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Shopping with Le Flaneur

The weather is wretched here today. No need to pretend, and I go window shopping with Le Flaneur.

Pretend the weather is impossible and while away some time perusing these sites – no need to buy a thing, but it’s always beneficial to have a notion of just where you might find something when the need arises:

Seibert-Rice offers a vast and expensive array of pots. What appeals is the robustness and visual strength of their designs. Pot rims are hefty, voluptuous and molded in ways reminiscent of architectural cornices. The various designs possess a boldness of expression that transports them beyond the realm of “pretty” or “decorative” in the pejorative sense. They offer both new and antique pots, this antique olive oil jar – now a vase – is from Castello di Uzzano, Greve-in-Chianti (circa 1863). Now this is a cachepot with cachet – a pot with pedigree. I find myself wondering about the gigantic man-made hill in Rome, now off limits to visitors (and collectors), created millennia ago from millions and millions of discarded wine and oil amphorae and now waiting – the garden container mother lode.

One site, operating a dwarf Google (the search engine, not a plant) is Garden Gate It’s a terrific place to begin a search for the perfect antique urn, planter or garden device.

One of many basic and reasonable sources for planters in metal, terra cotta and resin/fiberglass, one web site, PlantContainers.com,strikes me as fairly-priced and broad in their selection, but the offerings are such that you might be lucky and find something at your local big box hardware and home store – saving time and shipping costs. My luck with Home Depot, however, has been dismal. Because of the seasonal aspect I invariably am too late to find that perfect pot in the size I need. Planters I’ve bought there have been purchased as compromises – never the happiest of solutions. On the other hand I was spectacularly fortunate to find a half-dozen large, tall terracotta pots at IKEA that have served brilliantly on stone steps, their vertical lines contrasting with the horizontal lines of a small mid-century modern house. That the pots have acquired a patina of moss (or perhaps it’s just slime) and substantial efflorescence that add to their appeal. This site covers the fundamentals in terms of its offering of shapes, sizes and materials.

Whichford Pottery [http://www.whichfordpottery.com/index.asp carry a full range of terracotta garden containers, with an emphasis on traditional forms suitable in size and shape for almost any need. Their categories include basket flowerpots, large-and-lavish, pots of substance, the kitchen garden, the ornamental garden, truly tradition, ideal for every gardener and making the most of smaller gardens. Their offerings are indeed lovely.

Guy Wolff full pots

America’s botanical gardens can always use support, so one might wish to select containers offered by the New York Botanical Garden. Their pots are gently flared, and aged with a pleasing patina. The NYBG carry Guy Wolff pottery as well as a large selection of equally handsome pots (many with the patina of history) reflecting a more Italian of at least sunnier disposition.:

Whether one selects from these ranges or not, it is well worth spending some time contemplating the proportions and the elegant understatement. After all, the point is not to collect pots (well, perhaps it is) but to provide a setting for one’s plants and flowers. And here it should be pointed out that an ever-useful analogy might be the relationship or balance between a diamond and its setting. One should never be confused about which is which, and rest assured, when a newly engaged beauty shows you her ring, she is not expecting you to focus upon its setting.

Finally, there are those two bookend bastions of contemporary cost-conscious consumption, IKEA and Costco. IKEA offers an ever-changing selection of containers, and with imagination a number of their products can be transformed into plant containers, too. Costco, online, also offers planters and their prices include shipping.

Urn Cache – in your spare time!

With Pat’s assistance, I’ll be posting from time to time briefer items dedicated to a single intriguing pot/jar/container find. In the meantime, one last suggestion for those fortunate enough to live in the West County (Massachusetts): Shelburne Farm & Garden (413-625-6650), 355 Mohawk Trail, Shelburne Falls, MA 01370. For years I’ve happily bought pots from proprietor Pat Schmidt’s large and pleasing selection. The bonus, of course, is that she also carries a vast array of everything to put in those pots, beginning with topsoil and ending with attractive plants that have proven idiot-proof.

