Potted Gardens

From the August 2010 edition

New Albany resident Barbara Robins had to change her gardening game a few years ago. After downsizing from a large home with lots of shade to a smaller place with a yard that gets blasted by sun, Robins searched for container selections that would tolerate the conditions so that she could still create her signature pots, which resemble flourishing English gardens.

“It’s not a good pot unless it’s absolutely jammed with textures and colors,” Robins says, smiling. “And I prefer established plants. It’s simply anticlimactic to wait so long.” Especially when viewed up close, the mastery behind each choice becomes apparent: unusual rare blossoms, delicate filler plants that dance in light breezes and vines that have interesting variegation and leaf structures.

When mid-summer hits, Robins’s container garden is among show-stoppers in Central Ohio that draw rapt attention for robust colors or oversized drama. Even gardening has its entrepreneurs and local experts have identified some fresh, successful options for container gardens—some for shade, some for sunny spots—that mix well, require little upkeep, and provide an energetic splash of color or a calming, serene vista.

“Know your location,” emphasizes Kathleen Killilea, custom potting manager at deMonye’s Greenhouse Inc. “Think about what the sun or shade is like in July and August.”

Although Robins shops at garden nurseries all over town, she always starts the season with multiple trips to a favorite one in Alexandria. “I’ll spend hours there, and I don’t want to be rushed.” she says. “They always have new things they’ve never had before. This year I found English ivy with waxy leaves and yellow blooms. And a German ivy with big, flat leaves that grows like a potato vine.”

As she rifles through an enormous pile of identification tags on her kitchen counter, Robins locates some of her new sun-loving favorites: the Australian bush flower called Joey Pink Mulla Mulla, a new thistle with bright pink globes; succulents such as the ice plant aptenia cordifolia rose with its rubbery leaves and hot pink flowers; a white fuchsia, known as Windchime, sporting edges of coral, and the charming cuphea llavea, known as Bat Face, a delicate plant native to Mexico with flowers that look like the visage of a little bat.

“I pick whatever looks the most outlandish,” says Robins, who teaches second grade. “My wild side comes out in these pots. I dress the same way, buy the same clothes, year after year, what you’d call conservative. Gardening is where I go crazy.”

To get the delightful visual effect, Killilea strongly encourages gardeners to go bold, particularly with aesthetics. Consider planting an asymmetrical design with an odd number of elements, use the dramatic height of tropicals, such as the banana plant, as a focal point and add other plants that have scent. “Scratch and sniff,” Killilea instructs, rubbing a fuzzy green leaf between her fingers. “It’s the plectranthus Cerveza ’n Lime. Smells just like lime, doesn’t it?” she asks.

The container itself can be a big part of the statement, whether it is traditional terra cotta, contemporary fiberglass, ceramic or an antique wrought-iron planter lined with sheets of dried moss. “But don’t cover a beautiful pot with wave petunias!” Killilea implores. “Instead, use low plantings such as Diamond Frost euphorbia and Beth’s Blue laurentia for an airy quality with mini petunias, scaevola and maybe a light trail of vinca.” And, she adds, don’t forget the basics: plenty of drainage holes; polystyrene foam peanuts, burlap or pebbles in the bottom to help drainage, and fresh potting mix each year. A good scrubbing each year will help rid the pot of carry-over bug infestations.

If you’re the type of gardener who’s a bit forgetful when it comes to watering, landscapist Jared Hughes has the perfect solution: a pot or two entirely comprised of succulents. They’re unique, modern and absurdly easy to maintain, Hughes promises. As owner of the Groovy Agave, a gardening business based on succulents, Hughes and his partner, Lumi Guillen, marvel at the colors and textures that sedum, jade, kalanchoe, agave, cactus and echeveria provide.

“Remember when you were a kid, and everything was fascinating?” Hughes asks. “Well, I’ve kept that childhood fascination with these plants. They’re new and unusual—you just don’t see these every day.”

Hughes suggests using a peat-based potting mix. Shallow containers are fine since succulents have lateral roots. But remember that succulents, which are slow-growing but propagate easily, need lots of light and only minimal watering. “Most people kill them by overwatering,” he says.

In German Village, landscape designer Todd Freeman retooled the front and back patio areas for homeowner Janice Roth in several stages, and container gardens have been a big part of Freeman’s strategy. For a partially shaded bluestone terrace in front, he uses modern black U-shaped containers filled with New Guinea impatiens, scotch broom, campanula, bacopa, petunia and coleus, accented with purple-and-green Persian shield. The khaki-colored cottage is punctuated with a long black window box overflowing with readily available, familiar varieties regrouped for a lush, artistic effect. Freeman uses boxwood as a centerpiece, then flanks it with coleus, sedum and trailing potato vine in acid green and maroon. Then, he adds dichondra Silver Falls for a contrast in greenish-silver, and finishes with soft-textured, delicate alyssum and blue-purple lobelia.

“The boxwood can winter over,” says Freeman, “as long as you water it occasionally.” He advises removing tired, scraggly plants beginning in September and replacing them with cool weather favorites such as fall peppers, kale and cabbage that will last well into November.

Janet and Rich Dawson, also German Village residents, were looking for a way to extend the industrial modern interior of their recently renovated home out into its tiny backyard. Their interior designer, Monique Keegan, owner of Enjoy Co. in Granville, supplied six charcoal-colored fiber clay containers, each four feet tall, which were filled by landscape designer Kevin Reiner.

“We had a big, contorted filbert on the property in the back corner when we first moved in,” Janet recalls. Reiner retained that history by selecting corylus avellana Red Majestic as the focal point in the containers, a contorted plant with wrinkled, deep purple leaves that emerge in spring, and then turn reddish-green in summer. By autumn, they turn burnt-umber and burgundy. Reiner adds interest by combining them with the mahogany-tinged gray foliage of sedum telephium Arthur Branch.

Keegan says initially there were worries: “Are the containers too large? Will they dominate?” But all involved agree that the big statement pieces lining the walk make the yard look much bigger. When the doors to the terrace are flung open, the backyard becomes an extension of the living space. “It feels like California,” Janet Dawson exclaims.

For a charming white 1840s Greek Revival in Granville, Reiner has made interesting, dramatic choices to complement the front entrance. Two classic urns flank the entry of the walkway, containing stately English boxwood and a maroon sweet potato vine known as Chillin Blackberry Heart in each. The urns contrast nicely with the modern planters on the porch, which are terrazzo pots containing an artist’s palette of bright summer greens: a bold swath of elephant ear, the spiky soft rush juncus effusus, coleus, asparagus fern, golden feverfew, and hydrocotyle, known as Crystal Confetti, a variegated pennywort. All are plants that do well in sun or partial shade.

Whether a gardener follows Reiner’s lead and plants with a subtle, sophisticated color scheme, goes minimalist with one or two high-drama selections, or squeezes colorful favorites into one big pot, container gardens can be a lab for experimentation with new varieties and textures.

Rhonda Koulermos is a freelance writer.