A Couple of Lessons That Took a Long Time to Learn But Now Seem Kind of Obvious

Beth over at Plant Postings hosts a meme called Lessons Learned, which is about pretty much what it sounds like. This is a good thing, as it’s extremely useful to compare notes with fellow gardeners. So I’m taking this opportunity to write about a couple of lessons I learned over the summer.


Nasturtium and Cigar Plant in a container.
Nasturtium and Cigar Plant in a container.

Lesson Number 1: When you have a grouping of containers, every container should not be planted with the same mix of plants. Sounds obvious, right? But that didn’t stop me from using the thriller/filler/spiller formula with each and every one of the containers on my front landing. I’m such a slave to convention!

OK, this is how the containers looked in late July. I don't have a more recent picture. Believe me, the Cigar Plant and Mexican Petunia get big and bushy, obscuring the other plants.
OK, this is how the containers looked in late July. I don’t have a more recent picture. Believe me, the Cigar Plant and Mexican Petunia get big and bushy, obscuring the other plants.

The result is that eventually a lot of the lower-growing fillers and spillers got obscured or shaded out, and the whole grouping ended up looking a overgrown and shaggy by late summer.

Mexican Petunia, Nasturtium, Lantana
Mexican Petunia, Nasturtium, Lantana

If I had it to do over again, I would plant the thrillers – Cigar Plant (Cuphea ignea) and Mexican Petunia (Ruellia brittoniana) – only in a couple of the containers at or near the top of the landing, instead of in all of them. The remaining could have been planted only with the filler Star Flower (Pentas lanceolata) and the spiller Nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus), or other low to mid-height plants. The idea is to think about  the picture created by all the containers as a whole.

A grouping of containers at Great Dixter. As a combination, it is more than the sum of its parts.
A grouping of containers at Great Dixter. As a combination, it is more than the sum of its parts.

Really what I want is to have my container groupings look like this.   

Lesson Number Two: When planning a bed or border, it’s critical that you factor into your design whether or not a plant is a late riser. 

Two more container combinations at Great Dixter.
Two more container combinations at Great Dixter.

Case in point: the Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) in my Driveway Border. In theory, it’s planted in a spot where at its full height it should get adequate sun. However, it is surrounded by perennials that have already gotten fairly tall by the time the Switchgrass breaks dormancy in May.

As a result, it is gets shaded and remains fairly stunted. This fall I’m moving it to a better spot on the Left Bank.

There was a similar situation with the ‘Heavenly Blue’ Morning Glories (Ipomoea tricolor). Their seeds can’t be planted until the soil warms in late May. I planted it by the Wild Indigo (Baptisia australis), which is starting to bloom by then. The Morning Glory seedlings hate to be shaded, and I had to remove some of the stems of the Wild -Indigo – something I hated to do.

Have you ever found yourself ignoring the obvious in your garden?





33 Comments on “A Couple of Lessons That Took a Long Time to Learn But Now Seem Kind of Obvious”

  1. Both good lessons; I don’t entirely agree about not having pots all planted the same but they need to have just one plant in them to create a rhythm. As soon as I saw the first image of Great Dixter I recognised it before reading the caption. It has such a distinct style even the grouping of the pots is almost unique.

  2. I think your pots look lovely but I know what you mean about Great Dixter; the pots always look fantastic, but don’ t forget they don’t have the same pots sitting there all summer, that is a lot to ask of a pot. They keep using fresh ones of whatever is at its best.
    I am going to Great Dixter next week and I am looking forward to seeing the exotic garden and I will see what they have in their pots at the moment.

  3. I’m afraid so. I tend to make mental notes which then get forgotten! I have actually got a notebook for such reminders, but it rarely gets used!… The second lesson is tricky, as I find plants are not always the height they are meant to be according to the books/labels etc!

  4. Your posts on garden design help me look at my own eclectic mix with a more discerning eye, especially re mixing colors.

    I’m a tomato cager, not a tomato staker, because I usually cannot be bothered to pinch suckers. Two of the varieties of tomatoes I grew this year sprawled every which way, so I need to mend my lazy ways. I also mixed some veggies in the raised beds that did not play well together. And I’m still learning to keep up with the weeding!

  5. Jason, I really like your pots, Great Dixters are fabulous too, but take out the wonderful doorway, topiary and cannas and yours compare pretty favourably. In the second photo the Dahlia is bold and striking, but take that out and yours still compare really well. Maybe the lesson is don’t beat yourself up because what you do is very inspiring anyway and your review is thought provoking.

  6. Well, first, I think you are being too hard on yourself; I don’t see overgrown and shaggy. Of course, you did say that picture was from July, but I bet it doesn’t look as bad to everyone else as it does to you. We are our own worse critics. That being said, yes, I have to agree that with that many containers, you need to look at the collection as a whole rather than a bunch of individuals. It wouldn’t hurt me to learn that as well!

    As to the morning glories, I have to say that I had a ton of volunteers this year under my rhododendron bush, and those seedlings THRIVED in the shade, even after I filled the area in with begonias.

    At least in gardening, things are seldom permanent, and there’s always next year for perfection, or at least improvement!

  7. Good pointers about container groupings! The obvious in my garden is that several areas need to be totally cleared and re done. Instead, I cram more plants in and when that doesn’t work, I throw pots of plants on top in the empty spaces. It looks awful but there are plants everywhere.

  8. Wow, great lessons, Jason! I have to admit I’ve made some of the same mistakes. But sometimes even the best plans have to be adjusted with the particular growing season. In some years, my container plantings filled in with little effort on my part. In other years (like this one), I’ve had to readjust throughout the season. I think it’s part great planning, part luck, and part adjustment as the season progresses. Wonderful post, and thanks for joining in the meme!

  9. Lovely plantings…those dinner plate dahlias are amazing! I’m constantly overlooking things in my garden. Concentrating on the task-at-hand, I forget to think big picture. But I’ve found that snapping a few wide-shot photos of our beds/plantings, then looking at them later on the computer screen really helps me “see” the garden better.

  10. I disagree with the observation that pots shouldn’t contain the same plants. I have two large container gardens I’ve been struggling with for years. When every pot held a different plant, the effective was disfractal and confusing. Nothing seemed cohesive or harmonious and I couldn’t get the design to flow. I finally realized that what I needed were pots that contained a limited grouping of the same plants in different colors/heights. For example: I’m redesigning one container garden to use 2 pots of Karley Rose pennisetum, 2 pots of coneflowers (pink/white), and two pots of agastache (different colors) complimented with numerous pots of other plants.

    My goal has been to use my containers as an extension of my garden based on the pointillist drawings of Seurat. Each dot or plant is beautiful on its own but more beautiful as a group. Like you I was focused on the whole rather than the parts but needed a pattern to create the picture I was visualizing. When every pot held a collection of different plants it was a big messy mish mash.

  11. My goodness are those groupings at Great Dixter amazing!!! And yes don’t you just love when the answers are right under your nose!?!?! I feel like that when it comes to so many things!! Love your containers by the way and will be bookmarking your first photo! Wishing you a wonderful weekend! Hopefully it will warm up a bit! I’m not ready for the cold just yet!!

  12. Beautiful pictures. I learn from mistakes every year, trust me I make plenty, but the real problem for me is doing anything about it. I’m quite fine with living with mistakes, they often look just as nice and are much less work than the fixing!
    I have been planting pots with single plants in them. Like you said, less casualties and they can be rearranged more easily. A few big pots still get the cottage garden in a pot look.

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