking of taking things with you, containers aren't just for plants you know; this bubbling blue water pot is another long-time friend that I've had running practically 24x7 for at least 8 years. The soft splashing sound is as much a part of the experience of my garden as anything else, and the nice little microclimate it creates is much appreciated by the locals, like this Nandina 'Firepower.'

When my neighbor-the-gardener became ill and had to leave her house and her garden, she gave me her stacks of small clay pots. What a treasure. Having these and lots of generous plants means that I will never be without a way to give from my garden. Which makes me realize that one of the best ways I use containers is to give plants to other people.

But mainly I use containers so I can put plants wherever I want! I tend to be a 'one plant, one pot, arrange the pots' type of gal. I also like stand-alone gems that coordinate nicely with their pots, like this succulent in a graceful little two-toned number.

Succulents are particularly wonderful in pots because of their low water needs; they aren't confined to areas where the drip irrigation can reach them, and can be arranged freely, like offerings on an altar. And yes, if you have this many nice containers and an irresponsible streak when it comes to regular watering, an automatic drip system is a wonderful thing. Everyone gets watered every 3 days for 8 minutes. If they want a little more, they let me know.

Thanks to containers, we can have plants wherever we are, tucked into any modest or fancy piece we like and changed or rearranged at will. (Don't you love the mini chiminea? I use it to burn sprigs of dried sage; it works great!) Needless to say a balcony gardener would be lost without containers of all kinds. The biggest mistake I see is too many small containers. It's nice to have a few big pots in the mix, don't limit your design to what you can lift by yourself!

So I ask you, what is more satisfying than taking a handful of succulent cuttings and making them into a work of art? I think, in the end, that is what I appreciate most about containers. Like a frame around a painting they allow us to combine craftsmanship and plantsmanship into something that is more than the sum of its parts.

Thanks for visiting, and don't stop here, for I have only scratched the surface of this topic! Please visit the other knights and ladies of the Roundtable who are writing about containers today:

Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

Jenny Petersen: J Petersen Garden Design : Austin TX

Jocelyn Chilvers : The Art Garden : Denver, CO

Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In the Garden : Los Altos, CA

Rochelle Greayer : Studio “G” : Boston, MA

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT

Shirley Bovshow : Eden Makers : Los Angeles, CA


  1. Hey, there, Ms. Leafer -- I'm over the moon about your succulent pots. Gorgeous! And I love your phrasing, "stand-alone gems", "offerings on an altar", and (the choir sings) "what is more satisfying than taking a handful of succulent cuttings and making them into a work of art?" Amen, sistah!

  2. Your writing is so eloquent, Laura, you really opened my eyes (and heart!) about what treasures our container/plant duos can be. Thank you!

  3. I agree with Debra: love the succulents.

    Also, good tip on using containers for plants that need different growing conditions.

  4. Great to read your container philosophy and also to see your own containers-that's brave!
    Best Wishes

  5. I like the way you arrange slabs of stone under some of your containers, especially the diamond pattern of your last picture. Inspired framing! And those bonsai-clay bowls? I LOVE them!

    I always get so many ideas from your posts and images, Laura.

  6. Thanks everybody! What an awesome series of posts, every one different, so we covered a lot of ground, each in our own style...nice.

    Pam, I'm so glad you noticed the travertine tiles! They're leftovers from my kitchen floor, I've got a whole stack. Since my house is nicely aligned with the directions, I've used some compass elements in the design, and this table is actually a compass rose arrangement. The large pavers under the red umbrella are also a compass. I like to know which way I'm facing, and which way the wind is blowing!

  7. Laura,

    The image of your plants hanging in macrame brought a smile to my face. I haven't thought about macrame hangers in years! Your containers are lovely and I especially love your bubbling blue water pot. It looks so peaceful and serene.

  8. You have a true artistry about your style. I hope to achieve that one day. It takes a great bit more skill and restraint to do what you do with containers SO well. Not just the plant and container but the entire vignette that you design around it is the best hallmark of a designer that I can think of, kudos to you my friend!

