Lately I've been suffering from container envy. Freud might disagree, but having big beautiful containers definitely creates a feeling of great fulfillment.
Take that fabulous Victorian chimney pot I saw in an Olympia garden, which looked like a gigantic knight from a chess game. It stood up proudly in the center of a bed with a froth of red Begonia boliviensis 'Bonfire' spilling out the top. The flowers draw hummingbirds, and the leaves are long and serrated.
To plant this sensational trailing begonia in the ground would be criminal - the flowers would flop around, perhaps even get smashed into the soil. But in a tall container, the begonia is free to drape and spill, and becomes a glorious focal point.
Often one particularly riveting plant is enough, all by itself. A 'Red Sensation' cabbage tree (Cordyline australis) with long, rich red-bronze leaves, in an attractive glazed pot of a contrasting color, say turquoise or forest green, becomes a piece of garden art.
One agave, with golden-edged leaves, in a big terra-cotta pot, creates quite a stir. The rigid and succulent leaves flare out from the center in the shape of a rosette. Needlelike thorns on the edges of the leaves and a terminal spine at the tip can be dangerous, so give this plant a wide berth when weeding nearby.
With my own garden looking especially cluttered this year - a mishmash of containers housing irresistible agaves, cannas, dahlias and flaxes - I decided to get some help from Monty Moore, owner of A Fine Flower Co. A flower arranger and container designer, Moore has an artist's eye. In the end, his enthusiasm only stirred up craving for more and bigger pots, as well as new plants that I must rush out to buy. Still, I came away with tips for better container gardens, which I'll pass along.
• Repetition creates continuity.
You can accomplish this by keeping pot shapes uniform - all round or all square. Or select containers of the same material, whether terra cotta, glazed ceramic or wood. Moving from a sunny to a shady area, repeat the flower colors to keep the picture flowing. Start with red geraniums in the sun and shift to red impatiens in the shade.
• Use about half foliage to half flowers.
Moore approaches container design the same way he looks at flower arranging. On his front desk, a bouquet of yellow lilies and golden loosestrife had golden-variegated hosta leaves at the edges. It was the bold, colorful foliage that framed the picture and made it sing. It's the same in a container.
New Zealand flax, 'New Guinea' impatiens and canna lilies are three of Moore's favorite upright foliage plants, each with substantial and colorful leaves. To trail at the edge of a pot, he likes golden Japanese forest grass, with slender, weeping blades, and golden licorice plant.
• Vary the size and shape of flowers.
To keep a container interesting, include large flowers like dahlias, geraniums, tuberous begonias and lilies for the main attraction. Add smaller flowers to fill in - million bells, verbena and 'Lemon Gem' marigolds. Juxtapose columnar and circular shapes - purple salvia with round verbenas, or upright fuchsias with billowing bacopa.
• One big, oversize pot is better than several small ones.
In his own garden, Moore planted a 3-foot-long window box in layers, orchestrating foliage and flowers to create a dramatic display. At the back stand several tall Hibiscus acetosella, with tropical bronze leaves and burgundy flowers. Coming forward, 'New Guinea' impatiens and 'Gartenmeister Bonstedt' fuchsias share the next layer. Next come coleus with chartreuse and burgundy leaves, and a final edging of red and coral-flowering million bells.
• Always add some interesting and unexpected plants.
In a blue container designed for a spring display, blue and yellow primroses and yellow daffodils made a fresh splash of early color. To get some height into the composition, Moore cut stems of yellow-twig dogwood and stuck them into the pot.
He likes lantanas with small flowers in a summer container, for interesting little punches of color. On a high-rise patio in the Pearl, he planted 'Golden Raindrops' crab apple in a large pot for its unusual incised leaves and yellow fruit, and used containers of red cabbage trees to screen an eyesore. Moore might place ornamental kale at the edge of a pot instead of petunias, or mix bamboo with red-flowering pineapple sage.
'I want people to be delighted by the plants. They should speak to the soul, not just the eye,' he says.
• Third annual Association of Northwest Landscape Designers 'Behind the Scenes' garden tour, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, July 22. Six gardens designed by professionals demonstrating new plants, new structures and artwork. For ticket ($15, $7.50 for students and ANLD members) and other information, see www.anld.com.