Seek perfection in a pot

Special to The Times

LIVING downtown with limited space to garden doesn't necessarily mean a bleak, gritty landscape, short on plants, with only the urban skyline to stare at. It can be lush and green, extremely livable and packed with fascinating plants. Take a few lessons from the Northwest, where garden designers recently mounted elaborate displays using containers and planters to artfully landscape small urban spaces.

Most of the ideas offered at the Northwest Flower & Garden Show, held last week in the cavernous Washington State Convention & Trade Center, were designed for terraces, balconies, rooftops or tiny urban backyards. They would work well in L.A. which, like Seattle, is bulging with new and renovated apartments and condominiums with virtually no traditional yards. The outfit that put on the show promises more such urban designs at its San Francisco Flower & Garden Show, March 12 to 16. L.A., unfortunately, does not have a show remotely this size.

The designs were about space, plants and experimentation. The plants don't always translate from the drizzly Northwest, which is prime rhododendron, peony and meconopsis territory, where luxuriant moss soon covers anything that doesn't move. But many of the plants featured in containers would be quite happy in Southern California because Seattleites have been fascinated for several years with big-leaved tropicals and are now with grayish and olive green Mediterranean plants.

You're as likely to see an agave, an olive, a banana or a fancy red-leaved dracaena here in Seattle as you are in West Los Angeles or Pasadena. Maybe more so. After all, in containers, it really doesn't matter if the plant will make it through the winter. You can always move the pot to a protected spot, or, if worse comes to worse, replant it in spring. A container is a good place to grow slightly risky plants.

Part of any good garden show, whether it's the famous Chelsea Flower Show in England or Seattle's, is pure fantasy. One display celebrated stone in every conceivable way, including a massive Inuit Inukshuk that guarded the entry, and a towering rock-filled gabion wall. A low wall made of flagstones laid sideways like so many library books on a shelf was striking. The garden by the firms Borrowed Ground and Exteriorscapes would hardly work on a rooftop, but it gets one thinking about the possibilities.

Those gardens pretending to be up on a roof showed the importance of level changes and vertical skyward shapes to offset the flat, roof-like plane. Tall sculptures and tall pots emphasized verticality, sometimes amusingly so. A small agave on top of a 4-foot-high-by-1-foot-wide glazed pot seemed slightly Seuss-like but was also arresting (though the designer confessed that empty, upside-down nursery pots filled most of the space under the plant). These extra-tall but narrow pots, most from Asia, can be found in Southern California.

Several of the most dramatic containers in a special exhibit of patio gardens were homemade by the designers. One was pieced together from the slabs cut from a log before milling, a clever use of cheap and plentiful-in-these-parts materials. Another was a fat, large steel pipe, the sides peeled back like a partially eaten banana, stuffed with fascinating little plants.

Perhaps the most fun was a takeoff on the rock-filled gabion. The designers took a simple metal container, placed it inside a roll of welded wire fencing that was several inches wider, and then filled the space in between with smooth black river rocks and creeping plants.

There were containers made of stainless steel, tables fashioned from stone slabs sitting on plump ceramic pots, picnic tables sliced from slabs of native maples resting on massive old factory timbers and spilly things growing from an old roof turbine.

One particularly nice rooftop terrace by Plantswoman Design used planter boxes made from old corrugated metal siding with its original, weathered barn-red paint. It was an example of reuse, part of the green sub-theme running through many of the displays. Most gardens were designed to be environmentally friendly, and some made it look downright fun.

A little backyard barnyard built by Seattle Urban Farm Co. featured a green patio cover planted with corn (actually doable, because corn is so shallow-rooted) and a chicken coop with a roof of strawberries (ditto). Under the patio roof was an outdoor kitchen for cooking the many crops crammed into beds and borders. Seating was on surfboard-shaped garden benches made from recycled steel.

Another Earth-friendly garden, by Patrick Carey of Hadj Design, used a twisting string of outdoor lights to show where rainwater traveled, first falling on a sod roof, then down a spiral auger-like spout into a series of swales and catch basins, watering the garden while trapping runoff. Even the rainy Northwest knows it needs to harvest that precious stuff that falls from the sky.

-- For March gardening tips, see The Monthly Gardener at


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How to showcase your greenery

Garden show designers offer a few tricks that make a landscape, small or large, pop. With containers poised to make big statements in any size garden, proper planting is important.

Vary the elevation. Why live or garden on one level?

Emphasize verticality. Anything shaped like an exclamation mark is hard to miss.

Contrast with horizontal. Pair with a really long bench or raised bed.

A focal point. Do all roads lead to something that really stands out?

Bigger is better. One really big pot makes a bolder statement than several smaller.

Use space wisely. Plant every square inch, even unlikely places.

Control the backdrop so nothing intrudes on your space.

Remember lighting. A few carefully placed spotlights or beacons direct the eye from dusk on.

Potting 101

Drainage: Make sure containers have large drainage holes so extra water can quickly exit.

Exclude: Cover drainage holes with window screening to keep soil in, bugs out.

Soil: Use premium potting mixes so soils don't become soggy.

Leave room: Make sure there is enough space between the soil and the rim for an inch of water.

Irrigate: Water should run out the bottom, and watering even twice a day in summer is not too often.

Fertilize: Use a liquid type every two weeks or sprinkle a controlled-release fertilizer on top.

-- Robert Smaus

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