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Contain Yourself



We’ve spent a lot of time in these columns talking about ways of adding dimension and interest to gardens by using different planting styles and arrangements and by varying color, texture, size, quantity and other planted features of the design. As yet, however, we haven’t spent any time at all on one of the easiest and potentially most interesting ways of giving a design a unique character – one that virtually forces visitors to remember your garden.

It’s all about containers and accessories.

As simple as it seems, adding containers and other accessories – anything from simple terra cotta pots or stone benches to elaborately custom-built planter boxes or beautifully detailed garden statuary – can add marks of distinction to a garden composition. These can be planned from the start or added at any point after a design is completed. Either way, they serve to draw the visitor’s eyes or become something to be discovered as he or she wanders through the space.

It’s surprising, but many people don’t want to bother with containers or accessories because they don’t think they’re worth the cost or effort. But I look at “accessorizing” this way: Would a remodeled bathroom be complete without towels and towel racks and soap dishes? I think the underlying concept easily translates to a garden space.


I don’t see containers and accessories as random events: Any of them I place in a garden must be there with some sense of purpose. Covering a bare spot, for example, or adding height to a low planting or highlighting an art object that is the focal point of the design – these are all good reasons to include containers or accessories.

As with any other design element, the items you use should fit well with the garden’s style and work well for the intended purpose.

A “container,” by the way, is any type of vessel that can house soil and plants. This includes wooden planter boxes, ceramic pots, metal flasks, glass bowls – anything your clients like that fits well into a design. For a cottage garden, for instance, old ceramic plates or pottery that is slightly broken and can’t be used indoors can add a unique and unexpected accent that becomes just the right finishing touch.

There is, of course, a typical error that comes in using containers around swimming pools in particular: All too often, people will place a terra cotta planter next to a pool and plant it with colorful plants – and that’s the end of it, just something colorful near the pool. Little thought is given to the long-term appearance of the arrangement, and even less to how it will survive.

What happens next is that the heat that typically radiates from a pool and its concrete decking will burn the often-underwatered plants in the container. Try though they might to save the plants, your clients inevitably will lose interest in the struggle and end up with a container with dry soil and dead plants. It’s too heavy to relocate, so it just sits next to the pool, and they look at it every day while reminding themselves that they need to call their landscape professional or go to the nursery and get plants to replace the dead ones.

All of this is a cycle that will keep repeating itself until the container loses all claim to the role it was supposed to have in balancing or accenting a garden composition.


With that in mind, I recommend that you and your clients consider these questions before you get into containers or accessories – especially when plants are involved.

[ ] What is the function of the container or accessory? Do you need it to add height and dimension to an otherwise flat design? Do you need it to direct traffic to a particular location? Does the garden simply scream out for something that has more than what the existing planting beds can give? Is there some other reason the design needs a little something extra?

The motivation behind these questions is simple: You need to be very clear on why you are adding the container or accessory to the design. And no matter what you decide to use, always go back and make sure the choices fit when it comes to suiting the intended function.

[ ] What is the style of the garden? You need to determine whether or not the containers or accessories you’re considering really fit into that style. For example, terra cotta naturally goes well with cottage gardens, especially after it weathers, while metal planters or containers with crisp, straight lines go well with contemporary designs.

These are, of course, huge generalizations: Each garden and each situation is different and should be considered as such.

As you evaluate possibilities, however, you can’t go too far wrong by picking up a design element from the garden, the house or some other structure in the yard that can be mimicked. If you have a long, rectangular, contemporary lap pool, for instance, you might look for low, rectangular planter boxes. In doing so, you’ve kept with the contemporary styling and borrowed the shape directly from the pool. Or you might add pool tiles to the sides of the planters to tie diverse design components more closely together.

Whatever path you take, your goal should be to make it look as if the planters were meant to be there.

[ ] What’s an appropriate location? Placing containers or accessories directly next to a watershape can add a lot of dimension to the design of the pool or pond and look great. Be sure to consider the watershapes’ function, however, before committing to setting something right up against it.

Near pools, for instance, many container plants will not fare well if they are doused regularly with chlorinated water. You might ask the kids not to play or splash in that particular area, but that’s a bit futile. About all you can do is set up barriers that will encourage them to do their cannonballs in another part of the pool.

Note as well that containers or accessories don’t need to be situated right on top of concrete or other decking: Pots look great, for example, when strategically scattered inside planting beds and can add height and interest especially in an area where you’re stuck with shallow planter beds that can only accommodate one-gallon (or smaller) plants.

[ ] What size is right? Remember the basic rules of design and consider the proportions of what you are using. Unless you’re creating a design that plays with ideas of proportion (and with the visitors’ heads), make sure the containers and accessories you choose fit visually.

A single 8-inch pot next to a 50-foot-long pool will most likely look lonely and out of place. By the same token, a five-ton, 14-foot-tall garden sculpture might completely overwhelm a 16-by-30-foot pool visually.

If you’re uncertain and have some time, try things on by purchasing pots or whatever you’re evaluating in a range of sizes and seeing what looks best on site. (Obviously, it’d be a good idea to buy from places to which you can return items if they’re the wrong size.) It’s also helpful to take a piece of cardboard or other sturdy material and cut it out the shape and size of the container you’re considering – then stand back and look at it from various angles. This will save you the hassle of having to cart heavy objects back to the vendor at the risk of breaking them.

One other easy way to evaluate the possibilities is to use computer technology: Take a picture of the watershape’s setting using a digital camera, then use a program like Photoshop to superimpose containers or accessories. This process also helps your clients more clearly visualize what’s going on and makes them more likely to buy into the concept.

[ ] How many containers or accessories should you incorporate? When using small containers or accessories, it’s often desirable to use more than one. Personally, I like using objects in odd numbers because it tends to lend a more natural look to the design, but if you’re after symmetry, even numbers are the ticket.

With larger objects, however, one may be enough – depending upon the intended purpose. You can always “underplant” a big feature with smaller containers to soften the base of the container or accessory and blend it more gently into the landscape. But if you’ve chosen a really unusual container or accessory that you want to use as a focal point, don’t even consider covering it up or distracting from its appearance with smaller objects.

[ ] Who’s going to water the plants? This is my personal favorite question, and I find that it’s almost invariably answered with, “Oh, we can hand-water them. There are only a few pots.”

Hand watering, in my experience, is the easiest way to ensure that a client’s wallet will run as dry as their plants will. Your clients’ vacations, for example, will almost certainly coincide with the death of their container plantings, and it’s easy for them to forget even when they’re around that heat can dry out planters and pots almost as soon as they’re watered.

It’s not always practical, but drip irrigation may be the best solution. These systems assure a steady, slow feeding and can be placed on a schedule to water several times each day.

[ ] What types of plants should you put into a container? I could go on for pages about great container plants and potting combinations, but I will save that discussion for the next issue.

In general, however, there’s an important consideration in selecting plants for this purpose: Most plants will not reach their full potential in a container. The sides and base impose barriers to the natural root growth that would occur if the plant were placed in the ground with unlimited potential for underground expansion.

This doesn’t mean you should avoid using containers. It simply means that you need to know your plants, make your clients aware of this potential downside, prepare them for the responsibility they’ll be assuming and let them know that you’re thinking ahead for their benefit.

Stephanie Rose wrote her Natural Companions column for WaterShapes for eight years and also served as editor of LandShapes magazine. She may be reached at [email protected].

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