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.
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.
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.
Every container is meticuloulsly mulched with pebbles.
Step back a bit to get the strong interplay between the garden and containers.
Loree’s containers are mainly green, black, metallic, and orange, with riffs and variations on the theme.
The retaining wall separating the upper garden from the terrace garden. No surface goes unexploited.
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.
Round containers at the base of the stock tank.
Where Loree uses orange as accents, JJ pours it on in buckets.
Orange, white, silver, black.
And a playfulness is let loose in JJ’s garden.
But the plant lust is just as serious.
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.
Hostas are repeated in containers in the shady front garden.
Where they are freakishly pristine.
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.
Both gardens prove that there’s no need to curb that enthusiasm, just thoughtfully contain it.