I have long been a gardener in search of the best container.
Over time, I have come to use terra cotta pots almost exclusively in my garden. Here’s why:
For a natural material, non-plastic container, you can’t beat the price of terra cotta. They are also easy to find. Available at every garden center, I have found the best prices at my local independent nursery.
When a container inevitably cracks and breaks, there’s no need to throw the pieces in the garbage. I keep a big bucket of all my broken terra cotta and use these pieces to cover the drainage hole at the bottom of a new pot. This keeps soil from escaping every time you water. For big pots, I sometimes pile a whole bunch of broken terra cotta at the bottom of my pot in order to use less potting soil.
Terra cotta is permeable in a way that plastic is not. This means that terra cotta containers dry out much more quickly, and you will probably find that you need to water them more often than other containers. This may sound like a drawback, but I have found that most of my container plants prefer not to sit in soggy soil. Quick-drying terra cotta works well for me. It’s easy to add water to the potting soil but impossible to take it away.
Terra cotta is a classic garden look, and, in my opinion, goes with just about everything. Once upon a time, my garden was a mishmash of different containers with different colors and different materials. I appreciate that my many pots now look cohesive and coordinated with little effort. A terra cotta pot looks as good in a fancy estate garden or botanical garden as it does on a humble back porch.
Terra cotta pots are not as lightweight as plastic or some of the new hybrid materials, but they do weigh less than concrete or cast iron. In places with cold winters, they generally shouldn’t be left outside as the freeze/thaw cycles can encourage cracking.
Pro tip: I write “pro” with a smile on my face, as I tended container plants for years without realizing what I now feel should have been obvious: when planting, do not fill your pot all the way to the top with soil. Instead, keep the soil line at least an inch or two below the rim. This means that you can water without washing soil over the edge of your pot every single time. That classic rim on many terra cotta pots? It’s a great guide. Simply fill to the bottom of that top band or edge. When you water, the water can slowly soak in, no potting soil wasted.
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I lived and gardened in northeastern Florida for two years.
Those were lonely, often difficult years, but there were bright spots, mostly of the botanical sort: thick bougainvillea vines tracing patterns on the walls of old St. Augustine, the intoxicating scent of jasmine, the dry rustle of Queen palms.
Here are the garden plants I remember most fondly from those hot and humid days, and–to help us all out–some suggestions for plants that might give similar effects in more northern places.
I will never forget stepping out of the car at a Florida park near my home and seeing a Passionflower vine for the first time. I was like a cartoon character–eyes almost popping out of my head–what could this be?? This bizarre, alien, vivid, purple beauty? It was too strange to be real. And yet, there it was, curling its way around and around the wooden fence that separated parking lot from park.
Passionflower is a native of the southeastern U.S. and can actually be grown as far north as zone 6. It is a vigorous grower. If passionflower isn’t the vine for you, the famous clematis variety ‘Jackmanii’ makes a stunning, purple substitute.
Queen palms are elegant trees with a dry, silvery beauty. River birch is a lovely native tree–excellent for wildlife–that brings a similar textural beauty to our gardens.
The first year in my Florida garden, I was astonished to discover the exotic greenhouse beauty of an amaryllis flowering in our slightly shady side yard. I’d never seen a flower like that growing outside. Southern and northern gardeners can enjoy these flowers that have long been associated with Christmas celebrations. In the north, we can keep potted bulbs indoors to bring much-needed botanical beauty to long winter days.
Star jasmine (sometimes called Confederate jasmine) was a garden plant I discovered by smell, not sight. The scent used to taunt me as I took walks around our Florida neighborhood. It didn’t take me long to discover that the scent belonged to a gorgeous, starry-flowered vine growing on many back fences. My Pennsylvania garden is far too cold for Star Jasmine, but I achieve a similar white-flowering perfume by growing moonflower vines from seed. These annual vines take time to grow, but by the end of summer I usually have a few flowers opening up each evening. And all it takes is one to stop you in your tracks.
Most of us know that too little water can be a problem for our gardens, but we’ve probably given less thought to the problem of too much.
But is it problem or opportunity?
That damp or boggy section of your garden might be a problem in need of a solution: perhaps a French drain or raised beds. But perhaps all it needs is the right plants.
As the garden writer Beth Chatto famously said,
Right plant, right place.
