Art in the Landscape

By Mary and Hugh Williamson

Gardening in South Florida has its joys; our nearly 11-month Zone 10 growing season and the incredible abundance of available planting varieties, especially our fabulous natives, can ensure the look of paradise! Yet, gardening in the Sunshine State also has a few drawbacks – like weeding in the heat of the summer and fall. Happily, there is a solution.

Container gardens, whether you have an expansive landscape or a condominium balcony, can be a colorful, manageable and delightful means of bringing texture, interest and glamour to your outdoor environment. They also offer a potential and compelling obsession to collect and to utilize unique containers. Earthenware pots, cast iron urns and stone vessels from around the world can be special reminders of travels and provide great additions to your garden, patio or rooftop. Some collectors are not satisfied until a prize from each continent is procured!

A Little History
Babylon2Container gardening is not a recent phenomenon. Perhaps one of the first examples of the concept was the 6th century BC Hanging Gardens of Babylon, at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is present-day Iraq.  As one of the Seven Wonders of the World, these gardens were said to include remarkable feats of irrigation engineering. The precedent of containers atop columns and as part of rooftop plantings has lived on. Just imagine what might have been the concept for the composition of those plantings. Perhaps it was the availability of plant material, but considering the genius of the architectural design that was set forth, it is unlikely that planning and cohesive concepts for plantings were not incorporated. What was the design inspiration?  Color?  Drama? It would be so much fun to know.

The practice of Container Gardening then emerged in China in the form of the bonsai, and as simpler, religion-oriented sites in Ancient Greece. Rome then made the garden experience its own, with a more pleasure-focused approach. Those who could not afford actual gardens often employed the skills of artisans to provide them with trompe l’oeil versions on walls.  The roof garden at the National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh, with fabulous containers and plantings, represents over two centuries of evolution that reflect its predecessor institutions and celebrate the glory of diverse Scottish environments.

A Few Secrets for a Practical Application
Some notable container gardeners refer to the perfect container formula as incorporating “the thrill, the fill, and the spill”— a stunning tall center feature, a mid-height filler, and a spilling flower or vine to drape over the edge.  South Florida offers a host of native “thrills.”

Annuals provide color and often the right height for the “fill.”  And they can be changed frequently without disturbing the “thrill.” The “spill” can be provided by Euphorbia, Vinca Vine, Ornamental Potato Vine and so many others. It is that “spill” component that caused the gardens in Babylonia to appear to be “hanging,” and it remains an important visual in today’s applications.

How About Your Closet? Or Maybe a Favorite Painting?
Your home may be graced with a Pierre Deux fabric, with its thoroughly French palette of splendid yellows and blues. That could be continued with a container that boasts a “thrill” of blue Porterweed, a “fill” of native golden Lantana, and a “spill”of white Euphorbia.

Is Lilly Pulitzer your gal?  Pink and green Coleus as a “fill,” an Aztec grass “thrill,” and a Vinca Vine “spill” can carry the love to your outdoor space.  Maybe you’d prefer a fill of pink Pentas, which does not even have to be deadheaded! Or Brazilian Red Hots.

Do you own a prized Fernando Botero masterpiece [such as those shown on page 134]? His vivid palette of bold reds, magentas and blues are an inspiration for a color-filled explosion of Salvia, Red Fountain Grass and Purple Queen.

Your “thrill” component is best met with an indigenous Florida plant. They are reliable.  The drought and heat-resistant qualities of these make your plantings sustainable and the maintenance a breeze. Do remember that specimens planted in containers dry out more quickly than those in the ground. While irrigation has been around since 5,000 BC, and modern-day irrigation can be customized for your container garden, the simple task of watering these wonderful additions to your abode can be more precise, satisfying and therapeutic; wonderfully simple and low-tech.