-Flaneur du Pays

More About Containers

The Flaneur du Pays continues his disquision on Containers.

Belgian pots from NYBG.org

Materials

Pots and containers are available in all the materials that a sculptor might employ: woods, metals (zinc seems to be the current favorite), clay, and recently fiberglass and synthetic resins. The natural materials remain the most aesthetically pleasing, but utility, lightness of weight and weather-durability all have their virtues as well and this is why the newer materials must be considered. These materials have, like the plants they’ll hold, a lifespan and a limit. Wood ages and rots, metal corrodes, terracotta cracks with frost and resins suffer solar damage. One can deplore this lack of immortality or face reality and embrace the patina. Face it: we’re all developing a patina, no?

Shapes – and Uses

Now that we’ve agreed we’re patinated, let’s also agree that we reflect an abundance of shapes and sizes. Containers for the garden are an equally diverse population and all have their uses. In plan, pots tend to be either round or square with variations (ovals, ellipses, rectangles and rhombuses represented). Planter heights are offered in infinite variety, and one may favor lower, broad containers to emphasize horizontal lines, or taller pots to underscore the vertical.

Chez Flaneur

Tall pots can, in pairs, define an entry or even act much as bollards and prevent unwanted circulation – such as keeping automobiles at bay and away from pedestrians. Lower, larger containers can provide color and texture without obscuring the view of someone who is seated. We’ve all seen the rectangular boxed planters that separate the pedestrians’ portion of the sidewalk from the café patron’s table. The (usually wood or metal) planters may themselves be pedestrian, but with something green flourishing, they become attractive and useful. Urns of flowering plants placed at the bottom (or top) of a stairway, a drive or a walkway emphasize the intended pathway and enhance the experience of making the transition between spaces.

A line of planters can define an edge, and act as a visual warning  – no there isn’t a railing but there is a retaining wall ahead. Round or square, tall or… not, pots can be had with or without drainage holes (and most purveyors will drill holes for customers – with the proviso that the item is non-returnable). More specialized containers include the “strawberry” pot, with multiple “pockets” on its side(s), suitable for cacti, Alpine plants and… strawberries.

By far the greatest virtue of a plant container is that it allows the plant to be brought indoors when outdoor conditions threaten. At the Boboli gardens in Florence, the scores of giant terracotta pots, each holding a lemon tree, are moved in and out with the seasons. One immediately thinks of wealthy fin de siècle sanitarium or spa patients being wheeled out onto a terrace to convalesce and take the sun. I assure you I have always felt as if my years of caring for agapanthus (which are now blessedly back out on the terrace) have been like years of caring for aging relatives: feeding them broth and wheeling them about in Bath chairs. Were they not in containers they’d be long dead. The agapanthus, I mean.

You know best the needs of whatever you’ll be placing in a container. You’d be foolish to seek my advice except to heed these admonitions:

Les Jardins du Roi Soleil

  • To paraphrase English Arts and Crafts Movement founder William Morris, possess only those planters you know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.
  • Less is more – both in design or decoration and in price. Quite often a discount store will have just the thing for a price that allows you to invest in more important garden assets. Recycled objects can be brilliantly employed as containers. For every bathtub inverted to shelter the Virgin, washing machine placed to receive geraniums or tractor tire employed to hold marigolds there have been handsome objects repurposed to splendid effect as plant containers. You’re a gardener for goodness sake: you have imagination!
  • Exercise restraint: after all it is a garden and plant materials installed as God intended should not be overwhelmed by planters, containers and plant-holding “furniture”. Quite possibly you’re the determined and capable gardener who can handle and manage plants in beds and plots. So you have no need for containers.

    Flora Danica

  • If you’re one of the many who have no garden at all – the apartment dweller, perhaps – but still have an urge to have a containerized plant, may I suggest the eternal and utile cachepot? Should you opt for the Flora Danica cachepot and go for a 200-year old, antique specimen, I assure you that you’ll be well on your way to financial ruin – just like a real gardener!

