Stuffing a bunch of inexpensive pots with all manner of hyperactive blooming annuals does not a modern garden make. It can turn a potentially calming space into the outdoor equivalent of a junk drawer, where many elements, each perfectly nice on its own, get jumbled and tangled together into one big mess.
Simplify, simplify. Pair a single stylish pot with a plant chosen for its architectural profile or its distinctive foliage instead of its flower power, and you create a piece of living garden sculpture, a sharp focal point, the visual opposite of garden clutter.
Clustered together, as they are in the photo above, a series of pots, each spouting a single non-flowering plant, can whip up way more drama than a bunch of billowy daisies and perky geraniums ever could. The match-up of the prim upright lines of the horsetail reed (rear pot on left) with the bristly roundness of the mugho pine (front pot on right) is visually dynamic. "I like the way you can have the plants' textures and architecture contrast against one another, have a conversation, without the distraction of flowers," says Craig Bergmann, owner of Craig Bergmann Landscape Design (craigbergmann.com), who created this grouping for a client's Old Town rooftop garden.
He's all for flowers, and in fact lots of them thrive elsewhere on this rooftop. But when you go for form over flower, Bergmann says, "it's a tighter look, more stoic and architectural." Here, the grouping is used as a sound and sight baffle, a barrier between this rooftop and the next.
Big pots like the ones Bergmann used here do more than just look good. They accommodate deep roots, making it possible for a mugho pine or a boxwood to thrive for years instead of just one summer. They also bring plants up nearer to eye level, eliminating the need to prop smaller pots up along a deck railing or to clutter the space with plant shelves.
You can get this sleek, contemporary look for your own garden, whether it's on a slim city rooftop or an expansive suburban lot. All it takes is the willingness to break a few old habits.
START WITH THE POT: That might seem counterintuitive, but the choice of ceramic or metal, kicky or sleek will go further in setting the tone of the garden than the plant itself will, advises Krista Dwiggins, garden manager at Jayson Home & Garden (1855 N. Clybourn Ave., 773-248-8180). "You can find a great-looking plant to fit any pot," she says. Look for the same attributes you'll want in the plant that later fills it: simple strength and textural beauty.
"The container used to be ignored, but now it's an important part of the display, so you want a pot that can hold up as a focal point even when it's empty," Dwiggins says. Current taste in containers "follows the interior design trend-minimal, sleek lines. We've gotten away from any pot with decoration or handles on it. It's much more simple."
That's not to say boring. Jayson carries oblong shapes and pots with scalloped sides, and multihued glazes that can stand beneath any pretty plant and still get noticed. There are troughs and inverted round ziggurats, glazes the color of swamp grass, and machine-precise finishes.
Foliage in deep purples and bronzes is proliferating in garden centers. Such plants must be matched with the right pot color lest their drama drain right out the bottom. The black, avocado, brown, and gold finishes of EcoForms pots, sold at Grand Street Gardens (2200 W. Grand Ave., 312-829-8200), complement dark-toned foliage well. And they're eco-friendly: made of grain husks with no petroleum products, after they reach the end of their five-year lifespan, you can toss them into the compost bin.
For the refined composition on the Old Town rooftop, Bergmann used a fiberglass planter from Planter Technology's Urban Collection (foreground) and zinc-look clay-composite pots from Campania.
STEP AWAY FROM THE BLOOMS: Once you tune out the siren song of flowers, you'll notice dramatic plants in other parts of the nursery: swollen purple succulents, the feathery red leaves of a Japanese maple, the cool blue pyramid of a dwarf spruce.
"It's all about looking at the texture and the form of the plant, and juxtaposing that with the pot and with other plants," Bergmann says. "Go for extreme contrast."
Some plants he nominates for the job include boxwood, juniper, horsetail reed, coleus, phormium, and the succulent purple-black aeonium (shown in the lowest pot on the rooftop). Dwiggins suggests hardy bamboo, ornamental grasses and sedges, trailing yellow lysimachia, and chocolate-leafed heucheras. For those who simply can't break the flower habit, she recommends osteospermum daisies for their big size and their vivid colors.
If you're aiming for the suave screen that Bergmann created for the Old Town roof, you'll want several nearly identical pots, varying only the plants. Each plant needs its own pot-its own pulpit, where it gets to be the main event. "Each plant gets to achieve its own characteristic look, and they work against one another," he says.