Why Container Gardening?

Out of necessity, containers were my first garden.

When I first began to garden in Chicago, I had a third-floor balcony. Pots and containers and window boxes were my garden.

Here at Maplehurst, I have almost five acres at my disposal.

Why haven’t I “disposed” of containers?

With so much ground to cover and fill, why mess about watering pots?


Here are the reasons why I STILL love container gardening:


  • Containers help bridge the garden with the house: I love to create mini-gardens in pots on front steps, porches, and patios


  • Containers offer a nurturing environment for small or special plants: sometimes my mail-order roses are too small to go straight into the garden. I give them a year to grow on their own in a container before letting them duke it out with other plants in a mixed border.


  • Containers help me manage my urge to collect: I want to grow every plant I read about, but not all of these longed-for plants fit the style or color schemes of my current garden. If I really want to try growing something but don’t know where to put it, a pot is a perfect solution.


  • Containers bring the garden up close: For instance, I grow tulips and daffodils in the ground, but I love growing them in pots. When in bloom, I can feature those pots right on our outdoor table. When the blooms fade, I can tuck them out of sight.


  • Containers need watering and feeding but they don’t typically need weeding: I like growing edibles in containers because I don’t have to keep them weeded while I wait for harvest


  • Containers allow us to grow heat and cold sensitive plants year round no matter our weather: because I grow my pelargoniums in pots, I can keep them outside in summer and inside in winter. I can also protect some plants from strong sun or intense heat by moving them into shadier or more protected places. Containers give us flexibility.


Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.

The Joy of Seasonal “Emblems” in our Gardens

What do I mean by a Seasonal Emblem?

Think tulips in spring.

Sunflowers in summer.

Chrysanthemums in fall,

and holly with bright red berries in winter.

Seasonal emblems can be universal, but they can also be entirely personal and place-dependent.

Here at Maplehurst, there is the pink magnolia blossom in spring, the tall trumpet lilies in summer, the dahlias in fall, and the coral berries of the ‘Wintergold’ shrubs in, yes, winter. When I lived in Florida, summer was for the bright foliage of caladiums and winter was for orange blossom.

An emblem of a season is a snapshot, an image, and a powerful distillation of the season itself. It is not the plant that blooms and blooms from spring till frost.

Emblems are more ephemeral than that.


I’ve been reading a book by Kelly Norris called New Naturalism: Designing and Planting a Resilient, Ecologically Vibrant Home Garden.

This book has been helpful for me because it emphasizes the ecological function of plants rather than their ornamental attributes.

If you are like me, you design your garden or imagine new planting possibilities by thinking of favorite blooms and much-loved colors. But Norris is challenging me–indeed my own garden has been challenging me–to think more about year-round function.

Instead of asking myself, what color flower do I want here? I am learning to ask questions like,

What plant will cover the soil and shade out weeds in this bed?

What plants will provide long-lasting structure?

What plant will shoot up quickly in spring in order to out-compete the weeds before fading away to let the summer perennials take over?

But as critical as such questions are, it is also important to ask ourselves:

What will greet me in spring when the long winter is finally over?

What says summer to me?

And what will I anticipate all summer long before it finally emerges in the fall?


In other words, in our search for plants that look great all year round, we must not neglect the “emblems” of each season.

As Norris puts it,

A garden without these seasonal pacesetters can lack rhythm and start to look more like the mass-produced landscapes of the commercial world than the kinds of lovingly crafted creations better suited for home.

What sets the pace in your garden?

What are the emblems you love best?

Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.

Four Different Flavors of Garden Shade

Not all shade is created alike.

I used to wonder why certain shade-loving plants did not perform well for me. Over time, I discovered that garden conditions are multi-faceted and complex. They are never simply “sunny” or “shady.”

Every garden is unique just as every human is unique. It is as if every plot of soil had an individual fingerprint.

The gardener’s responsibility (and it is a wonderful responsibility) is to become the expert witness to her own bit of earth.

In this sense, gardens come in infinite flavors. However, just as we describe food with broad categories like salty and sweet, there are four categories that can help us make sense of our shade:

Full Shade:

On the spectrum of light conditions, there is “full sun” at one end and “full shade” at the other. Full shade is fairly easy to identify. Perhaps, it lies under the heavy canopy of a large tree. It might lie alongside a wall where the sun rarely reaches.

Full shade is usually defined as any area that receives less than three hours of direct sun daily. And most shade-loving plants would prefer cooler morning sun, rather than the burning sun of late day.

Impatiens, yew, climbing hydrangea vines, and bleeding heart all do well in full shade.

Dappled Shade:

This is a lighter shade where sunlight is filtered but bright.

