Ryan’s Eye: Spring 2014
Planters & Pots
by Will Ryan
Illustration by Gray Abraham
As I write this in mid-March with my garden shrouded in deep snow it is with hope in my heart that spring will eventually arrive. Thinking ahead to pleasant thoughts of spring brings me to gardening issues and the one I will cover in this issue is planters.
I will begin by discussing the materials that planters can be made of, as well as some thoughts of placement. Then, I will mention, only briefly, the types of plants as there are no hard and fast rules and it is, on the whole, very subjective. I will follow up with a short discussion of planting material and plant supports.
My all-time favourite for planters are the good, old terra cotta pots. They come in all shapes and sizes and often have matching saucers. If you want them really huge you do have to go on-line to find them but, happily, they are available in the larger city centres. The natural terra cotta clay colour never seems wrong and, although they soon acquire a white chalky appearance, it is part of their patina and charm. A really strong plus is the evaporation through the clay pot as it reduces the soil temperature and aids in the growth of the plants.
Happily, we see many glazed pots in the marketplace these days. They come in all colours, shapes and sizes. The blue and white hand painted ones can look quite formal, although it depends on placement and plantings. These do suffer in the winter, so they must be emptied of soil and put somewhere out of the elements.
We are all familiar with the cast iron urns. Cast iron was first used in the Regency period and became more fashionable in the Victorian era. These can be left outside in the winter and, if they are large enough, hardy perennials and evergreens can winter over in them.
There are numerous sizes and shapes of concrete planters that tend to have a more traditional shape as they hark back to when they were carved from stone. These also last up outside and weathering improves their appearance. The downside of concrete, of course, is the weight.
The wooden half barrel used to be relatively cheap and cheerful but, now, I find that they are just as costly as the planters made of other materials. The downside of wooden half barrels is that they don’t last up as long as we would like. However, I see more and more of the barrel style being produced in longer lasting materials.
Another wooden planter is the “Versailles box” that was originally used to contain oranges and lemon trees that were brought inside during the winter.
Window boxes are made of wood or plastic (and wire, as mentioned later) but, unfortunately, the bottoms eventually rot out of the wooden ones. If you make your own window boxes assemble them with screws, as this way it is easy to unscrew them and replace just the rotted area.
Wire baskets are also available and are often suspended but they also come as planters and window boxes. They are moss or fibre lined and the wire is meant only to contain the plant material and not important as a design statement.
Most of the above mentioned items are available in fiberglass or plastic and can look very convincing. The enemy of this material is sun. The sun can cause the containers to become brittle and change colour. If the pots are large and filled with soil or plant material they are tricky to move as they can crack or split easily. However, they are frost resistant so they can be left outside.
Not everyone is able to get to garden centres to buy planters and pots, but there are other items that can be used and, although they may be eclectic, it does not diminish their charm. For example, galvanized pails or laundry tubs, or even horse troughs, can give you the look without clearing out your bank account. These types of items can be found in farm supply and hardware stores. It is important to note that, with these, you must make drainage holes.
A very short-term solution is to use bushel baskets or wicker baskets. These can only be used to cheer up a space for one season. The wicker needs to be lined with fibre, and both need a lot of peat moss added to the soil, but the up-side is that there is no need to make drainage holes as they leak copiously when watered.
Think “salvage” if the mood or the location suits. For example, large olive oil tins with their cheerful coloured labels look utterly charming with geraniums spilling out of them. Keep an eye out for old enameled pots or tubs and, for a very primitive look, hollowed out logs either on end or like a trough. Once again, you must remember the drainage holes.
I will mention placement only from my design perspective as, again, it is subjective. First of all, pots and planters are ideal for areas where garden beds or soil is non-existent or in areas that are sheltered or don’t catch moisture from the rain. These areas can include decks, docks, patios, porches, low garden walls, balconies and paved areas like driveways.
The cast iron planters or urns suit a more formal landscape rather than casual areas. If they are set on a lawn, they should be on a base or within a border of plants. They look unresolved just emerging from a lawn. However, a grand enough urn can have the right presence in a garden without any plantings in it. And, today some of the traditional urns are being cast in aluminum that reduces their weight.
Concrete is heavy and can often look too heavy when set upon a wooden surface. They need to have a look of solidarity and, therefore, suit being on the ground. To “age” a concrete container quickly pop some moss in a blender with some buttermilk and whiz it around .Then paint the concrete with the mixture and in a relatively short time your concrete will become mossy looking.
My final word on placement is that low bungalows suit wide planters with low spreading plants.
As promised, I will briefly touch on plantings. There are no rigid rules with regard to plant material. Although we are used to seeing urns planted with rather formal plants like box or yew, they are just as appealing filled with daisies.
Tropicals that look out of place in our gardens can look appropriate in a container. Cacti and succulents look better in shallow pots with the soil covered in gravel. Hostas, when planted in containers above the ground, don’t attract slugs, and they keep coming back each year. Invasive herbs, such as mint and some others look great and are easy to access if they are contained in different height pots and grouped together. Contemporary containers and pots look better when they are planted with only one type of plant, whereas other types look well when they are mixed in with ivy or permanent greens that winter over. The “Versailles box” I spoke about earlier seems to suit standards of just about anything.
A very important note is that if you are wintering over your plants outside in containers, it is advisable to place rigid Styrofoam insulation on the sunny side of the planter so that the plants are not subject to any freeze-thaw action.
There are no rigid rules about planter locations, types of plant material. Having said that, it is often more interesting to have pots and containers of different heights, shapes and sizes, planted with material that is of a different scale height and type. If you need height, don’t forget about climbing plants. They are just fine in containers or pots as long as they have some bamboo poles for support or purpose built trellis.
Most important, is the scale of planter. It may look enormous to you when you buy it, but anything taken outside appears to shrink immediately. Allow for this and buy them although they strike you as too large.
I reiterate that there are no hard and fast rules. Some things look better placed in a specific location and planted in a specific manner, but if your efforts give you pleasure, then it is never wrong.