Not All Plants Like Fads.

Ornate pots and planters can be as decorative as the plants within them, and provide extra accommodation for more plants.

Like so many fads too often are, container gardening is overrated, and is actually contrary to the currently most faddish of fads; sustainability. Plants in containers need more regular watering than those that can disperse their roots more extensively into the ground. Those that are so indulged also want fertilizer to be applied more regularly, but are more likely to be damaged if fertilized too generously. Because confinement is stressful, plants in containers are innately more susceptible to disease and pests. Some plants need more pruning for confinement.

Then there are the problems with the containers. If exposed to sunlight, thin plastic containers get warm enough to cook roots within. Pots that do not drain adequately or that sit in their own drainage basins can stay saturated enough to kill roots. Water in drainage basins allows mosquitoes to proliferate. Seepage from large pots can rot decks and stain pavement. Self watering containers work nicely for houseplants (if used properly!), but lack drainage, so can not be used out where they are exposed to rain.

The advantages to container gardening are actually quite limited. Containers are obviously needed for houseplants, and where exposed soil is not available, like on balconies. They are also convenient for plants that want better soil than they can get in the garden, especially if the rest of the garden is responsibly landscaped with sustainably undemanding plants that do not require soil amendment or regular watering. Frost sensitive plants can be moved easily to sheltered locations if contained. Flashy plants like orchids and tuberous begonias that get displayed prominently while blooming can be concealed while not so impressive.

Of course there are many pendulous plants like Boston fern, spider plant, string or pearls and burro’s tail that really are at their best in hanging pots. It is also hard to deny that there are all sorts of artsy containers, like colorfully glazed pots and sculptural concrete urns, which are appealing enough to justify growing plants in them, even if just to show off the fun containers. Bonsai requires containers, but that is another big topic!

Planters Are Overrated But Functional

Some plants should always be confined.

Container gardening is overrated. The endemic soil here is not so bad that nothing will grow in it. What is now suburban gardens was formerly famously productive farmland! Soil amendments make the soil more comfortable to plants with more discriminating taste. Plants that are too discriminating are probably not worth accommodating. With few exceptions, planters are unnecessary.

Plants naturally want to disperse their roots into the soil. Drought tolerant plants disperse their roots even more extensively. That is how they find enough moisture to be drought tolerant. If deprived of such root dispersion, they are always reliant on watering. Plants prefer the insulation of soil too. Many types of planters can get uncomfortably cool in winter, and uncomfortably warm in summer.

Besides, planters clutter landscapes, and occupy space on hardscapes. Decks rot. Patios stain.

The main advantage of planters is their portability. Plants that are sensitive to frost can move to shelter before the weather gets too cool. Plants that are spectacular only while blooming can move for more prominent display during bloom. For those who have not settled into a permanent home, plants in planters are able to relocate. Planters on patios or decks can move about like furniture.

Houseplants obviously grow in planters because not many houses contain enough soil for them to live in. Houseplants can move about just like planters in the garden. That is helpful for those that need a better exposure for winter than they enjoy for the summer. Some might like to go into the garden during mild weather, or for a rinse in light rain. Cascading plants can hang from the ceiling.

Planters can effectively confine invasive plants as well. Montbretia is so invasive that some people will not grow it without containment. (Deadheading to prevent seed dispersion is important too.) Horseradish often grows in tubs for confinement, as well as to facilitate harvest. It is easier to dump the potting media from a planter, and separate the roots out, than to dig roots from the ground.

Pots Make More Out Of Less

Half barrels are a bit elevated, and seem to show off their flowers better.

With conservation of water being so important right now, annuals are not a priority. Many of us are trying to use as little water as possible, and only to keep the more significant trees, shrubbery and perennials alive until winter. Lawn and annuals are usually the first to succumb, mainly because they use more water than anything else.