Ikea saucer

If you cannot use your container for planting, fill it with water – birds must bathe. Install a pump and you’ll be steps closer to the basins and fountains of Versailles.

Consider the Containers

My friend, the Flaneur du Pays, is an architect and claims to be more of a vicarious gardener than a knees in the dirt type, but he has a lot to say about cachepots, jardinaires, urns and plain old pots. He will be guest posting from his cottage moderne set amid a grove of trees, in sight of  a salt marsh and Long Island Sound, for a couple of days while I put my knees in the dirt.

Not the Flaneur's pot or flower

“I’ve just unleashed the agapanthus. They’ve flown the coop! Spending two seasons in a small house with four enormous pots of agapanthus and then suddenly having them gone is glorious. Who knew there was so much room in the house? And they’ll be just fine out on the terrace, looking better and better each day. Normally that would be that: no more work until October, but this year they again need to be repotted – they’re bursting through their containers. I’ve been scouring various sources and wondering, “Could they possibly make pots as big as I’m going to need?” Indeed they do.

Before you read any further, know this: I opt for any solution that liberates me from mulching, tilling, bending and kneeling, and especially from weeding. I also like being able to have instant gratification so anything that can give plants amplitude in height and presence without having to wait for years is a boon. My bias is toward the architectural (a neighbor once commented that I arrange my perennials like a field marshal). For me the discovery of the plant stands with rollers (the casters elevate a plant slightly and allow it to be swiftly zipped across a room or terrace) was the equivalent of discovering I (the floral field marshal) had several divisions of armored tanks waiting at the border. By the way, IKEA sells such plant stands in their garden area – they are available in sizes up to 24” in diameter and can sustain a 400-pound load! And they’re priced well below those found in more recherché garden emporia.

I’m a minimalist who views a lawn as a carpet, trees as walls, and plants (few) as furniture (spare) to be moved around in pleasing ways as the mood strikes. I can operate an electric mulching mower and I’m fortunate enough to have the trees in situ, so my gardening impulses can be satisfied by a few containers of, for lack of a better term, plants. You no doubt are infinitely more ambitious, willing to work and possessed of the energy and interest to embrace as much of what Mother Nature offers as possible within whatever garden space you have. Me? Please. A chair or bench with cushion, a glass of lemonade, a large market umbrella and a book are all I ask.

But whether you’re slothful me or enterprising you, we can agree that there is a time and place for containers in the garden. With relative ease they can be placed to give structure and spatial definition, they can frame and define an entry or arrival sequence, and they supplant the need to spend vast quantities commissioning sculptors to fashion objects of art that ultimately are less interesting than plants anyway. Containers can accommodate almost any plant’s root requirements and watering needs. Containers also can be a blessing to those whose arthritic joints or under-utilized muscles recoil at the prospect of stooping, bending and lifting. A handsome pot on a plant stand with casters can be moved about as easily as place cards can be coyly switched at a wedding reception.”

More tomorrow.                                           Flaneur du Pays

Inaugural Poppies

This posting just in from my friend Peter in Connecticut.

Hello, Pat!
This morning I was greeted by the arrival (or blooming) of my Inaugural poppies! Once every four years they bloom, although these haven’t bloomed since January 1997 – they refused to bloom in 2001 or 2005 when George W. Bush took the oath of office. They’re possibly, according to some nomenclatural set of rules, in the same class as Christmas or Epiphany cacti as far as blooming according to some predetermined calendar date. Since these poppies haven’t been seen for quite a while, I’d spent my time working on the hybridization of the Impeachment rose, hope to get at least two varieties, one for Cheney, one for Bush, but I’ve put that effort aside. Instead I’ll concentrate on developing the Michelle orchid – and I hope it’s a sophisticated, beautiful and well-balanced and harmonious blossom. Maybe with a maternal cast, a refreshing scent and real staying power.
Oh, I love to garden in winter!