Woodland plants generally love dappled shade. A honeylocust tree, with its feathery leaves, offers bright, dappled shade beneath its branches, while tall trees with large leaves, like the saucer magnolia in my own yard, can cast a very heavy shade.

Japanese anemones, like those pictured above, appreciate dappled shade, as do hydrangeas and hostas.

Dry Shade:

The quality of light isn’t the only thing to consider. There is also the matter of water. That tall, large-leaved tree? Chances are it blocks light and water. As a result, not every shade-loving plant will grow well in shady, dry soil.

Euphorbia, liriope, epimediums, and Dryopteris ferns all tolerate dry shade.

Damp Shade:

Damp shade tends to be less of a challenge than dry shade.

Plants that appreciate shady, damp areas of our gardens include astilbe, hosta, Brunnera, primulas, and trillium.

Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.

History and the Garden: Formality and Symmetry


History can be a surprising source of inspiration for our garden-making.


In her book The Morville Hours, Katherine Swift describes the process of creating a garden inspired by the history of gardening in her corner of England. Swift’s garden has separate garden “rooms” inspired by medieval gardens, Tudor gardens, and more.

But we don’t need to be quite so ambitious.

Even a quick journey through the history of garden styles can provide new ideas.

The following historical styles are united in their emphasis on formal symmetry and pattern.



Medicinal Herb Gardens

During the Middle Ages gardens were more like pharmacies.

Here is an article about medicinal plants that would have been grown in a monastic garden that we can still grow today.

Here is an article about the design of herb gardens over the years.


Tudor Knot Gardens

In an age when gardeners had access to fewer ornamental plants, garden designs were almost modern in their minimalism and simplicity. The streamlined symmetry creates a very formal effect.

The Tudor Knot garden shown here has an elaborate pattern but very little color. More about Tudor garden designs can be found here.


American Colonial Gardens

The gardens at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia have been recreated to show us the combination of symmetry, formality, and productivity that characterized these early American gardens.

Here’s an example of merging past and present with colonial style.


Victorian Carpet Bedding

The term “carpet bedding” might be new to you, but you are likely familiar with the style. Popularized by wealthy Victorians with glasshouses for growing their own annual flowers, carpet bedding is the gardening practice of laying out colorful annuals to mimic the patterns of a carpet.

We still see something like this style used in many municipal plantings and large-scale landscapes in our public places.

Here is an article about this traditional form. This style is the opposite of naturalistic gardening. Its impact comes with its bold use of monochromatic color and striking shapes. Find a brief history of carpet bedding here.


Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.

The Longest Lasting Color in the Garden


It’s the Holy Grail of gardening, isn’t it?

That plant that blooms and blooms and blooms all summer long.

Over the years, I have mostly given up on it, deciding such a thing doesn’t really exist. I’ve accepted the notion of the gardener as a conductor of a symphony, planting layers of plants so that color and flower come in waves through the year.

I do still believe that we are conductors in our gardens. And I do still believe in orchestrating a garden that pleases us as much as possible all year long.

But this year I have also discovered that some plants really do give and give and give, month after month.

Here are five plants that have surprised me this summer with their continuous bloom:


  • Agastache ‘Peachie Keen’: This agastache variety is new to me this year. I planted quite a few of them as very small plugs in the new border outside my kitchen. I have been absolutely astonished at how quickly they grew and how they have flowered all summer with the prettiest peach-colored flowers. I feel as if I’ve found a miracle plant.


  • Calamintha nepeta: This is another new-to-me plant. I bought a tray of small seedlings labeled as the variety ‘White Cloud,’ but either the plants were mislabeled or ‘White Cloud’ sometimes flowers lavender-blue. Online sources advise shearing back the spreading plants after they flower, but mine haven’t stopped flowering all summer long.


  • Verbena bonariensis: Of course, I must mention this favorite. Summer after summer, I am amazed at how beautiful this plant is all season long. Even after the vivid purple flowers fade a bit, the seedheads look beautiful in fall.


  • Dahlia ‘Happy Single First Love’: Though I have grown various dahlias for years, this variety is new to me this summer. I planted several in the new kitchen border. It looked amazing early in the summer as the dark, perfect foliage grew in. The leaves are almost black and add beautiful shadows to the border. Then these dahlias started blooming before any of my other dahlias were in flower, and they show no signs of stopping. I am keeping them deadheaded as flowers fade, but I think they will keep-on-keeping-on.


  • Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’: None of the pictures I found in books or online prepared me for how lovely this medium-sized ornamental grass is. The foliage is silvery green and white and absolutely shines. It makes everything planted nearby look better.


Explore all our Black Barn Garden Library posts here.

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