Category Archives: container gardening

Lessons from Butchart Gardens and the Pacific Northwest

I can see snow-covered Mt. Rainier from my sister's deck. Last night a rainbow bridged the Puget Sound which flows around Fox Island at the southern end of the sound. The landscape here is lush and green. Dogwoods, foxgloves and rhododendrons are still in full bloom. This temperate rain forest receives more rain than ours but I see many of the same woodland plants that we grow. I study each garden for new ideas.

The next day we head for Vancouver Island. As the clouds clear the Victoria Clipper pulls into the harbor. The Empress Hotel's landscaping is picture perfect. Purple rhododendron, hosta, and hellebore grow under the white Kousa dogwood trees. Late afternoon sun backlights each leaf. Gingko trees and weeping birch frame the Parliament building. The lights come on and outline each gable and tower. Still exploring the city later I look at my watch. It's after 10pm and still light. I forget we are closer to the land of the midnight sun at this latitude.

Visiting gardens is always the highlight of all my trips.  Butchart Gardens, a National Historic site of Canada, is a prime example of quarry restoration. Huge 100 year old poplar trees with gnarled trunks frame the famous sunken garden. Throughout the perfectly manicured lawns perennial beds grow oriental poppy, Japanese iris, Asian lily, hosta, black mondo grass, black-eyed susan, and lady's mantle. This kind of perfection comes with a price. We saw several gardeners raking and deadheading while several others cleaned around the stone border with pastry brushes.

Victoria is famous for its hanging baskets. At Butchart Gardens several hundred hand from every arbor, trellis, pergola and shepherd's hook. Mixed baskets of long blooming annuals and perennials are started early in the greenhouse then brought out in full bloom. One of my favorites featured peach-toned tuberous begonias, trailing sapphire lobelia, bacopa and coral calibrachoa. I was drawn to the dozens of hanging fuchsias and a rainbow of begonias planted with columbine, ferns and gold acorus grasses.

It must be fun to plant up the large pots that decorate the grounds. Even the wooden recycling receptacles have mixed planting on the top. Several noteworthy pots were planted with orange flowering maples paired with blue Mexican poppies and a variegated geranium. Another we liked contained a striking Electric Pink cordyline, coral petunia, calibroachoa and Bonfire begonia.

Fragrant flowers entice the senses and are planted everywhere. Strolling through the garden, vanilla scented heliotrope greet you. Spice-scented stock is planted nose high atop rock walls. Mrs. Butchart started this tradition and the garden strives to have something fragrant blooming every season of the year.

The roses were just starting to open. Many of them originated in England and Australia. The Queen's Pink peony Golden Jubilee was honored with decorative flags hung from the light posts. Flanked my tall gorgeous blue delphiniums it was quite a sight.

If it was early for the roses, the peony did not disappoint. I have never seen so many in one place. This climate is perfect for their culture. I had a hard time deciding which was my favorite. Double deep burgundy flowers grew alongside soft peach and bright pink ones. A cool white one paired well with Bridal Veil spirea. A soft peach variety looked great with the darker orange oriental poppies.

Always on the lookout for planting ideas, the endless vignettes were inspiring. The many different garden rooms in this garden allowed for countless combinations. One that caught my eye paired a purple smoke bush with coral verbascum and the variegated iris pallida. The blue flowers of the iris contrasted perfectly with the coral flowers and burgundy foliage of the other two plants.

I saw this garden in a new light on this visit. It was spectacular. Next week I'll recount my visit to Abkhazi Garden outside Victoria.

Container Planting 101

A tree in full bloom is a breathtaking sight. A flowering shrub covered with fragrant blossoms is awe inspiring, too, but it's a spectacular group of plants in a great container that never fails to get my attention.

I love container gardening. Whether combining edibles with flowering plants or succulents with lots of color in an interesting container, I can never have enough in my garden. I nestle them along paths, stage them on the deck and admire them everywhere I see them in nurseries, magazine articles and other gardens.

You can grow anything in a container.  Herbs and other edibles, fragrant flowers to attract beneficial insects, California natives or even plants that glow in the moonlight.

There's a spot on my deck that I see right outside my kitchen window. In the spring I grow red tulips to contrast against the green shrubs in the background.  They're a beautiful sight. This year I didn't have much of a display as the squirrels decided they loved them, too. Now I'm yearning for that bright red spot of color to brighten my view.

