Round Robin: Outdoor Container Gardening

DENVER, Colorado–The country is crazy for pots. I sometimes think that we’re more concerned about the container a plant grows in than about the plant itself.

As far as I can determine, it started ten years ago or so in ­Architectural Digest, House & Garden and magazines of that ilk. In presenting those beautiful homes (well, some of them are more strange than beautiful), the photo stylists go through and “pretty them up”. This means putting plants and flowers in all the bare spots–in wonderful pots.

I have to laugh at them. There’s no way those standard roses can last more than a few days on either side of the mantle in that dark New York brownstone. And who’s likely to be growing lovely, moss-encrusted antique pots of foxgloves around their bed? Not me. I’d fear that my snoring would suck a few poisonous blossoms into my mouth and that my peaceful sleep would end up an eternal one. Old cast-iron urns, the rustier the better, brim with 6-foot delphiniums in the entry hall or flank a fireplace. I suppose they last about as long there as they do in my garden before the wind snaps their brittle stems. Forget the delphiniums; it’s the urns I covet. One of my favorite container photos shows a crate of freesias perched on an old-fashioned radiator. Do you suppose that fried freesias smell even sweeter? And any gardener can deduce that those scented geraniums will survive about a week on the counter underneath those kitchen cabinets. But I have to admit that the texture of old terra-cotta makes the shot.

The topiary craze is the latest development in container worship. Any house fashion magazine worth its salt is cram-packed with topiaries in wonderful old pots. Never is there a saucer under them, which is the tip-off that they sat there exactly long enough to get their picture snapped.

The older the container, the better–that’s the trend. Marble, ceramic, stone, lead, wood, concrete and cast-iron containers with a century or two’s worth of patina on them are in big demand with prices to match. Terra-cotta is the enduring favorite, and why not? Is there any container more practical, or one that sets off plants more beautifully? It’s here to stay.

For a few decades, manufacturers tried to convince us that plastic was much better than older, more traditional materials. I’m sure that plastic has been a boon for mankind, and I’m thankful to Tupperware for making my life easier. I also have a few plastic utensils that I use for picnics. My phone and fax machine are made of some kind of plastic, as are my pens, and if I cleaned out the junk drawer, I’d find all sorts of plastic gizmos, but I’ve never liked plastic pots and I don’t buy any, unless you count the black gallons in the garage that came from the nurseries. I save them so I can send friends home with nice clumps of lamb’s-ears, cranesbills and daylilies in them.

Long before magazines made old containers fashionable, my gardening friend Marilyn was collecting them. She rummaged through dumpsters and hit garage sales long before garage saling became fashionable either. The resulting garden is like no other and is one that will survive the whims of magazine photo stylists, should they come to see it. An artist as well as a gardener, Marilyn has always been concerned that an essentially functional object also be aesthetically pleasing. What a concept! Find the right container, and it will tell you what will look good growing in it.

I’ve known Marilyn for a long time, and I guess I’ve adopted many of her sensibilities. Now, if I could just get my hands on that rusty old cast-iron urn. I can’t wait to hear what it says.

Rob Proctor is a delightful blend of artist, photographer, writer and gardener who lives and plies his trades in Denver, Colorado.

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