That simple phrase rocked the gardening world because it turned so much gardening practice on its head. Rather than attempting to change the conditions they’d been given, Chatto insisted, good gardeners should study their garden and choose the right plants for the conditions they had.
If that’s the approach you’re determined to take, here are some trees, shrubs, and perennials that don’t mind having “wet feet”:
- River Birch
- Red maple
- Weeping willow
- Bottlebrush Buckeye
- Sweet Pepperbush
- Hardy Hibiscus
- Black Snakeroot
- Meadow Rue
- Bee Balm
- Siberian iris
- Japanese iris
- Calla Lilies
- Elephant’s Ear
- Joe-pye Weed
- Royal fern
- Ostrich fern
Finally, is your wet area simply damp or is it completely submerged for days on end?
Keep this question in mind as you choose your plants. Some of these can handle dampness, while others can manage even prolonged submersion.
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Understory trees, they’re called, and I love them.
They are wonderful for small gardens because they naturally grow to only a very manageable size. In larger spaces, these are the trees we need to fill in that layer between the tops of our tall trees–our maples and pines, for instance–and the ground below.
Understory trees give us a whole new layer in the garden and help close the gap between the flowers near the ground and the sky above.
I also love understory trees because they seem to me to be especially beautiful. Many trees flower and produce fruit, but understory trees flower and give fruit right at eye level.
Here are a few of my favorites. These grow well where I live in zone 6 on the east coast of the U.S. They may grow well for you, too, but I hope they at least inspire you to search out the small trees that grow well in your place.
- Carolina silverbell (halesia carolina): Possibly my all-time favorite tree. Beautiful shape. Amazing, delicate bell-like flowers in late spring.
- Japanese Snowbell (styrax japonicus): Simply wonderful. The shape is umbrella-like and perfect for a small patio. The dangling flowers are beautiful in very late spring. White blooming and pink blooming varieties are available.
- Redbud (cercis canadensis): An eastern U.S. native. This purple spring-bloomer comes in many special varieties.
- White Fringetree (chionanthus virginicus): Another beautiful native selection. The fringe-like flowers in spring have an incredible scent. This is another good choice for a small patio.
- Witch Hazel (hamamelis): Witch hazels are yet another wonderful native understory tree. These come in many colors, some scented, and they are especially valued because they bloom in late winter when nothing else is in flower.
Gardeners may begin gardening because of a love for flowers or fresh vegetables, but most of us progress toward an even greater love for shrubs.
I might be painting with too broad a brush here, but I sincerely doubt that an intense longing for viburnum or holly serves as the gateway into gardening for most of us. And yet, if my own gardening journey is anything to go by, the longer we garden, the more we come to appreciate the shrubs we once overlooked.
Shrubs used to speak to me of boring foundation plants, like a green caterpillar circling the base of every house. Now they speak to me of a beauty and a generosity that persists for four seasons.
Shrubs need very little care. A little pruning is all some of them ask and most don’t even ask for that.
Shrubs give our spaces structure. They define garden rooms, mark boundaries, and tie together the tall trees and the ground far below.
Shrubs give scent and blossom in spring, lush green growth in summer, autumn color and sometimes fruit, and in winter they are the garden’s strong bones revealed by a dusting of snow.
Here are a few you might consider adding to your garden:
Ninebark: Common ninebark (physocarpus) is a great, all-around shrub, but there are wonderful varieties to seek out. I love “Summer Wine,” a large cascading shrub with beautiful wine-colored leaves and small pink flowers in spring.
Japanese Snowball (viburnum plicatum): A very large shrub with snowballs of white flowers in spring and deep red autumn foliage. No special care needed at all.
Oakleaf hydrangea: Hydrangea quercifolia is one of the few hydrangeas native to the U.S. There are many varieties, and most have beautiful fall color.
Boxwood: Again, there are many varieties to choose from. You can have tall, treelike box or prune dwarf varieties into beautiful small shapes. Look for varieties that fit your winter weather and need for disease resistance. There’s nothing like a freshly-pruned boxwood ball to set off roses and other flowers.
‘Mohawk’ viburnum: There are many beautiful viburnums to choose from and most will benefit wildlife in your garden. The spring flowers of Mohawk are a lovely pink.