Container Clusters

– Posted in: Garden Design

07 9.19 028

06 9.19 054As a dedicated container gardener, my approach to gardening in pots is always evolving.  I wrote about my thriller, filler and spiller recipe last season, and while I’m sticking with that basic approach, I find myself more inclined to create those kinds of combinations by using a grouping comprised of individual plants in their own pots. Groupings provide a lot of flexibility in design, plenty of eye candy, and a richly rewarding splash of structure in the garden.

THBG Pandanus pot

The same basic horticultural rules rules apply: plants for groupings should be selected based on having like needs for light exposure, say full sun , [part shade whatever but, beyond that, the individual pot ideas frees up a lot possibilities – some pots may contain a soil mix for desert or dryland plants while others can hold rich and moisture retentive soil to accommodate tropical specimens. Individual pots can be watered as much-or as little–as needed. It’s not like having a whole lot of plants stuffed into a single container so that every one must share the same needs for hydration. You could even, in the same grouping, use sun and shade plants by positioning shade lovers under the canopy provided by larger sun seekers. So, as you might imagine, you can suddenly be working with an oversized plant palette limited only by your ability to dream up new combinations. The terrific cluster above comes from Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, MA.

SS garden 183

Groupings provide a simple solution for problem areas. Got some hardscape–patio, deck or porch–that needs softening up? Look how a collection of varied groupings has transformed my pergola area off the back of the house.

SS garden 173

It didn’t take a whole lot of work to turn our outdoor dining area from drab to delightful. For another example of the transformative power of a collection of plants in their own pots, look at this fine solution at Wave Hill in NY.

WH potted terrace

 The sculptural shapes of those shrubs and trees transform this space into a geomteric fantasyland. This idea works wonders in problem areas where the soil is too rocky, where tree roots make digging problematic or whatever.

Loomis Creek.BBG 069

Container clusters can be used to make an entirely new garden feature like this island bed at the Berkshire Botanical Gardens designed by Margaret Roach and Bob Hyland (Bob is one of the owners of Loomis Creek Nursery, in Hudson, NY. You can see more of Bob’s, and more of Bob and Margaret’s pots over at Clatter Valley).

My succulent tower

THBG conifer potstCollections shine in container groupings too. I have several islands of succulents out in garden areas farther from the house. The indiviudal pots make it easy to show off each little sculptural pearl as if in its own setting, and since they are xeric as all get out, I never need to water them. But pickier plants can be grouped together too, as readily shown by this tasty collection of conifers displayed at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, MA.

Long Island spring 09 083 

When I’m creating displays I usually design around one exceptionally nice pot or pot/plant pairing. It helps if all the pots are of a similar material–all terra-cotta, say–but some mix-and-match is okay. I often use cheapo black plastic nursery pots if I can hide them behind other more presentable pots, and it’s surprising how often I can find a way to do that. Heck, you don’t even need to put plants in the pots, as shown by this collection of earthy, organic-looking ceramic forms at LongHouse Reserve in East Hampton, NY.

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

Steve Silk

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Sunita August 25, 2009, 10:04 am

I love that feeling of abundance seen in your photos. More than anything I think that potential for mobility is what would attract me to container gardening. You know, switch things around every once in a while.
I love what you’ve done in your pergola area. Its got an tropical rainforest look about it!

Thanks Sunita, an imagined tropical landscape is my inspiration. You’ve hit on it-the mobility is key-you can swap things out, rearrange as some plants grow larger and generally just add and subtract to keep things lively and changing throughout the season.–Steve

Helen at Toronto Gardens August 25, 2009, 10:05 am

Beautiful displays! But unless you’re willing to be ever-vigilant about watering (not if you’re a lazy gardener like me), container gardens can frizzle in the heat. When it comes to pots, I’m more the three big rocks kind of gal.

Watering takes some discipline, and you can’t slack off but, as you point out, even empty pots, even clustered, make a fine addition to almost any garden.–Steve

Randy August 25, 2009, 12:37 pm

Container gardens are wonderful, but I can never manage to stay on top of the watering. In our heat they dry out so very fast.

I admit, the watering gets me down after a while. But the show makes it worthwhile and having all the pots clustered makes it a lot easier.–Steve

Frances August 25, 2009, 2:27 pm

Hi Steve, I was enthralled by your container work last year, but these ideas are even more useful for me. Having one plant in each pot is just brilliant when making arrangements, so easy to switch out. The examples you show are marvelous, but the Margaret and Bob island makes my heart sing. I love those low wide containers! 🙂

I agree Frances–that is a wonderful way to enliven a broad sweep of lawn and to create a centerpiece with a life of its own that manages to not compete with the surrounding gardens. Inspired!–Steve

Mr. McGregor's Daughter August 25, 2009, 3:25 pm

Fantastic – I need lots more containers!

I’ve been collecting them for years. Whenever I see a good one at a knocked down price- I grab it. But you can hide lots of crummy ones behind the showier pots.–Steve

Sylvana August 25, 2009, 11:44 pm

OMG! I feel that I’ve been doing this gardening thing all wrong after looking at this glorious display! I’m speechless.

All it takes is a lot of playing with pots. You can arrange and rearrange to your heart’s content.–Steve

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