Garden Muse
by: Barbara Blossom Ashmun, Growing this Japanese maple and hosta in a big container brings them close to a bench, in Gail Austin's garden.

This spring I've gone pot crazy.

I could blame it on visiting several friends' gardens where pots formed focal points in beds and stood like works of art on their patios. I could also point a finger at stores offering pots on sale at irresistible discounts.

It would be easy to justify my pot frenzy by blaming it on that severely cold stretch this winter. I missed my garden so much that I went online and ordered way too many dahlias. My last excuse for pot mania is a big challenging bed afflicted with soil-borne fungal disease, where growing plants in pots allows me to override the problem.

But deep down I know what's behind it all. Yet another obsession has flowered in my plant-driven personality. Lately, more and more, I love looking at plants, one at a time, appreciating each one's unique beauty. Rising up out of a container, a single hosta presents its intricately patterned foliage for me to admire. Planted in a big pot, one dahlia has room to spread its roots and send up an abundance of flowering stems topped with sparkling color.

Standing several feet above ground level, plants like these that are especially delicious to slugs are much less likely to be grazed. Also, I can fill pots with a mixture of nourishing potting soil, slow-release fertilizer and sometimes even grit or gravel for better drainage, so that growing conditions are ideal.

An element in garden design

This year, I discovered that some of my heavier pots placed within beds had sunk and were becoming waterlogged - ground water would seep in through the drainage holes. I set them on bricks and chunks of flat recycled concrete to prevent this. Occasionally, I move the pots aside, then cover the ground below them with a thick layer of gravel before repositioning them.

Especially in freestanding island beds, large containers add another element to the garden's design, for a pleasing contrast with plant life. Just like a handsome birdbath placed amid greenery, a tall pot adds height, as well as a large, smooth, hard surface, a perfect foil for leaves and flowers.

For the sake of unity, I place rustic-looking terra cotta pots within three island beds to link them with each other. In the big bed near the greenhouse, I concentrate on dark-colored glazed containers - black, charcoal, brown, dark green.

Some of my containers began life as concrete birdbaths. After some years of serving their original purpose, they cracked and leaked. Filling them with water was futile, but filling them with soil and turning them into pedestal pots seemed like the best solution, especially after visiting Edelweiss Perennials ( this spring where I fell in love with hens and chicks (Sempervivum).

Like small-leaved sedums, these succulent plants have fairly shallow roots and can grow in short containers, even a birdbath filled with soil. Their thick leaves - red, green, gray, purple - were so appealing I picked up a dozen to play with. Shaped like rosettes, some are furred with 'cobwebs,' others are smooth as satin. Red stems occasionally contrast with green foliage, while bright pink flowers top some of the gray-leaved varieties.

Elevating the view

The old birdbaths have become homes to these little jewels. At ground level, in my garden, these hens and chicks would get overshadowed by bigger, showier perennials. But elevated in a birdbath at eye level, they're just waiting to surprise you, to delight you with their charming details. Now I consider all the odds and ends hanging around the potting shed as possible future pots. An old pail that leaks, the top of a birdbath that lost its pedestal, even a big enough terra cotta saucer, can turn into a container.

Two oversize turquoise pots flanking the greenhouse door are my seasonal sentries. For winter, I slide potted conifers inside their ample arms. During the cold months, an elkhorn cypress (Thujopsis dolobrata) and a 'Gold Cone' juniper framed the entry. For summer I'll change out the evergreens with potted flowering maples (Abutilon) that I've overwintered in the greenhouse.

This container craze may be an obsession, but it's a carefully thought out one. Here's my final rationalization for scouring every garden center, for schlepping home pot after pot, for turning every possible artifact into a container, one that will surely convince you to gather up more for your own garden: Growing plants in pots is like placing paintings on a gallery's wall, each one framed individually as a solo work of art.

Coming events

• Portland Dahlia Society's Final Tuber Sale and How to Grow Prize Winning Dahlias, 7:30 p.m., June 8, Rose City Park United Methodist Church, 5830 N.E. Alameda St., Portland. For more information, call 503-246-8632.

• Native Plant Sale, Audubon Society of Portland, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., May 15 and 16, 5151 N.W. Cornell Road, Portland. Event free. For more information, call 503-292-9453 or visit

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