Peter’s Travels

When Peter travels he needs to fill his eye with ART. And do he went looking for works by Louise Nevelson – and others. His journey continues.

If a flâneur were to select the ideal urban spots for his dawdling, no doubt two of three places selected would be a park and a museum. Fortune smiled when our San Francisco trip’s plans included a visit to the de Young Museum, located in Golden Gate Park. The museum is newly rebuilt after a recent earthquake caused structural damages beyond repair. The new structure, a wonderfully organized assemblage of gallery and administrative spaces organized about gentle and spacious circulation and clad in a gargantuan-scaled mesh of steel armature and perforated copper panels, designed by Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron of Basel, Switzerland.

We entered the museum from the parking garage (new, clean, spacious) and thus missed the more august arrival sequence into the museum, but quickly took to the spirit of the place. We headed first to a vast, temporary exhibition of the sculptor Louise Nevelson, whose work I’ve been attracted to since I was an architecture student. Afterward we found ourselves in a vast collection (and seemingly infinite, by virtue of mirrors) of commissioned teapots. One would not have thought there were so many ceramicists, so much creativity, or so many willing to tackle such an iconic and quotidian object. For readers of Common Weeder, it would have been much like entering an especially flamboyant Royal Horticultural Society’s London Flower Show, accompanied by throngs of matrons in garden party or Ascot-appropriate hats. Oh, that I might have taken surreptitious cuttings!

But enough about Art.


We took a sleek elevator up the administrative tower to a top floor space offering a panoramic view of Golden Gate Park and the northern half of the city. From that vantage point it is readily apparent that the city enjoys a wealth of outdoor spaces. And it also affords a view of one of the lessons the de Young Museum teaches to willing eyes: that exterior texture can mimic the effects of the garden and the landscape. The roof of the de Young is furrowed like a field, the copper veil is perforated by a computer-generated pattern that shifts and plays with light, and even the transition from walkway paving to simply planted outdoor space is a contrast of textures.

What lessons for gardeners and others? I could be flippant and suggest more gardeners could have museum stores, but the de Young makes a far more serious case for the highly effective incorporation of strong texture in the garden, both with plant materials and with manmade surfaces. I have no doubt that gardeners are well-aware of this, but it is heartening to know that the possibilities are endless for invention, and that invention continues and certainly continues to give pleasure to the eye.

A final note: the museum’s café offers organic foods to be eaten in its dining room or on its broad terrace overlooking a sculpture garden. We chose the terrace for our lunch and at some point noted that the clear hard plastic cases in which our sandwiches were packed bore stickers reading “I Can Be Composted”! We did not see packaging at the Louvre’s café reading “Je peux être fait du compost.” San Francisco. What can I say?

My Friend Peter, Traveler

My friend Peter is not a devoted gardener, but he is discerning and witty with a strong visual sense and a lot to say about the world around him. The following is his dispatch from San Francisco.


Being an architect can be difficult if one lives in a rural and relatively remote part of the country. Architecture is largely an urban exercise. For an architect the city is his garden. Sometimes it can be highly instructive or illuminating to shed the biases and perspectives of architecture and instead try to look at things from the point of, say, a gardener. At least this was the pretext adopted when I asked the author of The Common Weeder if I might report on my mid-December visit to San Francisco and the Bay Area.

Things need time to grow and things need time to digest. My sense of what I saw on this trip remains still inchoate but some notions are emerging. One of the things that struck me, clobbered me really, was that one aspect of what makes a landscape work (urban or rural) beyond the plant material itself, is the perception or appreciation of fundamental visual qualities such as silhouette, texture and light. To tell the truth I’m not certain if I was more attuned to these qualities because of the different coast I was on or because they were more abundant in San Francisco. My guess would be that I had simply made an effort to look – and that in looking, I was seeing.

