Tag Archives: JJ Sousa Digs Inside and Out

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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garden chairs

A chair is a very difficult object. A skyscraper is almost easier. That is why Chippendale is famous.” – Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

Continuing my monomaniacal, object-specific tour of Portland gardens, which brings us around to chairs. Because I’ve always coveted chairs, all shapes, all sizes. Just ask my family. Found at flea markets, thrift shops and, yes, even curbside, we have way more than necessary indoors, so of course the obsession spills outdoors. Sculptural, practical, evocative of humankind at our very best. An unoccupied chair always strikes me as breathtakingly poignant. A single chair occupied speaks to contemplative moments, gathering strength for rejoining the fray. A group of chairs occupied, animated in conversation, is arguably the best civilization has to offer. High, low, rustic, elegant, I want them all.

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Portland Pots It Up

There’s so many reasons for plants to spend some or even all of their lives in containers.
Aside from the practical reasons — fine-tuning sunlight, better drainage, more moisture, less moisture, special soil mixes, protection from chewing and digging creatures, the ability to shuttle plants indoors where a cold winter will be inhospitable and/or deadly — all these good and sensible reasons aside, containers provide strong graphic and framing opportunities that many of us find hard to resist. And it’s not like our infatuation with pots is new — the oldest pottery found in China dates back almost 20,000 years, so I’d argue that we’re just yielding to an age-old, irresistible impulse that impels us to seek out empty vessels brimming with so much potential. The gardens of Portland we toured exploited this graphic potential like nobody’s business.


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Euphorbia ammak would not survive the Portland winter were it not for the portability of the freckled chartreuse pots in Craig Quirk & Larry Neill’s Floramagoria garden designed by Laura Crockett.
A perfect example of the gorgeous joining hands with the practical. I love this soft color that blends so well with plants. (A year or so ago I found a pot with this same glaze at Rolling Greens in Culver City.)

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