They are also somewhat expendable. Lawn is certainly expensive, but realistically, can be replaced as soon as water becomes available. Hopefully, new lawns will be more conservative with water, like they should have been since the last “drought” (and the one before that). Annuals are planted annually (duh), so they get replaced anyway.

Annuals as bedding plants over large areas were already somewhat passé before the last few dry winters. Even the more indulgent landscapes used annuals merely as relatively modest borders around or in front of more substantial, but less consumptive, perennials and shrubbery. Pots and planters are already more appropriate.

Some of the trendiest big pots are so ornate that they do not need flowers to provide more color. Besides, with a few striking perennials for colorful foliage or form, there is not much space left for annuals. What matters with annuals is that fewer in a pot can be flashier than more in the ground. Fewer annuals mean less water is required.

Elevated planters may not be as ornate, but display flashy annuals just as effectively. Petunia, million bells, lobelia and alyssum can cascade over the edges, to be colorful both on top and on the sides. Marigold, zinnia, celosia and any interesting foliar or sculptural perennials get a bit more height. It all helps to get a bit more out of less.

Pots and planters are not necessarily less work. They just need less water than larger beds, because they are smaller. Relative to their area, they actually need more water, and must be watered very regularly to sustain the confined roots within. Hanging pots need the most water. All confined plants benefit from fertilizer.

Potted Plants Have Their Place

30918thumbPavement serves a purpose in a landscape. So does decking. They are the flooring of the outdoor spaces that are used for outdoor living. Patios and decks are where we barbecue and dine. Walkways and porches are how we get around the exteriors of our homes. Driveways are where we park cars. For what they get used for, they are better than turf grass, ground cover or bare soil.

So why is it so trendy to clutter pavement and decking with potted plants that would really prefer to be in the ground? It would be more practical to pave less area, and leave more space to plant things in the ground. There would be no damp pots staining concrete or rotting decking. There would be less area to rake or blow, with fewer obstacles in the way. Watering would be much easier.

Well, as it turns out, there are a few plants that should be potted. Houseplants are the most obvious. After all, not many homes have exposed soil where houseplants can be grown on the inside. Even if they did, it is still easier to keep houseplants potted for portability. Plants such as orchids and Christmas cactus, can live in the garden most of the time, and then come in while blooming. Portability is also important for tropical plants that need protection from even mild frost. It might be easier to move them than to cover them.

There are also a few plants that are contained because they are invasive. Mint and horseradish are culinary plants that are so famously invasive that not many of us would bother growing them if they were not so much better fresh from the garden than purchased from elsewhere. Rather than allow them to escape, mint is popularly potted, and horseradish is commonly grown in deep tubs.

Container gardening and growing plants in pots is something that we do for out own convenience, or just because it looks good cluttering otherwise useful parts of the landscape. With only a few exceptions, plants prefer to be in the ground, where they can disperse their roots as extensively as they like. They are healthier, and need less attention. To them, container gardening is unnatural.

Think Outside The Nursery Pot

80815thumbA dressed turkey that is packaged for retail sale in a supermarket is not ready to be eaten right away. If frozen, it must be thawed slowly. It must then be unwrapped; and little bag of giblets must be removed from inside, before the turkey gets stuffed and finally cooked. Although the inexperienced sometimes cook a turkey with a giblet bag still inside, doing so is not the correct procedure.

Plants that are purchased in retail nurseries are similarly packaged in such a manner that facilitates transportation from production nurseries to retail nurseries, and from retail nurseries to home gardens. Their roots are contained in vinyl cans. Larger trees might be boxed. Occasionally, balled and burlapped plants are available. Most trees and vines, and some tall perennials are staked.

Vinyl cans, which are also known as nursery pots, are designed for growing nursery stock in, and containing the stock as it is transported. That is all they are designed for. They are not meant to be used as planters in home gardens. Most young and actively growing plants that tolerate them in production nurseries really do not want to be confined to vinyl cans any longer than necessary.

