Saturday, March 24, 2012


           The talk Tim and I gave to the local DAR chapter went well, thanks for asking. Ever the wag, Tim prefaced our remarks with “I’ve never spoken to the Daughters of the American Revolution before. I must say you’ve all held up extremely well.”

           The ladies tittered appreciatively, which was very nice of them. Honestly, I can’t take Tim anywhere. You should have heard what he came out with yesterday during a discussion of the capacity for good and evil in all people (in the larger context of spirituality versus religiosity). “Take Hitler,” he said earnestly. “I’ve heard he was very good at barbecuing.”

           Talk about a conversation stopper.

          Anyway. I brought up the DAR thing because, as usual, our presentation included a plug for this blog and my email address for any questions listeners may have after we’ve packed up our miles of cables and gone home. A few days later, Miss Nadine wrote to ask what post contained the pictures of the deer-resistant containers we’d shown. I explained that I haven’t used those photos in the blog yet, and sent her copies. And then the light-bulb over my head flashed on—how about a post about drop-dead-gorgeous summer containers?

Delphinium plants from Christine
            Later that week, Tim and I drove out to our grower extraordinaire Miss Christine’s establishment, Another Place in Thyme (APIT). Ostensibly, we went to get delphiniums, an early-spring blue-flowering treat for our clients. This is how typical delphinium negotiations go: “How many do you want?” asks Christine. “How many did you grow?” I counter. “Thirty,” she replies. “I want 30,” I say. “But I wanted a couple for my yard,” she says. “How many?” I ask. “Three.” “Okay, then, I need 27.” “Okay, load ’em up,” she says.

             I love Christine.

Sempervivum assortment from Christine
Tim and I change out about 70 containers and design 12 in-ground plantings for summer color every year. Going out to Christine’s always feels like I’m Alice fallen down the rabbit hole to Wonderland—so many beautiful plants, and always a few new-to-me surprises. The ol’ brain starts churning double-time, juggling colors, fragrances, annual vs. perennial, deer-resistance, moisture needs, sun exposures, what plants I have to have for myself today. (Scored 15 four-inch Sempervivum—hens-and-chicks—representing seven or eight cultivars on the delphinium trip.) After an hour or so wandering the greenhouses and outdoor tables at APIT, I’m incapable of coherent conversation for several hours. Tim reports I ride home with a loopy grin on my face and bright, vacant eyes.

White vinca & raspberry supertunias

    The simple secret to killer containers is to pack in the plants. We jammed this 42” hayrack with 18 3” white vinca and 8 4” ‘Raspberry Blast' petunias in May. I snapped the picture in July.

Where's the pot?

            You can’t even see the 16” pot holding this lush planting of a one-gallon red fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum var. rubrum), 12 3” mixed-color vincas and a 4” fanflower (Scaevola aemula ‘Blue Wonder’) planted in May and photographed in July.

  Restraining my inclination toward horticultural experimentation, I stick with tried-and-true plant combinations for clients. Hanging in full sun, a set of stacked hayracks—36” long on top, 42” below—are stuffed with as many vinca and petunias as I could cram in, about three full flats to fill the pair. For a same-sized hayrack duo in full shade, I used an equal number of impatiens.

Stacked hayracks for sun

Stacked hayracks for shade

Heat-loving petunias

            Consider the conditions around your containers. These petunias can take all the reflected heat the bricks radiate without wilting or singeing. Many other plants—wishbone flower (Torenia fournieri), for example—can’t.  

            To make life easier on yourself, combine plants with similar watering needs. A full-sun, deer-resistant vignette of one 12” and two 10” pots, photographed at the time of planting, includes red pentas, fanflower, vinca, ‘Diamond Frost’ euphorbia, ‘Black Prince’ ornamental pepper, marigolds and various tender sedums, all of which share moderate-to-low moisture requirements. Succulents offer a veritable cornucopia of shapes, sizes and colors for low-to-no-water containers. Here's a pinky-grey Echeveria anchoring an assortment of sedums. (Be sure to look for my article on designing with succulents in the May issue of Carolina Gardener magazine, sold in fine garden centers, available soon.)
A heat-, drought & sun-tolerant combination

Combine pots to create vignettes


Be careful in your choice of

perennials to mix with annuals

       Mixing perennials with annuals can be tricky, as the former have more extensive root systems and will commandeer more below-the-surface space. Ornamental grasses, for example, can easily take over the lion’s share of a container’s water and available nutrients to the detriment of their neighbors. Still, some plants play well with others, as demonstrated by this perennial blue-flowered mealycup sage (Salvia farinacea ‘Evolution’) blending nicely in a 12” terracotta pot with the annuals ‘Alabama Sunset’ coleus and ‘Raspberry Blast’ petunia.

Mangers following the recipe
      Conventional gardening magazine, website, and television-show wisdom dictates the “thriller, filler, spiller” recipe for container plantings. Personally, I think it’s overdone. But here’s a subtle version, with pentas and ‘Sedona’ coleus as thrillers, wax begonias as filler, and fanflower as spiller. Moderation in all things works best in horticulture, as in life.

                Pushing the container envelope may be an attractive notion to those whose motto is “Think Big.” Here are some before-and-after photos of a pair of small raised beds cum really big containers Tim and I designed and built for one of our favorite clients to unclutter and unify her backyard.

Building bigger containers...
... and filling them

Plain & simple

                Sometimes, simplest is best. Here are three orphan petunias I tossed in a spare pot late last summer. They didn’t do much at the time, but stayed green through our mild winter: they started blooming last week. I’m looking forward to a long season of this single-species flowering powerhouse decorating the corner of our sidewalk. Nothing fancy, but an attention-grabber just the same.

 Big, small, or in-between, containers with punch have packed-in plants. You won’t be sorry you spent the money.

Thanks for dropping by.


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