BY KIM HAWKS / Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USDA Zone 7
I tend to use one plant type per container and place several differently planted containers together, so it reads as a mixed planting. In such groupings, try to include three different types of growth forms. Spillers, drapers, or trailers, such as verbenas and petunias, anchor and soften the edges of a pot. Mounding plants, such as coleus, and ornamental grasses, such as Pennisetum alopecuroides, add a certain softness to the composition, while spiky forms contribute height and structure.
As I mull over where to plant seedlings and cuttings in the spring, I first set aside the plants for my containers. Trips to the garden center, though, have taught me that a gardener can easily spend a chunk of change on the container itself, nevermind the soil or plants. As a result, I generally find my containers in unconventional places.
My definition of a container is any form that can be home to a plant. My first wheelbarrow, which I’ve been dragging around for over 30 years, easily converted into a portable planter for a bog garden. With time, rust provided drainage holes, and it became the perfect planter for herbs—I park it in the sun during the day and by the kitchen door when the cooking begins. I’ve also planted in discarded kitchen and bathroom sinks (available free at our local recycling center). The aggressive mint I vowed not to plant in my garden again got a second chance in a sink, where it had no possibility of escaping and running over other plants. I found a small area in the garden and tucked the sink in among Canna ‘Pretoria’, Monarda didyma ‘Jacob Cline’, and Foeniculum vulgaris ‘Rubrum’. These four-foot perennials framed and softened the sink, and in no time, the mint was tumbling over its edge.
I painted another deep-basin sink green, painted a cat face on the back-splash, and glued glass eyes in the holes where the hot and cold spigots used to be. I covered the sink drain, added an equal mixture of peat and sharp sand, along with a slow-release fertilizer, and planted a selection of sarracenias. For extra stability, I decided to set the sink into the ground with concrete, and placed single pots of coleus cultivars, Phormium tenax ‘Atropurpureum’, and Salvia splendens ‘Van-Houttei’ at its feet.
My unconventional container plantings don’t stop at sinks and wheelbarrows, though. I’ve also planted discarded shoes with a variety of sedums, and a small, damaged mailbox with Petunia integrifolia. I’ve also found inspiration in other gardeners’ containers. At Chanticleer, in Wayne, Pennsylvania, clay drainage pipes planted and mounted on an outdoor wall create an instant gallery of salvias and other heat-tolerant plants, exhibiting them like paintings in an art museum. An iron soup kettle nestles in the middle of a bed and houses sarracenias, Rhynchospora latifolia, and the striking, variegated, vertical foliage of Iris ensata ‘Variegata’.
Finding frugal containers not only saves money, it also makes the garden much more interesting and personal. Once you get your mind “out of the box,” all sorts of unique containers, from the cavity of a seashell to a discarded canoe, will start showing up. H
Kim Hawks is the former proprietor of Niche Gardens, in North Carolina. She is perhaps best known for introducing Echinacea ‘Kim’s Knee High’.
Phlox stolonifera ‘Sherwood Purple’
In early spring, six-inch clouds of purple, starlike flowers hover over ground-hugging foliage, enhancing areas beneath rhododendron, azaleas, or other woodland shrubs. This phlox slowly marches to create a soft carpet of color that’s loose enough for bulbs and spring ephemerals to accompany the show. Hardy in Zones 3-8. Sources, page 76.