Skip to main content

Southeast: Escaping Shapes

When it comes to containers, sometimes thinking outside the box means finding…a box.

 Cedar Grove, North Carolina, USDA Zone 7a

We gardeners love the unique view, and we're easily dulled into inattentiveness by repetition. (Example: when was the last time you exclaimed over a pairing of Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ and Rudbeckia ‘Goldsturm’?) When it comes to containers, sometimes thinking outside the box means finding…a box.

Most pots are so relentlessly round that I often long for any shape other than circular: a square, a triangle, something oblong or ovoid. Even if fantastic plantings might camouflage a collection of look-alike containers, why not take the scene over the top with a fabulous odd-shaped pot, a terra-fir-ma focal point?

Working with an unusual pot requires understanding its personality. That means thinking not only of its material and color, but also its style and demeanor. My blue-glazed triangular container is so beautiful that a single plant–preferably something large, dramatic, and chartreuse, like the elephant ear Xanthosoma ‘Lime Zinger’–is enough to display it to perfection. I have an elegant milk-white square pot that almost begs for pastels (though the rebel in me insists on adding magenta or black), and a rectangular green-glazed Grecian container whose swooping roller-coaster edges are so attractive that covering them with trailing plants would be like draping a bathrobe over the Venus di Milo.

One of my best finds is an abandoned steel seed box (an old-fashioned tractor part) I found lying in the woods on my farm. The box is rectangular, 15 by 8 by 18 inches, and dented on one of its broad sides. Its thick gray steel has a tinge of oxidation and the start of some streaks of rust. When I first brought it home, my mind flew off in so many directions at once that I could hardly stand still. A row of matching tender succulents. No, wait–plug any cracks (it turned out there weren't any), add mud, and plant red rice (Oryza sativa ‘Red Dragon’). Or how about mounds of Alternanthera ‘Red Threads’ surrounding a red-black coleus? It was crazy– how could I choose?

Finally I stepped away, took a deep breath, and looked–really looked–at my treasure. Then I took my cue from its cool metallic gray, the hint of copper tones, the dramatic rectangular shape. Only two cultivars went into my box. In the center, a single Cordyline australis ‘Red Sensation’, whose bronze-red whorl of stiff yuccalike leaves I contrasted with the trailing metallic coins of Dichondra argentea, one of the brightest silver plants I've seen. Its circular leaves dangle straight down, like silver beads strung together on matching thread.

A firm, straight frame, my seed box, with an equally strong focal point set dead center. And spilling over the edges? Circles. Lots and lots of circles. I got the joke only after I'd finished planting: here I'd been waging an anti-circular container campaign, and I'd just used it to display some of the roundest leaves I know.

So be it. Next time I pot up a round container, I'm going to look for a plant with square leaves. H

PLACES TO GO: Brookgreen Gardens

Spring at Brookgreen Gardens, just 15 miles north of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, features masses of native azaleas and 150,000 daffodils. Walk in the famed Huntington Sculpture Garden, or take your children through the native animal habitats (“Otters, Mom!”). Don't miss the garden's plant sale, where you'll find both native and exotic perennials, tropicals, and woodies.

To Do in the Garden: Spring and Summer

 Welcome butterflies!

  • Provide butterfly caterpillars seed-grown food plants-Asclepias curassavica for monarchs, and dill, parsley, or bronze fennel for black swallowtails.
  • Embrace a weed-friendly lawn. Clover serves spring azures and common sulfurs; plantain feeds baby buckeyes.
  • Attract adult butterflies with summer-blooming pentas, lantana, and verbena.
  • Add mud to a ground-level birdbath and it becomes a puddle club for thirsty butterflies.