Even if plants that are brought home from a nursery are to be grown in pots, they should be planted into more appealing pots that are designed for the comfort of the plants within, and not just left in the nursery pots that they were grown in. Clay pots and wooden planters are comfortably porous and better insulated than thin black vinyl that gets dangerously hot if directly exposed to sunlight.

Alternatively, nursery pots can be shaded and obscured within slightly larger pots, within groups of other pots, or by settling them into shallow shrubbery or deep ground covers temporarily. Plants that are big enough to provide their own shade are likely too big for their nursery pots. Invasive plants like mint are often grown in nursery pots that are buried almost to the rim in the ground, although mint eventually escapes through drainage holes. It is good to know the limitations of what nursery pots are useful for.

Six on Saturday: Infrastructure


There is so much more to horticulture than plant material. There is a lot of hard work, which is hard to get in pictures. There are a lot of materials. There is a lot in infrastructure.

Well, I do not have pictures from the farm to show how our horticultural commodities are grown. That would not be very interesting anyway. These pictures are merely odds and ends of what we work with in regard to landscape maintenance.

1. Incarcerated stone. Yes, it is quite obvious that this prison is overcrowded. This is where they do ‘hard’ time. Incidentally, ‘Pet Rock’ was invented in Los Gatos.P80630
2. Half barrel. Back when there were more real wineries in the Santa Clara Valley, barrels such as this were cheap, and could sometimes be found left on the sides of roads for anyone who wanted to take them for kindling. At nurseries and lumber yards, they could be purchased already cut in half, perforated with a few drainage holes on the bottom, and painted with wax on the inside, for use as planters. They are more expensive now. This particular barrel came from France, so is not even made of local valley oak. See the fancy label at the top of the picture? The drainage hole on the left was not drilled through because the drill bit encountered something metallic in the wood. Check out the tips of my stylish boots at the bottom of the picture.P80630+
3. ErmitagE France. This metallic label on the wine barrel is so comically contradictory! The lack of an ‘H’ at the beginning, and the capitalized ‘E” at the end of ‘ErmitagE’ implies that the former contents of the barrel was something fancy, but is then followed by ‘France’.P80630++
4. NO DUMPING ALLOWED. This is a classic example of ‘Do as I say, not as I do’. We dump debris from landscape maintenance all the time. When we prune for road clearance, much of the debris gets thrown back out into the forest behind what was pruned. In some spots, it works like mulch to keep some of the weeds down. Larger bits must get taken away of course. This sign will be posted on a wide spot on one of the roadways where dumping had apparently been a problem. By the way, it is just coincidence that the two words ‘CHILD DUMPING’ lined up like that.P80630+++
5. White star magnolia. This was just moved to the new landscape of a newly renovated building. We would have preferred to wait for it to defoliate in autumn before relocating it, but it was in the way within another recently landscaped area, and we really wanted to install it here in the new landscape before other material gets installed around it. It does not seem to know that it has been moved. I happened to grow these along with many other magnolias back in the late 1990s, and really did not like working with them in the nursery. We just were not set up for them. However, I really like them in the landscape. This particular magnolia grows like a large shrub, so will not get big enough to drop flowers onto all that pavement. That would have been a concern with larger magnolia trees that bloom with larger flowers that can be a slipping hazard when they fall onto pavement.P80630++++
6. Epiphyllum. This just happens to be in bloom at the shop. It belongs to the horticulturist who maintains all the landscapes here, so has nothing do do with the landscapes. With all the pictures of inert items and only one white star magnolia, I thought I should include something a bit more colorful. It does not get much more colorful than this.P80630+++++
This is the link for Six on Saturday, for anyone else who would like to participate:

‘Silver Falls’ Dichondra

80124No one seems to know what ever happened to old fashioned dichondra lawns. Everyone seemed to like them, especially those of us who dislike turf grasses. Somehow, they became passe and very rare. The formerly common dichondra that such lawns were made of is now merely a resilient weed in turf lawns. But wait! We have not heard the last of this resilient and appealing perennial.

