Great gardens with potted plants

It's easy to have a garden almost anywhere
Sharon Cohoon

Potted plants are magicians: They can turn hardscape into landscape. Take a look at the spaces - entries, a courtyard, a deck - on these pages. There's hardly an inch of bare ground in any of them. All the plants are growing in containers - lots of them. Yet is there any doubt that these spaces look like gardens?

Pots filled with greenery and flowers soften the hard edges of a patio or deck. They also create the feel of a garden where there's no earth to plant one. Plants in pots contribute gentle textures, graceful movement, delicious scents, and seasonal changes. They lure butterflies, hummingbirds, and other welcome visitors. In short, they can add life to urban outdoor spaces. Best of all, because container plantings are portable, you can make little changes at any time without disturbing the whole scene.

Don't these examples make you want to start a little garden? It's easy. All you need is potting soil, containers, and plants, and a place to display them.

Entries

Your first opportunity to create a contained garden is by your front door. In this important space, visitors form their initial impression of your home, so this is the area you'd most like to appear welcoming. The simple addition of a few potted plants is all it takes to change the picture from austerity to hospitality.

The trio of containers at the entrance to Billy Spratlin and Alex Kochnuk's home in Newport Beach, California (left), planted with coleus and purple fountain grass, is a good example. Spratlin, the gardener in the family, chose bisque-colored pots to coordinate with the flagstone paving. The simple plant combination looks fresh and contemporary against a sleek glass-brick backdrop. He also created a contained garden at the alley entrance. The rich combination of leaf textures is the story here; flowers are secondary. (The more gardenlike you want a potted-plant space to appear, the more important it is to focus on foliage plants.) Spratlin also used vertical space to help create a convincing garden by mounting pots of staghorn ferns and donkey tails on the wall near the gate.

Stairs

If outdoor stairs are wide enough, line them with potted plants. Nothing looks more cheerful. In most cases, simplicity is best - one red geranium in a terra-cotta pot per step, for instance. At the San Clemente, California, garden, however, the stairs were broad enough to accommodate a whole symphony of seasonal flowers.

Courtyards, patios, and decks

Like entries, outdoor living areas ought to be warm and welcoming. But because they're often paved, bricked, or tiled, they have a tendency to look cold and uninviting. Potted plants soften such spaces. You don't need many: A few splashes of flower color can make a patio feel like a garden.

Containers also define the boundaries of a space - where a patio edges up to a lawn, for instance.

Side yards

A narrow walkway along the side of a house is often highly visible from indoors. "Green up" such an area with potted plants, and you can raise your shades to a pretty view. If space is really tight, hanging baskets are a good option.

Windows

Window boxes decorate outdoor spaces while framing the view from indoors. Many kinds - including wood, plastic, wrought iron, terra-cotta, and fiberglass - are available at garden and home supply stores. In all cases, make sure they are properly supported from the bottom, and anchor them to the wall as well.

TIPS FOR CONTAINER GARDENING

Give potted plants the conditions they need. Assess the site for your contained garden as you would for an in-ground planting. Does the area get full sun, filtered shade, or deep shade? Choose plants accordingly. Is the area sheltered or exposed to lots of wind? If it's exposed, you'll need to install a trellis, windbreak, or other protection before putting your pots there.

Use foliage plants lavishly. They add structure and form to the garden and are a good foil for flower displays. They also create a point of interest in shade, especially when you use glossy leaves that catch the light, or ones with white and yellow markings.

Choose containers to match the style of your house. A rusty enamel pot or other junk-shop find may look sweet beside a Cape Cod-style cottage, but ill at ease on a Mediterranean terrace. Also, don't mix pots of too many styles. Stick to a theme.

Pay attention to watering. Containers dry out fast - especially in hot, windy weather. If you have many pots, make it easy by trying some of the following devices:

A hose-end nozzle with an on-off lever allows you to turn off the water between containers. Choose one with an adjustable spray head so you can select a flow gentle enough to avoid washing soil from the pot or disturbing plant roots.

Long-handled watering wands attach to garden hoses to extend your reach; they're perfect for irrigating hanging baskets or pots in the middle of large groupings.

Garden coils - self-retracting hoses - also extend your reach and take up little storage space.

Drip irrigation, a micro-irrigation system that delivers water to individual containers through a network of thin tubes and emitters, is the ultimate time-saver; install an automatic timer to make it even easier to operate.