Read an Excerpt
Containers can be employed in a variety of ways to enhance the architecture of the house and the garden itself. In this chapter, all the possible situations for displaying containers are examined, and their particular attributes and constraints are discussed in detail. Patios and roof gardens, entrances and steps, paths and alleys, balconies and verandahs offer many design opportunities for large and small containers, and for container groupings. Choosing an appropriate container style, creating a balanced plant display that is in scale with the architecture of the house, and massing together color and shape in attractive and interesting ways are all key elements in achieving a successful scheme.
Before planning your display, it is important to assess the practical constraints of the situation as part of the overall design consideration - for example, you might want to train your plants to provide shelter on a windy roof terrace or employ tough plants as a screen for more tender specimens, or achieve a good vertical display of plants in a narrow space by using climbers or wall pots. This chapter provides useful guidelines on these more practical questions, as well as inspiration for attractive planting schemes.
Entrances and Steps
First impressions are extremely important, and nowhere is this more true than for the entrance to a house or apartment. Very often the path to the front door or the steps leading up to it offer no actual space for the soil. Containers of plants make the perfect solution, providing a splash of color in what otherwise be a monochromatic area of brickwork or paving. In addition, foliage and flowers can have the effect of softening the hardtexture of the stone and concrete walls or paving, creating an altogether less forbidding approach to the building.
The architecture of the house provides the backdrop to the container planting and you should take this into account in deciding what container to use. Brick, stucco, shingle, tiles and stone are all used for house walls, while the doorway itself can be in any number of styles from classical to rustic, gothic or colonial. Pick containers that blend with it - not only in shape, color and material, but in size as well so the scale is right. The geometric simplicity of most townhouse doorways is enhanced if you position a container on either side, planted up with identical plants, whether in the form of, say, a pair of clipped box balls or large displays of ox-eye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare). For a country home with a rustic door or porch, a looser style of planting combining climbing plants with some perennial would look charming.
Aromatic plants are particularly valuable for entrances. Sweetly scented climbers are always a good choice, as they provide such a wonderful welcome and take up relatively little of the available space on the ground. Among the most popular are honeysuckle, (Lonicera spp.), jasmine and many forms of rose (although some are very much more strongly perfumed than others - the deep pink 'Zephirine Drouhin' is one, and many of the old-fashioned roses are also deliciously scented). You can plant climbers together in a large container and allow them to scramble through each other. Annuals such as sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus) can also be induced to climb and scramble over existing shrubs in an informal cottage-style arrangement, although you will not get the same sized blooms as you would in a more open situation. In spring some of the scented bulbs are worth growing in pairs of containers - the small, highly scented narcissi, for example, or pots of hyacinths: the large cultivated forms combine well with grape hyacinths (Muscari spp.). For summer, large pots of heavily scented Regal lilies (Lilium regale) make a wonderful addition to any entrance. Plant them either side of a conservatory door, for instance, but make sure that you stake them as discreetly as possible (see pages 72-73). Nothing looks worse than to see handsome flowering plants whose appearance is marred by prominent and unattractive stakes.
The size of the container, and of the display, is as important as the style: a planted pot roughly one third of the height of the doorway seems to offer a comfortable balance between the architecture and the planting. Poky containers simply look dwarfed and excessively large ones dominate the doorway, although if in doubt go for bigger rather than smaller pots.
Color is important too. Try to avoid the obvious contrasts of, say, white stucco walls and red geraniums (Pelargonium cvs.) and opt instead for something more subtle - a scheme which is a mixture of soft apricot and pale blue flowers with silver-gray or variegated silver-and-green foliage. Alternatively use the color of the front door as a key and link the flower scheme with the building in this way. A deep purple front door could be flanked by terracotta pots containing blue rue (Ruta graveolens 'Jackman's Blue') mixed with heliotropes, for examp1e, with a deep blue/purple Viticella clematis climbing over it. If you do not opt for a formal evergreen planting of, say, box (Buxus sempervirens) balls, which look good all year round, you will have to be prepared to change the planting with the seasons. You could maintain the same large central shrub or climber in the container, and then change the surrounding smal1er p1ants seasonally (see Large Containers, pages 38-41). If you want to adopt a single-color theme, you could plant white crocuses or dwarf narcissus 'Bridal Veil' for the spring, followed by white pansies or Sutera diffusa (sold as Bacopa 'Snowflake') for early summer, and white busy lizzies (Impatiens cvs.) or tobacco plants (Nicotiana cvs.) for mid- to late summer.
Another important factor to bear in mind when planting up containers for entrance displays is the aspect, since there is often very little shade in front gardens. If you have a south-facing entrance, in full sun, you can feature Mediterranean-style plants, a number of which are distinguished by silvery or felted leaves, among them herbs like artemisia, santolina and lavender, all of which can then be clipped into neat shapes for a formal look or left to sprawl lazily over the edges of the pots for a more country-style appearance. Mulching the tops of containers with a layer of pebbles in any sunny situation will help to conserve moisture (see page 89). For shady entrances, go for larger pots of big-leaved architectural plants, such as hostas or some of the euphorbias. The big evergreen Helleborus argutifolius (syn. H. corsicus), with its spiny, hand-shaped, glossy, green leaves, is a good all-year-round performer or in partial shade and bears large drooping clusters of lime-green flowers. When the clumps get too unwieldy, you can divide them up (see page 98), although they will take a year or two to re-establish as large clumps. If you do not like their behavior in winter, when the old stems droop as the new foliage emerges in the center, cut the old foliage down and move the container to a less conspicuous place. They need regular watering and plenty of food.