  9. Interesting to think about raised beds as containers. Wonderful photos and commentary. Hard to pick a favorite but the tie would be the bonsai-clay bowls and the succulents with the Buddha.

  10. succulents... YES! I can't get enough of them. So good!!! I LOVE that very last picture. It almost brought a small tear to my eye:)

  11. @Debra, can I just say that is high praise coming from the Succulent Diva? I had just put those little combos together, inspired by your video! I realized all my odd bits (including some Zwartkop from Rebecca) could add up to something nice!

    @Debbie, I was the QUEEN of macrame plant holders, would work off the corner of my four-poster bed. I made them very big & chunky & twisty!

    @Christina, how kind of you to say with all that gorgeousity you produce! But I get what you're saying, thank you...

  12. @DP I decided to include raised beds because they had a lot of the attributes I felt were good for containers. I'll be the tie breaker and it's BUDDHA FTW!

    @Kaarina, Awww! That's the one inspired by Debra's video this week that I mention above, just freshly planted. I rest my case!

  13. I just love your style of writing - it's truly a gift you have, you know that? Can't wait to see these pots IN PERSON on Saturday! They're all looking so beautiful! And I love the personal history 'behind' some of the pots (you know me - I'm a sucker for 'personal' info!). And I'm with you - one plant per pot is my preference, though I always manage to cram in a ton of succulents around the edges. Beautiful post, Laura.

  14. Thank you so much for the eye-opening possibilities: I see I've been MUCH too timid in using containers. This month's Gardeners Round Table has been wonderfully fertile for me!

  15. I'm so envious of you CA girls ability to use heavy glazed clay pots and not have to drag them in in the winter. The emptying and dragging them in and out takes away some of the fun!

  16. Laura,
    You brought up one of the best advantages of container gardens- the fact that you can grow plants that otherwise would not do well planted in the garden. THis opens us up to so many possibilities.

    Congratulations on your "blogaversary" too! I enjoyed touring your garden today.

  17. Laura, thanks for sharing your thoughts and pictures. I know the houseplant stage well and I'm glad to find someone else who ponders the pots as well as the plants that are in them. Out of interest, what sort of irrigation are you using on the tomatoes? Also, your round bonsai pots have given me an idea..

  18. @rebecca thank you! I enjoyed your post SO much; I think we have a similar attachment to our treasures...

    @Mulchmaid that's exactly why we do this!

    @Susan I can imagine the hassle of pot-wrangling in that way, my condolences!

    @Shirley Thanks! I'm all about possibilities!

    @Irrigation I use a small umbrella-patterned sprayer for each tomato plant; they give a good amount of water in a short time and can be adjusted so the leaves don't get wet.

  19. You are such a wordsmith, Laura! You take us into your past, your passion, we walk through ideas with you - I love reading you!

    And what fabulous images to illustrate your ideas! AND I ALSO loved the ideas of bringing raised beds into the mix -
    (By the way - the marjoram/sage/raised bed photo - hi res? purty please? If it has marjoram in it, I'm done - what a sucker I am for that herb!

    As usual, my eyes have been opened and I love what I see ... this is why we hugged so hard when we met, because I've always felt like I KNOW you from your blog and tweets. You give us all a gift every time you write - YOU!!!

  20. Laura, such a gift of generosity for writing and sharing yourself. Thank you for the rich tapestry that you weave. Love reading your posts. Wonderful photos. Gorgeous succulent pots. Especially love the one sitting on travertine. Great that you included the raised beds. You are as prolific and abundant as the gardens that you love.

  21. Wonderful, Laura! As always, you have a wonderful way of blending the personal with the professional.

  22. Ivette, Judy & Susan, Thank you. You have been such faithful readers over this past year, I always appreciate your comments! The garden communicator community that I've seen develop in just the last year is incredible, glad to be a part of it with you lot!

  23. Laura,

    An inspiring post! You are truly a passionate designer, looking deeper than just the aesthetic value in each of your creations. Thanks for sharing!