Landscaping has gone to pot. Or maybe we should make that plural. Pots are in! Seriously, container gardening is one of the newest waves in the horticultural sea, and savvy landscape designers and contractors are riding high with new materials, textures and styles. Whether a simple accent or a salad on wheels, consumers are looking for ways to enhance their indoor and outdoor living spaces with splashes of green … and other colors as well.
“A lot of my clients use containers for seasonal accents,” says Melissa Brent, owner of MH Landscape Design in Danbury, Connecticut. “We plant in the spring, summer and fall. Sometimes we also plant evergreens and put lights on them for the holidays.”
Container gardening is nothing new. Actually, the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon were really just container plantings on the tops of stone pillars. The Chinese conceived bonsai plantings, where trees and other woody ornamentals are miniaturized in pots, around 200 A.D. During the 1600s, greenhouse gardening came to Europe and potted plants became all the rage.
Today, landscape professionals have an almost unlimited palette of containers, as well as a wide array of plants that will happily grow for a season or for years in those containers, depending on their vision. Let’s take a look at some of the options available.
In the not-so-distant past, terra-cotta containers were about all that were available. Terra cotta is still a beautiful, natural choice. Terra cotta “breathes,” which ensures the plant roots get the air they need.
All terra cotta is not created equal. Look for clay that has been fired at a high temperature for durability. Inexpensive terra-cotta pots will literally “melt” after a few years.
Terra cotta’s advantage can also be a disadvantage when it comes to maintenance. The breathability makes it prone to drying out quickly. In addition, it can stain easily. Glazing the inside of the pot and/or saucer can help retain water.
Another natural product, quarried stone, is also available. Although quarried stone might be beautiful and durable, it is also extremely heavy and can be expensive.
Cast stoneware or precast concrete are other “natural” ways to go. Precast concrete is technically just any concrete that is not cast in place, so cast stone might technically be called precast concrete. However, industry standards demand that cast stone does not contain “bugholes” or air voids. The texture is fine-grained and normally achieved by acid etching. Cast stone will not crack or break and is sometimes said to have an infinite warranty.
Sometimes a rough surface is desired, and precast concrete delivers. Concrete is sometimes considered an ecological alternative to other materials. For example, NativeCast makes a lightweight cement based composite using materials based in Delaware and recycled materials as well.
“I experimented with various lightweight materials until settling on my custom blend of eco-friendly concrete made with recycled products and ingredients native to the region (shells, sand, pine needles, etc.),” says Ricky Giacco, company founder. “This mix is the basis now for all of my work at NativeCast, because it’s durable, lightweight, casts beautifully and is easy on the planet.” NativeCast designs range from planters that look like hollowed out tree branches to sleek, contemporary bowls and troughs.
Metal can also be used. “I’ve used cast iron in the past when people want a formal look,” says Brent. While cast iron urns are extremely durable, their cost and weight might cause second thoughts. Plus, Brent points out that they are narrow at the bottom and wide at the top. “That’s great because you can put lots of plants in them, but they dry out really fast,” she says.
Metallic looks can also be sleek and contemporary. Most metal containers will age gracefully with an aged patina. However, depending on the type of metal, some will rust. Metal containers can be dented if handled roughly or bumped.
Finally, glazed ceramics are a classic. Glazed ceramics were the industry standard for years, offering a sleek, clean look that complements any decor. And, should a client opt for something more ornate and decorative, ceramics can be bold and bright as well.
However, ceramics are easily damaged. Drop a ceramic pot and it’s probably history. Plus, they are easily cracked. (Be sure to “ping” new ceramic containers. They should give a ringing note. If a clunky sound results, the pot is probably cracked.)
Of course, wood can be used as well. Square wooden planters painted white are a classic look for summer. Oak half-barrels filled with flowers make a great rustic accent. Wood will eventually decompose, but choosing redwood planters can delay the process. Planters can also be treated and/or painted to extend their life.
All of these more natural materials are great choices. In the past, many consumers and professionals stayed away from man-made materials because they looked cheap or fake. However, today new fiberglass, plastics or composites offer planters that are such great imposters that it is almost impossible to tell the difference … until you lift them.
“I like the fiberglass because it’s light and easy to move,” says Brent. In fact, one of the most venerable ceramics companies on the West Coast, Gainey Ceramics in La Verne, California, is now exclusively manufacturing fiberglass containers after closing its ceramics division a few years back. Even with the savings and the advantage that the pottery did not need be shipped from overseas, the company found that it couldn’t compete with Asian ceramic imports and decided to embrace the new customer demand for lightweight products.
However, the company is still committed to producing planters as sustainably as possible. “Our Gainey fiberglass pottery is eco-friendly using a minimum of 25 percent recycled materials, such as resin, fiberglass and gel coat,” says Jaylene Loera, product manager. “Our planters have the durability for extreme climate conditions and yet are easy to manage with the light weight of fiberglass. We carry more than 40 different colors from high gloss to matte and styles from ancient Roman vessels to today’s modern styles.”
And then, of course, there’s plastic. Don’t roll your eyes. There are new plastics that—like fiberglass—can pass for ceramic or terra cotta. Contemporary high-end plastic containers can work in any landscape. However, be sure to chose a quality product, because cheap plastic looks like … well, plastic.
Getting down in the dirt
Once you’ve selected the container, the fun part begins. Coming up with planting combinations is not only a horticultural challenge, but can also bring out the inner artist in you.
“All of my container designs in the recent couple of years used succulents because of ease of maintenance and low water demands,” says Christiane Holmquist, landscape designer and horticulture consultant, Christiane Holmquist Landscape Design in San Diego County, California. “I like to arrange the plants in contrasting forms and textures; their color should complement the client’s selection of pot.”
In Southern California’s mild climate, a wide palette of succulents that can live outdoors all year long is available. Drought-tolerant and low-maintenance, the shapes and sizes also offer enticing design possibilities. “Depending on character of landscape, the plants selected are either ‘softer,’ such as Echeverias, or ‘edgier’ and ‘drier,’ such as Agaves or Yuccas. I also like Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’ and Portulacaria afra, which is very popular these days,” Holmquist shares. “I always strive to incorporate a shrub or grass but restrict my selection to those that are very drought tolerant.”
On the other side of the country, Brent goes for a softer look. “One of my new favorites is the Mandevilla vine. That and Dipladenia are superstars in containers.” Dipladenia is in the Mandevilla family but while Mandevilla is a vine, Diplandenia is a dense, compact plant with stems that grow down and hang.
“They tolerate drought and take a little shade if they have to. They live and bloom until frost. Deer don’t eat them; bugs don’t eat them,” Brent enthuses. “They’re pretty impressive.”
Brent has one other go-to favorite: Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia). “The wonderful chartreuse color just pulls everything together,” she says.
Your imagination and your client’s sense of adventure are the only limits when it comes to container plantings. One of Brent’s favorite planters is a client’s old bathtub. “They are kind of a quirky couple and wanted to keep the bathtub after a remodel,” Brent says. “So now it’s at their summer home. It’s a lot of fun. We fill it with huge canna lillies, bulbs—just about anything. It weighs about 800 pounds and takes five guys to move it, but they love it!”
With spring right around the corner, consider container plantings to provide a bit of extra pizzazz for your clients’ properties. With all the options available, there’s a pot for every plant.