[ I'm putting together a container with a thriller, fillers and spillers featuring vivid red and contrasting purple with some  pink, white and gray to cool and complete the vignette. Here's how I went about putting together this mixed container.

I started with a classic color scheme, combining a primary color with a secondary color- red with purple. Can't go wrong with that. But then I saw this empty beautiful teal blue glazed pot in a corner of my transplant area and decided that maybe a mixed color container would echo that English garden look. So much for a planned color scheme. When it gets down to it whatever looks good to you is the perfect combination.

I've chosen plants that have the same light requirements. A container in full shade might have a Japanese painted fern as the focal point, a burgundy oxalis triangularis as filler and Kenilworth ivy to spill over the sides. A container of sun-loving natives could combine one of the new colors of mimulus or monkey flower with a lewisia and an Emerald Carpet manzanita to spill over the edge.

Opposite colors that always look good together are red and green, the Christmas colors, yellow and purple, the Easter egg colors or orange and blue, the sunset colors. Mix them with a color next door on the color wheel or white or gray to blend everything together.

My thriller ( the tallest plant ) is a vivid red nicotiana. I loosen each root ball with my trusty kitchen fork that I often use for this purpose as it's easier to control  than a larger garden claw. Depending on how root bound the plant is, don't be afraid to score or scratch the outer and bottom tangled roots. If you don't your plant may never really grow into the surrounding soil.  

My pot will be seen from the front only so I'll position this plant toward the back. If your container will be seen from all sides then start in the middle and work out to the edges. Make sure there is some fresh soil between each root ball and also around the sides of your container.

I use a good quality potting soil and work in some control release fertilizer before planting. I'll water everything in to settle the soil after planting with a dilute solution of fertilizer like Maxsea 3-20-20 Blossom Booster because the extra phosphorus will encourage rooting and also the next round of flowers in my container.

Sometimes, I put just one plant in each pot. A specimen like a bold hosta or Japanese maple doesn't need any help to make a statement. Ditto for the All-Gold Japanese Forest grass, hydrangeas and roses. You can stage several pots to make a dramatic composition. A short but showy plant can be elevated up off the ground at eye level if placed on a plant stand or overturned clay pot. Smaller plants grouped at the front can hide what's behind if needed.

When planting mixed containers never use more than three plants colors, two is sometimes enough.  That doesn't count green, unless it's lime.  Skimpy pots are a miss, pack the plants so the pots are full when you're done.  You want the pots to look good right away.  Big pots, at least 16" across are dramatic and make a nice contrast to matching smaller ones.

Be sure to have the children plant up containers of their own. Plants that appeal to their senses are always a big hit.   Soft, touchable plants like lambs ears and artemisia 'Powis Castle', or fragrant plants like chocolate cosmos and scented geraniums are easy to grow. Or plant up a pizza container with bell pepper, cherry tomato, basil and oregano.

Another idea is to plant up a salsa container with tomatillo, cilantro, jalapeno peppers and tomatoes. Harvest some onions and garlic from the garden and a lime from the potted lime tree you have growing on the patio and you'll have delicious salsa on no time.

The ideas for great container gardens are endless. Try a new combination this year.

Art & Landscapes @ the DeYoung & Palace of Fine Arts

Still thinking of what to give that special someone for Christmas? Recently I spent the day at the De Young Museum enjoying the Renaissance paintings on loan from Venice, Italy. Also got over the The Palace of Fine Arts for the exhibit of the the Impressionist, Passarro.

 The paintings are powerful and inspiring. I was especially drawn to the landscapes. Looking at the pomegranate, olive and apple trees gave me some ideas for holiday presents.

Because Venice was literally built on a forest of tree trunks driven into the mud of a marsh it's geography is unique. In a city built on water, plants were highly valued and nurtured on terraces and courtyards. There was a longing for natural settings and this is clear in the the Renaissance painters work. Mediterranean plants from the mainland were brought over to grace the houses of the wealthy. Laurel trees, signifying purity and chastity, are often depicted in these masterpieces.

What a great gift one of these masterpieces  would make. But what if you don't have millions to buy an original? Here are some other ideas to consider.

The landscapes depicted in many of the paintings inspired me to work on my Christmas list.  I'm a gardener starved for color, life and greenery.  It was 29 degrees in my garden in Felton this morning and I know many of you experienced even colder temps after the brightness of the stars on a clear overnight sky.

Thick frost finished off this year's garden- what was left after the wind storm anyway. Even the more sheltered places look a little winter weary this year. Winter is here a tad early for our California gardens. Make the most of those empty spaces in your garden and those of the fellow gardeners you'd like to remember during the holidays.

