Elegant pots can be focal point, plant or no

No matter what is growing inside, a good container is worth admiring

In The Garden

March 02, 2003|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,Special to the Sun

Since the ancient Hanging Gardens of Babylon, gardeners have used pots to accent and punctuate, to add depth, height, color and definition to a space. A massive tub for a Lebanese cedar, hanging clay pots for draping annuals, stone urns for ferns, and even an empty amphora as a simple but distinctive focal point.

"At one place we used a ribbed antique oil jar that stands three feet tall," says Jay Graham, president of Graham Landscape Architecture in Annapolis. "It didn't need plants in it, since it had plants all around."

"You don't need a plant if you've got a really good pot," agrees Muffin Evander, past president of the Maryland Horticultural Society and owner of Cultivated Designs, a container design business in Baltimore.

While the pot itself can be the focal point, the effect it creates is usually a combination of pot, plant and place. Rectangular troughs can contain a green screen of grasses and annuals between driveway and lawn.

A pair of strawberry jars, whose interspersed holes hold small plants like strawberries or herbs, can mark the entry to the patio, add cascading foliage and color, and provide fresh additions to meals. Stone sinks are ideal for alpine plants, a green pause between back door and back yard. Wooden barrels can hold carefully pruned yews, raised above the level of the ordinary by virtue of the container.

"For a formal garden, you'll want a central focus -- a pedestal with a classic jardiniere or urn on top in a circular or rectangular area," notes Barbara McAllister, customer service representative for Haddonstone, Ltd. in Bellmawr, N.J., which makes cast stone garden containers.

Smaller or less formal gardens call for a more freewheeling approach.

Evander may use a tall, planted urn as a focal point in the center of a perennial bed, or fill the empty spot left by a dead shrub with a large cachepot. She also considers the existing landscape in addition to color of the house before choosing a pot, especially if the customer wants a colored container.

"Orange and hot pink often clash with a brightly painted house," she says.

Monika Burwell, owner of Earthly Pursuits, a garden design and perennial business in Baltimore, likes colored pots because they look so beautiful with nothing in them but green foliage, so maintaining bloom is not an issue.

"I like blue-glazed containers of different sizes all over the garden with grasses, and seasonal perennials, and pebbles and small fountains in them," she says.

Another key consideration in pot choice is the home's architectural style. "A rancher doesn't lend itself to classic pots, and you don't want a Victorian pot by a modern house," Evander says. "You want something more contemporary there."

For a Victorian house, choose molded stone, iron, or concrete urns, or perhaps filigreed iron flowerpot containers into which you can put a rotating display of flowers in plastic pots. Stone, marble, and cement pots echo the material of stone houses, a visual extension of the structure. A colonial begs for classical lines in its pots. Of course, terra cotta, which comes in a variety of styles, from simple to classical to whimsical, goes with everything.

Evander and Graham both recommend using a large pot for focal points. "We like at least 24 inches tall," Graham says.

While there are advantages to the high-tech materials available these days, many designers still prefer containers made of natural materials.

"I avoid plastic," says Graham, "particularly in a small garden where you can get up close to see and touch it."

Porous materials breathe, which is healthy for plant roots but enables plants to dry out more quickly than in plastic -- though the larger the pot, the less frequently it needs to be watered. Porous natural materials can also be more vulnerable to cracking and breaking during winter's freeze and thaw cycles, though many of the higher-end specimens are very durable.

Pots can range from downright cheap to a major investment. Some of the really big marble, molded stone, and concrete containers can cost as much as a used car. But unlike the car, they can last for generations.

"The terra cotta pot in front of my mother-in-law's house in Italy is 200 years old," says Kirk Laing, owner of the South Carolina-based Tuscan Imports, whose beautiful high-fired, high iron content terra cotta pots, which range from $29 to $2,249, can withstand temperatures to between 14 and 22 degrees.

Graham likes antique pots, but also uses all-weather molded concrete pots made by Luna-form, whose beautiful earthy colors and bulbous shapes look like elegantly sculpted chunks of lunar rock.

"Sometimes people are put off by the cost, but they are good value for money since they last a long time," says Graham. Whatever the choice, be sure to follow instructions for care.


Smith & Hawken

1340 Smith Ave.

Baltimore, MD 21209



Tuscan Imports

1512 Poinsett Drive

Florence, SC 29505



Haddonstone Ltd.

201 Heller Place

Interstate Business Park

Bellmawr, NJ 08031




66 Cedar Lane

Sullivan, ME 04664



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