Today's gardener uses his or her imagination in transforming ordinary objects into lovely receptacles for flowers and vines.


July 19, 1998|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN STAFF

Imagine that you're wandering through a friend's backyard garden and you come upon an old wooden chair. It looks as if it's been there forever. Discarded and forgotten, the chair spills over with a profusion of violets and trailing vines, which grow where the cane seat used to be.

This enchanting vignette has, of course, been carefully contrived by a resourceful gardener. It just doesn't look that way. Your friend has removed the chair's caning and replaced it with chicken wire in the shape of a shallow bowl. The wire has been lined with sphagnum moss and filled with potting soil, then planted with colorful blooms.

And it's not just chairs. Gardeners are planting old wheelbarrows, galvanized pails, wooden buckets, rusting watering cans, even ancient garden boots. In the world of container gardening, the elaborate faux marble urns and large terra-cotta pots so popular in the '80s have given way to a gentler, more natural look.

"Anything retro is chic," says Tovah Martin, garden editor for Victoria Magazine. "If it's old and weathered, we like it even more.

"I've even seen a bed of flowers," she adds, "an iron bed. But that's pushing it. That's getting on with the garden gnomes."

For her own back yard, which she characterizes as a "cottage garden," Martin has at various times planted coleus and ipomoea in an antique baby's bathtub, filled a hollowed-out piece of tree trunk with verbena and an ornamental azalea (she can move it indoors when the weather gets cold), and used farm implements such as old chicken feeders as planters.

Such creative containers can add whimsy and an element of surprise to a yard, front steps or patio. And they go along very well with the current informality of gardens.

"With the popularity of recycling, we're seeing lots of old things being used," says James McElroy of Green Fields Nursery in Roland Park. "Gardens these days are not contrived. The container has to look naturally put there - tossed aside - as if flowers just grew in it."

You probably aren't doing much more than weeding and watering in your garden right now, so July is a great time to be looking for these "found" containers. Then you'll have them at hand when you're ready to plant again.

The hunt takes place at yard sales and flea markets, in antiques shops, at farm-supply stores or in your own attic or basement. One gardener found handsome galvanized pails for under $5 at her supermarket. A grouping of these filled with bright annuals would dress up the corner of a patio or act as a focal point for a garden.

Look for items made of materials like porcelain, enameled metal and cast iron. Don't worry about rust on iron or verdigris on copper. Remember that these days people pay extra for old things with this sort of patina. Wood has an appealing natural look, but will need an application of preservative to keep it from rotting. (Avoid creosote, which is harmful to plants.)

Martin also suggests using woven baskets. "The wonderful thing about them is that they aren't very expensive, and you can plant right in them."

Unlike baskets, most other found containers don't have natural drainage. Before you recycle them, you'll need to punch or drill holes in retired wheelbarrows, enameled tea kettles and galvanized pails.

When you're ready to plant, use a commercial potting mix and a water-soluble fertilizer such as Miracle-Gro for best results. Porous containers dry out more quickly than metal; and keep in mind that in any case you'll have to water containers more often than the rest of your garden. Small items like a gardening boot will, naturally, dry out most quickly of all.

Don't group too many different kinds of found containers together, warns Bill Marken, in his "Container Gardening for Dummies" (IDG Books, 1998), unless you want your garden to look like a garage sale gone awry. Think of unusual planters as an exclamation point in the garden. "They open avenues of creativity and attract sometimes surprising, always interesting, comments and conversation."


Almost anything that you can poke drainage holes into -- and some you can't -- can be used as a planter. Here are some of the most popular:

*Old wood or metal wheelbarrows

* Weathered watering cans

* Antique metal milk cans

* Galvanized steel buckets

* Wooden milk pails

* Birdhouses (take the roof off)

* Bird cages

* Old garden boots

* Large tin cans with the labels torn off (one gardening magazine added a gold ribbon to striking effect)

* Woven baskets

* Antique fishing baskets

* A cast-iron stove

* A claw-foot porcelain bathtub

* Metal or wooden chairs

* Feeding troughs

* Old stone sinks

* Large, antique metal containers like a decorated lead water tank

* Old zinc boilers

* Strawberry pots filled not with berry plants but with a variety of small plants like succulents or herbs

* Earthenware chimney pots

* Tea kettles

* Old flower carts

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