Late August of this year I attended the IGC (the Independent Garden Center Show) in Chicago. Located on Navy Pier, this is truly becoming the quintessential trade show for the independent garden center. Touted as the world’s largest show of its kind, it offers educational seminars, network opportunities, and thousands of products from close to 900 vendor booths. The world class exhibit hall spans some 200,000 square feet (four football fields) and was jam packed with inspiration. Leading garden experts, brilliant business minds and savvy retailers were all there to do one thing, promote the independents!
As I walked down the nearly 30 aisles of product, what quickly came to mind was the abundance of pottery that was being represented. Sure there was Italian clay that almost any garden center has from 3” to 24”, but it was the enormity of unique pottery that inspired and reinforced a common theme in today’s gardening. There seems to be a good 10 year lag time between European garden center merchandising and that of what is being done here in the United States. Furthermore, what has been done well for the past 5 or 6 years in the Pacific Northwest has trickled across country and is finally introducing itself to the east coast. Container gardening is here to stay! I say again, container gardening is here to stay!
No longer are the days of orange, Italian clay with a Greek key scroll inscribed across the top your only option. Today there is frost resistant pottery that doesn’t have to be emptied in the winter, taken indoors or buried beneath our outdoor soils to insure its survivability. Planters today are lightweight, rustproof, fireproof, free of petro chemicals and environmentally friendly. There are those which will oxidize over time giving way to stunning patinas. Italian design with such simple, clean lines, even Giorgio Armani would be inspired to use some in his clothing advertisements or his own backyard. Authentic stone, metallic finishing, lightweight and durable fiberglass also throw their hands into the arena of what is now available. Germany’s romantic Rhine Valley is now turning out terracotta classic designs, glazed stoneware, fired in traditional kilns that have served civilizations in Asia and Europe. It doesn’t end there! Copper window boxes, stainless steel with rustic copper finishes and hammered brace elements. Even garden hose pots done so well that the fact that they mask an unsightly water snake is insignificant as to the overall beauty of these pieces of sculpture.
Not limited by material alone, color plays a huge part in our decision making process. Again, terracotta orange is being replaced by the cobalt blues, chili reds, honey and mints of the world. All of this contributing to an outdoor living space. Firepits, outdoor kitchens, stone patios, walkways and retaining walls which allow 10 to 20 guests to sit comfortably outside are all elements of modern design which can be enhanced with a dab of color.
The possibilities are endless as to what you can plant in all this pottery. Jock Demme, horticultural demigod and friend from Iseli Nursery says it best, “like it for as long as you can.” There are no rules to container gardening. It’s meant to be fun and exciting. We have become accustomed to planting annuals such as impatiens and begonias; we toss tender perennials like mums away and seldom go through the efforts of overwintering poinsettias. So why are we reluctant to explore and fund the guilty pleasures of Pennisetum ‘Burgundy Giant’ (Burgundy Giant Fountain Grass) for annual summer color or apprehensive to indulge ourselves with conifers or deciduous ornamentals as companions in our container gardens? Even if it’s only for a short while, it is after all, quality of life that we all should be searching for.
As you develop your next garden area, be mindful of the possibilities. Color, texture and size are key elements to build upon. Consider a burgundy pot dumped in among your dark green, Taxus baccata ‘Repandens’ (English Yews) dripping with Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ (Golden Japanese Forest Grass). Our orange, Fox Red Curley Sedge Grass (Carex buchananii) looks stunning in our cobalt blue pot sitting behind our yellow, variegated Japanese sedge grasses (Carex morrowii ‘Aurea-variegata’) and in front of our large Acer griseum (Paperbark Maple). This incidentally turns red in the fall! Today’s pottery should be viewed more as a piece of sculpture rather than simply a receptacle to house a plant. Groupings of pottery can make a garden and the design can be pulled apart again and again to recreate a different theme. Your garden, after all, is your oyster!