Silver Falls dichondra, Dichondra argentea ‘Silver Falls’, has the same tiny rounded leaves, dense growth and fine texture as old fashioned dichondra lawns, but instead of rich deep green, it is strikingly silvery gray. It does not tolerate traffic well enough to work as lawn, but is a distinctive small scale groundcover, and cascades exquisitely from urns of mixed perennials or hanging pots.

The trailing growth spreads indefinitely over the surface of the soil, but is not very fast about it. As ground cover, individual plants should therefore be planted only two or three feet apart. They get two to four inches deep. Hanging growth (that can not root into the soil) can cascade more than three feet downward. Silver Falls dichondra prefers regular watering and full sun or a bit of shade.


P80113My little planter box downtown that I wrote about last week and earlier must be the weirdest garden that I have ever tended to. ( ) I certainly enjoy it. There are not many horticultural problems that can not be remedied by simply removing plants that should not be out there anyway. The weirdness though is just . . . weird . . . and unique to the situation of a tiny garden in such a public space.

I have had weird neighbors before. Hey, I live where I do. Well, a resident of Nicholson Avenue saw me working on my garden one day and stopped to tell me what I should plant in it for compatibility with the color scheme of the front garden of her home a block and a half to the west. You see, she payed a lot of money for her home, and I payed nothing for my planter box that belonged to the town that her expensive taxes sustain. I just smiled and nodded my head until she drove away. I then continued to plant flowers that were compatible with the color scheme of Mike’s Bikes, the bicycle store that my planter box happens to be in front of.

Being in front of a bicycle store, the planter box collects quite a bit of discarded bicycle parts. Just about any part that can be purchased in the store and changed on the sidewalk out front has ended up in the planter box. I also find nice beer and wine glasses discarded by patrons of local bars. A worse aspect of the proximity to bars is that those who imbibe excessively sometimes barf into the planter box. Speaking of puddles, a contractor who was doing some tile work at Mike’s Bikes dumped a bucket of slurry from the mortar into my planter box, leaving a puddle of mortar that solidified into a round concrete disc about two and a half feet wide and an inch and a half thick. Cannas, housleeks, aloes and nasturtiums were all encased, and had to be removed with the concrete!

I prefer to grow flowers that are small and abundant rather than larger flowers that would be missed when they get taken. My bronze houseleek has been trying to grow as long as the green houseleeks, but gets broken off and taken as soon as it starts to look good. I figured that nasturtiums were too abundant to be missed if someone too a few. Yet, I noticed that so many were getting taken that the blank flower stalks were more evident than developing flowers. When I confronted someone who was taking them and putting them in a big plastic bag full of plucked nasturtium flowers, she told me that they are edible. So? I certainly do not mind sharing; but if anyone wants to eat THAT many of them, they should grow them in their own garden!

On another occasion, someone stopped to tell me that rosemary is a useful culinary herb, as if it were not something that a horticulturist would know about, and then yanked a huge chunk of it from the meticulously tailored rosemary that cascaded so nicely over the wall of the planter box before I could chase him away. Another chunk of rosemary was burned by the exhaust of a car that was left idling in the loading zone while a client of Mike’s Bikes was inside retrieving his bicycle from the repair shop. The drama just never ends.