Because we had arrived rather late at night one of the first things noticed after checking into our hotel was garden lighting. Okay, I still smoke cigarettes. And I have to go outside to do this. Walking around the hotel’s grounds I noticed that every tree was illuminated from below. To some extent this was useful – I quickly realized that much of the ground cover was in bloom and actually recognized a plant: agapanthus! I had been given agapanthus (three enormous pots of them) several years ago and with them came the most elaborate set of instructions for their care throughout the year. I seem to recall that the point of these fastidious (tedious really) instructions was to get the plants to bloom. After all these years ours have yet to bloom, and we have comforted ourselves with the response that we really do not like the pompom-like blossoms anyway, and much prefer the foliage. So there I was in the not-so-dark, thinking about agapanthus and jet lag. And I though if these agapanthus can survive hotel neglect (and they were) and the cold (it was nearly freezing) then perhaps I can forego some of the rules and simply bring in my agapanthus before the first frost each year, water them as I feel they need it, and forget all the other ICU standards previously followed with diligence. This was a burden lifted, tantamount to checking off an onerous chore from one’s to-do list.


Adopting more casual agapanthus-rearing techniques would make life simpler. And in that hotel garden that night I noticed another opportunity to eliminate both work and expense. As I said, the trees and shrubs (you gardeners do use that term-of-art, right?) were illuminated from below. Since it was mid-December some more formal plantings were also festooned with Christmas lighting – the elaborate, labor-intensive tiny lights that follow ever branch and twig. But it was the year round lighting that bothered me. There was already enough ambient light (this was downtown Paolo Alto) and the way-finding path lighting was more than sufficient. Lighting plants from below seemed as unnecessary as planting trees upside down – Mass MoCA has just such an installation.

I don’t think the garden need be a 24/7 operation. Everything doesn’t have to be seen all the time. And the lighting from the sun, from the side at sunrise and sunset, and from above at noon, seems to be more than adequate. Unlike electric illumination, the sun and the atmosphere provide constantly changing color and shadow that electrical lighting cannot duplicate. And when, as had been done in this particular garden, some of the up-lights had colored filters, the tinting of the foliage was ghastly.


Later on the trip I had my notion reinforced when I saw the sunrise illuminate the cypress in the manner nature intended. After all, we all photograph best in Natural light. Not only could I forego offering my agapanthus manicures and pedicures, I could dispense with the expense and labor of outdoor lighting. What progress! I extinguished my cigarette and hoped my nocturnal plant photography had not alarmed fellow guests.


The calla lilies are in bloom . . . After the thrill of actually recognizing a plant, “That’s an agapanthus!” I could not believe my luck when, the next morning, I spied a calla lily in bloom. As I walked around I discovered more. I knew and recognized two plants. Fortunately I do not and don’t plan to grow calla lilies. But it was pleasant to see them; heretofore I had only seen them in florists’ arrangements or in the arms of Katherine Hepburn. Who knew they actually grew in the ground?

I also enjoyed the December thrill, for a New Englander, of seeing a palm tree. I’m not even going to think about whether or not these palms actually belong in San Francisco. All I knew was that they were there, they were doing well, and that they represented just how far I’d traveled from the snow and ice. Whether on the Sunday before Easter or during a visit to balmier climates the frond of a palm tree is an exotic and thrilling icon. And if one happens to be driving down a boulevard lined with palm trees the feeling is positively triumphant. I had to drive through the Stanford University campus to retrieve someone from the Alumni Center. The drive required cruising down Palm Avenue for nearly a mile – it was so glamorous it could have been Hollywood. Had the rental car been of a 1950s vintage I assure you, I would have been ready for my close-up Mr. DeMille.

I will never be able to have palm trees lining my drive in Hawley, Massachusetts and I do not want to even imagine global warming accelerating to the point where that might not be so absurd. I will travel for my palms or I shall wait until the Sunday before Easter.

You can follow Peter’s country doings in his new blog, www.flaneurdupays.blogspot.com