Are your containers looking a little sad about now? A little bleak and bare? Then so are everybody else's. Why not go beyond cabbages and pansies and give some inspiration with colorful textural combinations that will last through the darkest days of winter.

Native plants grow well in containers. Sure most are great drought tolerant additions to the garden but have you thought about putting them together in a container for giving to someone on your list? Any of the cool blue succulents in the dudleya family look breathtaking planted in blue glazed container. A manzanita like Dr. Hurd  looks quite dramatic in a large pot. Don't worry about if the plant will outgrow the container eventually. You are essentially planting a giant bonsai and root pruning every few years will keep both of you happy and healthy. Drainage is the most important aspect of planting most natives so be sure to add pumice or lava rock to your planting mix.

What else would make a good gift? There's always a new pair of gardening boots for that special gift but if you're thinking smaller, maybe a dry arrangement from seed heads, pods and foliage from your garden in a thrift shop container would fit the bill. Leaving dried perennials and grasses to overwinter in the garden is a present for our birds who appreciate the banquet. There's no need to tidy up unless they've collapsed in a slimy heap. Take advantage of the excuse to kick back over the holidays and enjoy yourself.

Succulents for Color

Fresh from a day spent among the spectacular world of succulents I’m excited about using these unique plants in new ways. Succulent Gardens in Moss Landing hosted a day of speakers, tours and demonstrations showcasing these  fabulous, unearthly-looking plants. I’ve always liked succulents grown along a walkway, around accent boulders or tucked between perennials. Now I’m creating awesome vignettes in containers that I can move under an overhang to protect from excess rainfall and frost if necessary. There are so many impressive varieties to choose from. Here are some of my favorites that I enjoyed on the tour.

Many showy succulents need only a bit of protection during our winters.  Aeonium decorum Sunburst is one of the showiest species with spectacular variegated cream and green 10" rosettes. This plant  grows 2′ tall and looks terrific with black Voodoo aeonium in a pot. Sunburst is hardy to 28 degrees while Voodoo will go down to 32 degrees. Aeoniums do so well in our climate as they come from Arabia, East Africa and the Canary Islands where winter rainfall is the norm.

Aeoniums propagated from tissue culture are now affordable. There was a time when a 2" seedling cost upwards of $100. Tissue culture involves taking the cells from the core of the plant and growing it in a sterile medium like agar. The resulting plants are exact copies of the mother plant and mature quickly.

Echeveria grow naturally in higher elevations of central Mexico to northwestern South America and so do well in our our cool wet winters. After Glow is frost tolerant and looks to be painted with florescent paint. There are spectacular hybrids being developed every year. These are not as hardy as the traditional hens and chicks but well worth the effort to find a place where they can survive a freeze. Frilly Mauna Loa sports turquoise and burgundy foliage while echeveria Blue Curls looks like an anemone in a tide pool.

Aloes from South Africa and Arabia are old world plants. Many like the medicinal aloe vera are frost tender but some, like the tree-like aloe plicitilis, are hardy down to 25 degrees and look great either in the garden or in pots.  Did you know the Egyptians used aloe in the mummification process or that there are no known wild populations of aloe? In South Africa, an aloe called ferox is used in the same way as aloe vera for burns and stomach problems. This variety is hardy down to 20 degrees and blooms in January.

When potting succulents in containers, be sure to use a quality potting mix as good drainage is essential. There are special succulent mixes available but succulents are forgiving as long as the soil drains freely. A great tip I got from Debra Baldwin, author of Designing with Succulents and Succulent Container Gardens, is to add Dry Stall to regular potting soil. Dry Stall is a horse bedding product made with pumice. It is similar to perlite although heavier and less expensive.

Her recipe for succulent soil mix differs with the size of the leaf. For fat, juicy leaves use 75-90% pumice of perlite to potting soil. Fine-leaved varieties thrive in a soil mix of 25% pumice to 75% soil and all the rest get a mixture of 50/50. Don’t add gravel or clay shards at the bottom if planting in a container as this impedes drainage. It work best to fill the entire pot with soil, top to bottom.

Because succulents use little water they are easy to care for. If you hate the idea of having to water after you get home from work, create the garden of your dreams with succulents.