But there is one oddity that I neither mind nor tamper with. It has not become a problem yet. On the north side of the planter box, adjacent to the backside of a park bench, pebbles and small stones have been gathering for a few months. Some disappear as new ones arrive, so that there are never too many at any one time. At first, I thought that they were just some of the detritus that someone flung aside after sweeping out their car while parked at the curb. Yet, there is no other trash or debris associated with the stones. They happen to be in the only spot that has been undefiled by discarded bicycle parts, glasses or barf. They seem to be placed quite deliberately in small groupings and patterns. They reminded me of those small stones that some people like to place in gravel Zen Gardens. I really do not know why they are there; but if someone is able to enjoy this little garden downtown in that way, than I probably should not interfere. The pebbles remain.P80113+

My Tiny Downtown Garden

P71105Main Street and Santa Cruz Avenue are the two main streets of downtown Los Gatos. They are the main shopping district, and the part of town that everyone sees. As much as things have changed, a bit of the familiar remains. Gilley’s Coffee Shoppe is still next door to the (rebuilt) Los Gatos Cinema. The brick La Canada Building miraculously survived the Earthquake. The simple deco Park Vista Building across the street is just as elegant now as it was a century ago. There are still concerts in the Town Plaza in summertime, shaded by the Town Christmas Tree that gets lit up in December.

Both Main Street and Santa Cruz Avenue are outfitted with big planter boxes that give the downtown a more relaxed and colorful ambiance. Each planter is elevated about a foot and a half, and contains one or two Indian hawthorn trees. A low wrought iron railing protects the contents of the planter boxes. Irrigation s automated. That is about all that the planters have in common.

Each planter box is ‘adopted’ by a member of the community, or a community group, each with different styles and different ideas of what we should plant in our boxes. Some like things neat and trim. Others believe that bigger is better. Some like plenty of foliage. Others like lots of colorful flowers. Some planter boxes even get adorned with seasonal decorations.

My little planter box is on the northwest corner of Nicholson Avenue and North Santa Cruz Avenue. It has a brass plaque with my name on it. It is my little garden space downtown, where I get to express my simple gardening style for everyone to see, even though I grow a few flowery things there that I would not actually waste space on in my own garden.

The trailing rosemary that cascades over the wall so nicely was there when I got the planter. So were the montbretia and liriope, which I did not want to remove because someone else had gone through the effort of planting them. When there was more space available, I planted a few inexpensive flowering annuals, like pansies and calendulas. As things grew, there was less space for annuals. Besides, I wanted to make a point of doing this planter nicely with sustainable plants that I propagated myself.

The two largest features are common aeoniums. The two original cuttings were on the dashboard in the car for weeks before I finally stuck them in the planter. They came from the home of a friend’s mother in Monterey. We emptied the home out after she passed away. It was gratifying that they found a home in my planter box, and even more gratifying that they grew so well and provided countless cuttings for copies all over town, including in other planter boxes. Between the two big aeoniums, there is a small bronze aeonium. It is the same age as the two big ones, but grows slower, and is regularly set back by people breaking off and taking the stems as fast as they grow.

These three aeoniums were not alone on the dashboard. They arrived with another related succulent, which I believe to be an old fashioned echeveria, and some sort of compact aloe. The echeveria has spread out over much of the area between the big aeoniums. The aloe is still confined to one corner.

To contrast with all the pale green foliage, I added two bronze ‘Australia’ cannas. They cost only a few dollars, and were probably my biggest expense in this entire project.

The most impressive feature of the planter box are the nasturtiums. Yes, common, simple and cheap nasturtiums. I wanted to get straight yellow nasturtiums for compatibility with the signs of the neighboring bicycle shop, but could not find any at the time. I instead started with the common ‘Jewels’ mix, which is still my favorite. After self sowing, the subsequent feral nasturtiums are only orange and yellow, with only one or two red blooming plants. What made them so excellent is how they grew! They overwhelmed the trailing rosemary (which is fine since they die back in summer when the rosemary takes over), and cascaded onto the walkway and curb. They filled the space between the railing and an adjacent bench, and even started growing through the bench. There was so much bright orange and yellow that no one seemed to mind that it was nasturtium.

After a long and warm summer, the aeoniums need serious grooming, and the nasturtium need to be replaced. I really hope that the planter box will be as impressive as it was last winter. The picture here is not very good. Perhaps I will get a better picture in a few months.