BY PAM BAGGETT / Cedar Grove, North Carolina, USDA Zone 7
The New Terracotta Gardener by Jim Keeling
Written by archaeologist and famed Whichford Pottery owner Jim Keeling. The New Terracotta Gardener (Trafalgar Square, 1990) is not a how-to of container growing, but rather a why-to, showing the love British gardeners have for plants in pots. A brief history and lively description of terra-cotta pot-making and diagrams of every plant in every pot make Keeling’s book a must-read. Terra-cotta fans will also enjoy Keeling’s newest book. Flowerpots (Trafalgar Square, 2004).
Fashion often flies in the face of all common sense. Examples: high-heeled shoes, plucked eyebrows, overstuffed containers. Here in the Southeast, a terra-cotta pot crammed full of plants in spring begs for multiple daily waterings by July, looks peaked by August, and often succumbs to serious overcrowding weeks before frost arrives. Additional fertilizer, judicious pruning to control growth and increase air circulation, and a heavy hand with the watering can may save the show, but there is a simpler way. Buck the trend, stand up for regional rights. Make your motto “Containers Simplified.”
As far as I can tell, the current trend toward intensively planted pots originated with the late Kathy Pufahl, a noted Long Island wholesale nursery owner. Or at least she popularized the look, with spiffy combinations that captured gardeners’ hearts. But Long Island is a far cry from Atlanta. (Nine hundred miles, to be exact.) Compared to southerners, northern gardeners get a late start on the growing season. They often have cooler summer nights. Plants grow more slowly. Containers set out in mid-May in Connecticut are just reaching their stride in August, while here in North Carolina my bulging May-filled pots are elbowing out their too-close neighbors.
The solution? Give your plants the room they need to reach their luxurious best. Focus on specimen plants with excellent looks, then offer them a few complementary companions that can serve as accents without competing in size. Gold-vein plant (Sanchezia speciosa) bears such handsome, six-inch, gold-striped leaves that it upstages most plants anyway, so why not feature it solo? Or perhaps pair it with a carpet of little Acalypha repens at its feet, the acalypha’s red catkins accenting the sanchezia’s ruby stems.
Agaves make outstanding architectural specimens in containers, and they have the added advantage of not requiring frequent watering. If you’re frightened of their thorns, look for Agave attenuata, whose satin-smooth leaves sport no prickly five o’clock shadow. Or try succulent Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’, a remarkable assemblage of stubby stems resembling little golf pencils in orange, gold, and pale green, all stuck together at odd angles like some bizarre Lego construction. With or without companions, ‘Sticks on Fire’ makes a dramatic garden statement.
Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) shoots straight for the sky, its five-to seven-foot-tall triangular green stems rocketing forth before bursting into spectacular fireworks of hairlike green foliage. Strong lines and a startling look make for an exciting garden specimen, but one that benefits from a few small plants at its naked ankles. For companions I use small, cream-spotted Alocasia ‘Hilo Beauty’, butter-colored Cuphea ignea ‘Lutea’, and Graptophyllum pictum ‘Tricolor’, a marbled triumph of green, cream, and flesh pink foliage—all combined in a round Asian clay container large enough to accommodate the roots of four growing plants.
One of my best pots is a stunning triangular container glazed deep azure blue. Filled with a single plant—a gorgeous chartreuse elephant ear, Xanthosoma ‘Lime Zinger’ (pictured, left)—it becomes the focal point of my entire container garden, which I confess I enjoy much more now that I’m no longer watering morning, noon, and night. H
If Tibouchina urvilleana is princess flower, then tropical T. grandifolia must be queen, with silver-felted, six- to eight-inch green leaves and giant panicles of royal purple blossoms in late summer. It’s generally pest-and disease-free. Plant it in your largest pot and watch it grow five to six feet tall. Sources, page 67.