Maiden grass sways in the breeze as white birch trees shimmer in the light. A thick clump of white daisies cools down a blazing red cotoneaster shrub. A tiny yellow bird lands on a branch nearby, searching for berries. Off in the distance rises...the World Trade Center. The World Trade Center? Yes, we're in the middle of New York, in the heart of hip Chelsea, in a rooftop garden produced for a client by designer Rebecca Cole.
Cole (not to be confused with Rebecca Kolls, the woman behind Rebecca's Garden) has a new book called Potted Gardens about container gardening, or gardening in pots and other objects rather than in the actual earth. Cole has lived in New York for 12 years, and as a passionate gardener and a passionate antique collector, she's been gardening in containers the whole time.
"I love antiques and can't pass up anything great," says Cole, who has spiky blond hair and green eyes. She ran out of space in her small apartment for the boxes, pails, trunks, and washtubs she acquired, so she began to garden in them and put them to practical use.
Friends, and then friends of friends, asked her to re-create the look for them. A business was born for the former stage actress, and Cole now maintains 35 gardens in New York and designs flower arrangements for parties. Three years ago, she opened a shop in Greenwich Village to display her gardening style. "I don't like symmetry and lined-up pots with an even number of plants in each," says Cole, who's wearing blue coveralls and carrying as a handbag a round leather hatbox from Florence. "I try to create a rustic beauty, not a little pretty floral beauty. I garden like an artist paints. It's an incredible way to express yourself."
One customer was a literary agent who asked her to write a book. "There weren't very many good books on container gardening," says the designer, opening her bag to retrieve her sunglasses. "I wanted to get my ideas out there."
"I think gardening is really personal," says Cole. She is particularly averse to typical terraces lined with plastic pots filled with symmetrically arranged annuals. "There are three or four local nurseries in New York that do gardens, and I think half of the work I do for my clients is about ripping out the nurseries' gardens and doing them over," she laughs.
Cole likes to garden in found objects. "I can't see going out and buying a new plastic or terra-cotta pot, because there is always something interesting right around the house that you can use," she says. She prefers primitive, simple country antiques — wooden boxes, tin cans, iron tubs. "I like rusty old textured pieces that look more like nature than new plastic pots," she says. Which doesn't mean she'll stick a plant in just anything. "People are always leaving things outside my shop, but I'm not going to put plants in a toilet just because it has a hole in the bottom," she says. "The object must be beautiful."
This potted garden looks like it grew naturally. Cole prefers a mix of two-thirds perennials and one-third annuals. She likes meadow or prairie plants and prefers a natural, wild effect. Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), black-eyed Susan ( Rudbeckia fulgida), and blue salvia (Salvia farinacea) often are found in her gardens. Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), lobelia (Lobelia cardinalis), and lavender (Lavandula augustifolia) are also preferred. Although carefully planned, Cole's gardens look as if they were planted by nature itself. "Nature is my teacher," she says. "I try to re-create it in some way."
Cole likes gardening with containers because it's easy to play around with the positioning and heights of plants. Another advantage over in-ground gardening is that different kinds of soils can be brought in for different plants. "And you need fewer plants than when you garden in the ground," she says. "When you put a plant in a container, you're creating a visual focus. You get more bang for your buck."
Cole thinks of a garden as a room. Where are the walls of the room? What is the furniture? Where are the paths? "The reason I have a store is that I'm as much in love with the furniture and the architectural elements as I am the plants," she says. "A garden is like a 3-D painting, and the plants and the containers and the furniture are all pieces of it."
She stays away from typical garden furniture, favoring pieces you can use in the living room and drag out to the garden. "Instead of buying a potting table from Smith and Hawken, I'd rather put out a hundred-year-old table with a couple of benches stacked on top for the shelves," she says.
The designer takes her inspiration from her surroundings. In the city, she describes her gardening style as "urbanish." "I like that there are buildings around," she says. "I don't want to see a cute little country trellis on a terrace in the city. If you're in the city, you need to love that there are smokestacks and pipes. Instead of hiding them, grow plants that highlight them as interesting architectural elements."
In the country, Cole planted Russian sage in a carriage.
Besides living in an apartment in New York, Cole owns a house in New Hampshire. ("Six and a half hours away," she groans, "but the cutest town you've ever seen.") As a child, the Pittsburgh-born Cole spent summers in New Hampshire with her grandparents, and her new house is not far from where they lived. "My grandfather was an incredible gardener," says Cole, "and the beauty of what he did definitely inspired me." In New Hampshire, Cole gardens with "more country things," growing plants in wheelbarrows, for instance, and using old garden gates as trellises.
"My approach is a combination of European gardening style and not ever having enough money to buy anything else," says Cole.
But what do you do when the snow falls, or if you don't have access to outdoor space? Try your hand at potted plants indoors. Again, Cole recommends plants that would naturally be found in your area. "The most commonly used indoor plants in the United States are tropical plants because they do not like to get cold, but I say if a plant grows naturally in Ecuador, it should stay in Ecuador," says Cole. Plants, even indoor plants, should look natural to your region.
Plants thrive in this window box made from an old shutter. "People come into my store all the time wanting a houseplant that blooms all year round," says Cole. "We ask a lot from our houseplants." Instead, says the designer, go for a plant that has lush, healthy foliage all the time. Indoors, she often uses ivies, creeping fig, and ferns. She also likes baby's tears, a plant with "little tiny clover leaves in limey green that's really, really sweet." When working with indoor plants, think about the plants outside — "I think it's better if you look out the window and see a similar leaf. It looks more natural."
Container Gardening Do's and Don'ts
- Don't get a round pot and put a dracaena in the middle, surround it with geraniums, and put ivy on the outside. This is what everyone does in pots, and I defy you to look at nature and see if nature ever does anything like that.
- Always water container gardens. There is never enough rain for containers.
- Feed container gardens regularly with plant food such as Miracle Gro, because there are no worms and other things giving natural nutrients.
- On a rooftop, don't forget weight issues. Put Styrofoam peanuts in the bottom of pots to keep them light.
- Don't listen to anyone about the limitations of what can grow in a container. Almost anything can grow in a container as long as you give it the right elements.
- The container needs to match the plant somehow. If the container has a color, use that color in the planting.
- Don't create an abrupt change in height, like a really tall plant with a vinca vine hanging down. Nature goes down gradually.
- A container always needs drainage, or holes in the bottom.