contain your enthusiasm


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Creating a small, plant-rich garden in zone 8 can be a brutal business. Faced with so many tempting choices in such an agreeable climate, a small garden runs the danger of sinking into visual chaos. Wielding the power of refusal, the ability to say no more often than yes, is probably the most useful tool in the garden shed. It’s no surprise that some of the most visually impactful gardens are made by people that put their foot down, people with strong, angular ideas and sharp-elbowed opinions. Many of us with a tinge of the collector mania gladly put up with the chaos. What’s rare is finding a garden that manages to incorporate a strong love of disparate plants into a seamless design whole. Plant collecting and its byproduct, containers, are usually the enemy of clean, uncluttered design. Pots and containers often fill the porches, stairs, and patios of a more relaxed style of garden. That they can be deployed to create a rigorous, crisp picture can come as a surprise.

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Astelia and bocconia on square concrete pavers in Loree Bohl’s Danger Garden
The pot and the ‘Red Devil’ astelia were meant to be together.


In the Portland, Oregon gardens of good friends Loree Bohl and JJ Sousa, there’s obviously a similar love of pottery, matched with a love of architectural plants, some of which cannot survive year-round outdoors, and temperaments that will not compromise on good design. I love how both these gardens turn the old design axiom, to plant in multiples, on its head. In a small garden, such advice would result in a boring monoculture and leave the collector unsatisfied. (Horrors!) Loree and JJ flip the axiom around. Instead of multiplying plants for a strong impact, make multiples of containers, use repetition in their color and shape, and the result will also be a concentrated, heady experience that confidently leads the eye and rhythmically builds into a densely rich mise-en-scène, to borrow a theatrical phrase. Both gardens riff on a timelessly effective formula: the tension of nature’s most outlandishly gorgeous patterns and textures contained within well-defined boundaries. Edges aren’t softened or hidden, they’re accentuated and celebrated. The Portland gardens of Loree Bohl and JJ Sousa organize space like neat bento boxes, with sharp lines and angles providing contrast and staging opportunities for an extravagant collection of in-ground and potted plants that becomes much more than the sum of its parts. The strong lines frame the many containers as well as the lush, in-ground plantings, and there is frequent intentional interplay between the planted and the potted. Plants are shown to wonderful advantage in this disciplined approach, which shows that minimalism isn’t the only answer for a small garden that is asked to absorb a collector’s ongoing enthusiasm for plants and also read as a coherent design.



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In Loree’s garden, the concrete pavers are alternately edged in pebbles or grass. Strong lines are never softened, they’re exploited for graphic potential.

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Every container is meticuloulsly mulched with pebbles.

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Step back a bit to get the strong interplay between the garden and containers.

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Loree’s containers are mainly green, black, metallic, and orange, with riffs and variations on the theme.

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The retaining wall separating the upper garden from the terrace garden. No surface goes unexploited.

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Here the choice of rectangular containers steps down and echoes the line of the retaining wall. Vertical cactus pierces the horizontal, with the stubbly aloe as the perfect chaotician here.
The rosettes of the plants link and refer back to the round pots on the retaining wall. Loree’s concentrated choices in color and shape pack amazing energy.

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Round containers at the base of the stock tank.

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Where Loree uses orange as accents, JJ pours it on in buckets.

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Orange, white, silver, black.

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And a playfulness is let loose in JJ’s garden.

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But the plant lust is just as serious.

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A strong grid of multi-levels keep visitors enveloped in waist-high plants, and in a constant state of arrival and departure, quite a feat in such a small space.

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Hostas are repeated in containers in the shady front garden.

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Where they are freakishly pristine.

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Cinderblock gabion retaining wall, enveloped in chain-link fencing. Simple materials, great idea.

Garden design periodically argues that a choice must be made between plant-driven or design-driven. Both these gardens prove that these are false choices.

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Both gardens prove that there’s no need to curb that enthusiasm, just thoughtfully contain it.


This entry was posted in agaves, woody lilies, design, garden ornament, garden travel, garden visit, pots and containers, succulents and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to contain your enthusiasm

  1. Deanne says:

    How superb! Love your visual interpretation of these gardens. Great insightful post Denise.

  2. Emily says:

    I love your thematic posts about the Fling gardens! So different from the garden-by-garden photo tours.

  3. Mark and Gaz says:

    Another wonderful post Denise, a great follow up to your memorable post focusing on chairs. This time using containers to illustrate the special things about those two gardens.

  4. Peter/Outlaw says:

    I’ve admired these gardens greatly and wish that I could put my foot down and not simply bring home every shiny pot or gorgeous plant that seduced my eye at the moment. Thoughtful gardening – what a concept. You did a fabulous job, as always, of interpreting these gardens!

  5. There are three acceptable levels of container use in the garden. The first is none, but that’s ridiculous. The second is one, but it must be a really impressive pot — a focal point. Then there “can’t count them anymore”, and both of these gardens show that this is the level to aim for. You’ve captured a nice sampling from each!

  6. Denise says:

    @Deanne, you’ll have to come and see for yourself one day. They’d love to have you.
    @Emily, thanks for saying! But I love those tour posts and hope to be more systematic some day.
    @M&G, there’s so much more to both these gardens, but if I don’t break off a little piece to work with I’d never post anything.
    @Peter, I know! And what a containerama you’ve got going yourself.
    @Alan, well said! Because of water issues I’ve cut way back on containers the past couple years but love seeing them in gardens.

  7. I love a post that has me seeing my own garden in a different way, thank you for that. You manage to make me sound so intentional in my obsession, what a concept!

  8. Denise says:

    @Loree, obviously you’re a natural at this. I should’ve mentioned Andrew too, because I know he’s a big part of DG. He told me a nice story about his beloved pachypodium. What a guy!

  9. Hoov says:

    Both are so very disciplined!

    All I need is a personality transplant.

  10. Denise says:

    Hoov, don’t you change a thing! I love your garden. And how would Boris & Natasha work out in the Danger Garden, hmmm?

  11. ks says:

    This is a lovely showcase of gardens that bring the container to a new level..I fear I will always have a jumble , though drought has cut down on the quantity (and contents-more succulents,less Coleus) I still struggle with my groupings.

  12. Pam/Digging says:

    Denise, you should be teaching classes on design (or do you already?). I get so much out of your thoughtful analyses of gardens you visit, including these two that I toured along with you. You bring such a unique perspective to a garden visit.

    I read in passing another blogger’s comment that you had posted about Loree and JJ’s garden, but I didn’t see your link on the Fling website, so I hope you don’t mind that I’m adding it. I wouldn’t want anyone to miss your fantastic post.

  13. Jenn says:

    Note that while the plants may not be in multiples of three or five, the pots carry that design weight and are grouped very carefully in repeating clusters.

  14. Lisa says:

    Beautiful pictures of awesome gardens. I like very much how you have analyzed the design in these gardens.

  15. Stellar writing and photography. Your post should be included in an anthology of the year’s best garden writing.

  16. Denise says:

    @Kathy, I’m way down in numbers too, and I enjoy summer much more for it. But now I’m thinking of all the big-leaved plants that I can sink in small water gardens…
    @Pam, likewise! I think all of us together make interesting reading, and for that I’m daily grateful. Thanks for sending the link on.
    @Jenn, yes, exactly right. It builds up a very concentrated picture.
    @Lisa, thank you for saying!
    @Gerhard, then I’d be competing against you too! For so many years making a garden was a solitary business, and now there’s all these voices and chatter and virtual walkabouts. So much more fun…and I’m actually learning a lot more too.

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