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The Whistling Gardener's Blog - Designing a beautiful container without flowers

Designing a beautiful garden or just a container requires the same planning. Color, form, line and texture are the basic elements of any good design and they are found in many forms in the plant kingdom.
An example of a container with absolutely no flowers. Photo credit: Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville

This weekly column is being reproduced with the permission of Steve Smith, The Whistling Gardener, and owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville.

Designing a beautiful garden or just a container requires the same planning. Color, form, line and texture are the basic elements of any good design and they are found in many forms in the plant kingdom.

Typically we think of flowers when we need color (especially for containers) but of course we all know that foliage also comes in colors. Form, line and texture can be obtained through twigs and bark and berries and all the other parts of a plant that are not flowers.

Here are some ideas for building containers without using flowers.

First off I should say that I like to think of container plantings as nothing more than flower arrangements with roots. I also like to remind myself that just like a flower arrangement, I don’t expect my containers to last forever (although obviously that depends on what I put in them). Granted, I have some containers in my garden that are permanent and have had the same shrubs in them for years but these are like furniture that I move around to enhance a particular room in the garden.

The kinds of containers I want to talk about are more for seasonal accents and decorations.

One other caveat to keep in mind is that while we all expect our “flower pots” to poop out at some time, when we make a “foliar pot” we will use small shrubs, evergreen perennials/grasses and hardy ground covers and at some time these plants will outgrow their container and need to be transplanted into the garden or shared with a fellow gardener (or in my case thrown in the compost heap because after all “they are just plants”).

So let’s get back to designing a container. A good flower arrangement (and I use the word “flower” loosely) will always have a main focal point or “thriller”, some fillers and perhaps even some spillers.

In the container in the photo my greenhouse manager Mary has used an evergreen shrub called a Mountain Pepper or Drimys. A compact Strawberry bush (Arbutus) would have worked as well or a red twig dogwood or curly willow. But the Pepper is especially effective because of its dark purple stems.

Once your thriller is chosen then the fun begins. Contrasting colors and textures builds interest and drama and echoing colors builds cohesiveness.

Mary has used a purple Heuchera and burgundy Dracena to repeat the dark stem color of the Pepper plant. Then she has contrasted that with yellow foliage from a sedge called Rehoku Sunrise and a goofy looking arborvitae called Franky Boy. Franky’s fine texture is also a nice contrast to the coarse wide blade of the Dracena.

Finally, she has used golden Creeping Jenny to again contrast the darker colors of the pepper, Heuchera and Dracena and repeat the yellow in the grass and conifer and draw the eye down to the ceramic container.

Presto, we have a container with absolutely no flowers in it except the Heuchera which when it blooms Mary will promptly cut off.

What’s great about this arrangement is that it is totally hardy and will last all winter (provided we don’t get an Arctic Blast) and in the spring can be disassembled and replanted with something new and different.

If you want to see more examples and learn all about foliar container planting then come to our class on September 28th at 10am where we will discuss not only containers but fall and winter interest plants for the entire garden. See you then.

Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached online at info@sunnysidenursery.net

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