Tough Succulents & other Plants for Containers

I have hundreds of plants in containers (295 at last count). You’d be amazed how many pots you can squeeze on a wrap-around deck, including the railings! Some of my favorites are those that house my succulent collection. I’ve come to think of them as pets as they grow over the years. They are tough, resilient and beautiful.

All my plants must be able to survive our winters without intervention on my part. I remember one cold snap about 10 years ago when the surface of my deck was frozen by early evening. I decided to move some cymbidium orchids onto the covered porch, slipped and almost broke my leg. Never again, I vowed. I may move a few succulents out of the pouring rain for the winter season but that’s the extent of my coddling.

The simplest and most sophisticated of all hardy container designs is to plant a skim of sedum across the surface of a shallow container. There are so many to choose from Then leave it alone to grow and drip down the sides.

Another plant combination that works well is to anchor a large pot with a slow growing shrub or dwarf tree that lends height as well as carries your display through the season.Plant a few hens and chickens (echeveria or sempervivum)  at the base and maybe a couple of blue fescue grasses for contrast.

Fast growing succulents, like trailing Sedum acre Lemon Ball or Golden Girl are fun and easy to grow and propagate. I’ve had my original for years although I thought I’d lost it last winter. Sixty inches of rain washed out all the soil in the pot and floated away most of the plant. From one small piece it has recovered beautifully.The chartreuse foliage would blend nicely with chocolate foliage like Carex Red Rooster or even chocolate cosmos.

Libertia, an iris relative with golden-orange swordlike leaves, looks great underplants with any of the succulents. This beautiful grass-like plant grows 2 ft high and 1 ft wide forming a colony by rhizomes. They are especially attractive when backlit. Clusters of inch wide, white flowers bloom from late spring to midsummer. Grow them in sun or light shade along with your succulents, phormiums and grasses.

Be sure to use a quality potting mix in your containers. There are special succulent and cactus mixes available but succulents are forgiving as long as the soil drains freely. of the pot as this impedes drainage. It work best to fill the entire pot with soil, top to bottom.

There are lots of succulents to plant up in interesting containers or simple clay pots. Some take full sun, while others like a bit of shade. Some handle frost easily while others need some protection. Let your imagination go wild.

Winter containers for Birds

Outside my window there’s a feast going on. The gingko trees are clothed in bright yellow leaves right now but soon they will drop every leaf on almost the same day and cover the ground like carpeting.  It’s a feast for the eyes.   Hopping among the branches even as I write this is a tiny greyish-olive bird with a white eye ring looking for insects.  It’s either a kinglet or a vireo.  I wish I were a better backyard birder.  The Anna’s hummingbird is also here looking for food.  What plants provide food for winter birds and also give the garden color at the same time?

Why not plant some containers that look great and will supply food for your winged visitors?   Grevillea Canberra Gem is blooming now and is a hummingbird favorite.   Combine it with winter blooming annuals like primroses or pansies and violas.    It’s always amusing to me how much the mail order catalongs from the East Coast can command for a tiny primrose division and we here in California can find them plentiful and inexpensive. 

Mahonia or Oregon grape will be blooming soon and their yellow flowers  would look great with golden Iceland poppies. Many of their leaves are purplish or bronze now that the nights have gotten cold and are very colorful.  Hummingbirds favor their flowers and many songbirds eat the delicious berries.

Penstemon are a favorite garden perennial and bloom late in the year attracting hummingbirds.  Some are short-lived but the variety, Garnet, is an exception.  Combine it with white cyclamen for a traditional holiday look.

For those really dark places, fragrant sarcococca is perfect combined with red primroses and will be blooming very soon. You can smell their perfume from a long distance. Hellebores bloom in the winter, too, and offer texture in your containers.  A variegated osmanthus will hold up in even our harshest weather and would be a show stopper in a Chinese red container.  

Dwarf nandina is perfect in winter containers,  especially now that their foliage has taken on red and orange tints.  Combine them  with a grass like orange sedge or reddish bronze carex buchananii.

Mexican Bush sage pairs beautifully with the deep golden flowers of Mexican marigold.  Both of these perennial shrubs grow to 3 ft tall and as wide and bloom in winter.  Hummingbirds love bush sage and I’ve seen them bloom right through January unless we have a hard frost.

If you have room for a small evergreen tree in the garden, consider the . It is easy to grow and has year round interest. In the fall and winter, clusters of small white or pink urn-shaped flowers attract Anna’s hummingbirds. Fruit resembling strawberries ripen in the fall and attract other birds.

Plant a feast for your eyes and for our feathered friends, too.