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A concatenation of containers March 7, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening.
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Our friend Ben has been inspired by Steve Silk’s recent post on containers (“Thrillers, Fillers & Spillers”) on Gardening Gone Wild (see link at right) to write about the Hawk’s Haven Container Extravaganza, annually occurring on the back deck here in scenic PA.

Steve, by the way, discusses his near-foolproof three-step technique for making striking designed containers, and shows lots of great photos in support of his theory. (Mind you, one hates to be a critic–hah!!!–but our friend Ben has never learned to abide, much less love, containers with spiky phormiums or other grasslike plants sticking straight up in the center like a Mohawk, despite the popularity of same. I’m sure there are great ways to use these plants in containers, but politely suggest trying them with lower-growing, finer-textured upright grassy plants in contrasting and/or complementary colors, perhaps with rosettes at the perimeter. Better a porcupine than a punk, say I.)

Our friend Ben especially appreciated Steve’s great tip on creating a lush look early on, before the plants have had time to fill out, by strategically adding extra plants–still in their containers–and then lifting them and using them elsewhere once the core plants come into their own. Brilliant!

Here at Hawk’s Haven, I do grow mixed containers. But because I use a lot of perennials and tender perennials that I overwinter every year, I’ve also learned to create combinations and even tableaus with individual plants in pots–a concatenation of containers. Here’s how and why:

Let me say up front that our friend Ben realizes that most people use their decks to enjoy outdoor eating, sunning, or at least impressing others with their hot tubs, pools, or landscaped vistas. (Our friend Ben has colleagues who have managed all of the above with a single wraparound deck.)  And over the years, our friend Ben has become accustomed to the horrified looks of non-gardening friends who visit the Hawk’s Haven deck and pick their way gingerly through the tropical lushness to the seating area within. Convinced that a nearby fig, coleus, cymbidium, or canna is going to grab them at any minute, that those tendrils from the hanging baskets are actually tentacles reaching for their throats, that the half-barrel water garden is breeding pirhanas, these fragile guests cling to their chairs as though they were lifeboats in a shark-infested sea. Fortunately, most visitors are more hardy.

But trust me, there is a method to the apparent madness. Our friend Ben wants to be surrounded by color, life, and fragrance when I can find time to actually sit down outdoors. On weekends and at dusk on the long summer days, our friend Ben and companions enjoy sitting on the deck and watching the spectacular sunsets, the arrival of the lightning bugs (aka fireflies), the antics of the outdoor cats, the absence of antics of the faithful, sleeping dog, and sometimes a quiet fire glowing in the firepit, not to mention, of course, the arrival of the moon and stars. (I’ll devote a future post to my favorite time of day, dusk, that magical time when the crack between the worlds opens and colors drain away, when anything can happen and nothing is as it seems.)

When dealing with deck container design, the challenge before our friend Ben is this: To work in the innumerable and highly diverse potted plants that have overwintered in the greenhouse and need their outdoor time into a cohesive design that will strike visitors (at least those who don’t know better) as intentional and attractive. I do it, of course, through repetition of color, shape, and container. I have large collections of figs (the fruiting ones, not the ornamental ficus), cymbidiums, cannas, amaryllis, begonias, and pelargoniums (those with fabulous foliage and flowers as a bonus) that find their way to the deck each summer, along with several extremely striking “anchor” plants such as a huge ‘Tiger’ variegated Boston fern and, of course, the large water garden. And I have a diverse collection of potted herbs ranging from the usual scented geraniums, bays, garlic chives, lemon verbena, and rosemaries to pineapple and other fruit-scented sages, lemon grass, aloes, cinnamon and cardamom.

Our friend Ben also has three huge but distinct spider plants in hanging baskets, an accidental collection that arose when I was driving a back country road and encountered a house in the middle of nowhere with a big “Spider plants for sale!” sign out front. Always one for supporting local business, especially an entrepreneurial effort of this kind, our friend Ben whipped out the checkbook and the rest is history. (The horrors of the collector mentality. But that’s a post unto itself.) And of course, our friend Ben is no more immune to the allure of modern coleus than any other gardener. And there is the additional need to bring light and color to the shaded deck–the perfect excuse to use as much chartreuse and hot color as the soul can bear, which is a God’s plenty in our friend Ben’s case.

So, how did I manage to create a deckscape that would make all these diverse elements cohere into something that looked like a pleasing, intentional design and not a godawful, motley plant collection? Easy:

* Put the anchor plants, hefty mixed containers, and large, eyecatching features (such as the water garden) at key points on the deck, such as corners and midway points.

* Repeat styles and colors of containers for coherence.

* Fill in along the deck railing between anchor plants and features with the taller plants (such as the figs).

* Stair-step down from the back railing towards the seating area with increasingly smaller plants, continuing to punctuate the line with repeating plants and colors and echoing the shapes and colors of the larger containers. (And, of course, bringing some taller plants forward to break up the stair-step pattern and keep things interesting.)

* Hang identical baskets at regulated intervals along the deck; the plants can differ, but should echo each other in color or form. (In our friend Ben’s case, there are three identical trees forming pillars in front of the deck, and I hang one of the spider plants from each, so the effect is very formal, but each plant is subtly different in its variegation.)

* Keep the deck furniture simple, coordinated, and classic so it doesn’t compete with the plants and adds to the intentionality of the design as a whole.

* Pray that the outdoor cats don’t chase each other across the deck and destroy the entire arrangement.

Thus, an inveterate plant collector like our friend Ben can bring order out of chaos and create a delightful deckscape that can be enjoyed by plantaholics and the plant-benighted alike. It’s the closest thing to having one’s cake and eating it, too. (Does anyone else love that Crash Test Dummies song?) If I can do it, you can, too!     




1. hayefield - March 7, 2008

Excellent suggestions for making the most of containers! If you think of it, you might want to leave a comment on the Garden Bloggers’ Design Workshop containers post at http://www.gardeninggonewild.com/?p=940 so others can find this, if they haven’t already seen it through Blotanical.

Thanks, Nan!

2. Gardening Gone Wild » Blog Archive » GBDW - Container Plantings Wrap-Up - March 31, 2008

[…] A Concatenation of Containers (ourfriendben at Poor Richard’s Almanac): Give your deck, porch, or patio a lush, tropical look with an abundance of potted plants and these design pointers from Our Friend Ben. […]

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