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Gardens in Containers in the Modern Day

Aug 17, 2007
American visitors to the Old World are invariably impressed by the exuberant displays of container plants around homes, in gardens and parks, and in front of public buildings and places of business.

In Lisbon, with its narrow, winding streets, where there is hardly a trickle of sunlight, windowsills and tiny balconies are filled with potted plants. Often, they must compete with clothes hung out to dry. I recall one small balcony that contained numerous pot plants, several pieces of laundry, six song birds in cages, and three shouting green parrots attached to their perches by chains.

Throughout Portugal, containers range from tin cans, clay and decorated glazed pots at entranceways and in small patios, to large calstone urns and pots in elegant, formal gardens, like that of the Queluz Palace outside Lisbon. In the moister north, pot plants are seen less frequently than in the hot and dry south, which has a more typically Mediterranean climate.

The countless pot plants around fountains and pools in the Moorish gardens at the Alhambra and Generaliffe Palaces in Granada are unforgettable. At Generaliffe, they are arranged so precisely and symmetrically along the long, narrow canals that they are almost as diverting as the numberless fountains that leap and splash in these gardens where water in its myriad forms plays so important a part. Along the narrow streets of Seville and other Spanish cities, geraniums and climbing roses grow through the intricate lacework of little balconies. Patios, surrounded by high walls, are crammed with potted geraniums, stocks, lemons, oranges, boxwood, sweet bay, jasmines, and Swedish myrtle. Even more, steps are lined with pots of all sizes and descriptions and the tops of walls, also favorite places, resemble miniature gardens.

Italian and Greek Uses
The Italian garden would be incomplete without pot plants. In the terraced gardens of La Mortola in Ventimiglia and Borremeo Castle on Iseo Bello in Lake Maggiore, in the extensive Boboli Gardens in Florence, and in other villa gardens throughout Italy, handsomely designed hand-wrought clay pots are important aspects of the designs. Lemons and oranges, oleanders, gardenias, and geraniums are grown in them.

Greece, with its hot, dry summers, is equally a country of gardens and open courtyards of pot plants. In tin cans, whitewashed or painted yellow, pink, or blue to match the house, the Greeks grow their beloved carnations, stocks, gardenias, geraniums, jasmines, and particularly basil, the pungent Indian herb used for flavoring. When immigrants came to America earlier in the century, they brought with them the practice of growing basil and fragrant flowering plants in tins and other makeshift containers.

Through France and Scandinavia

The south of France, with its warm climate, follows the pattern of Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece. In the north, including Paris, pots, often of house plants, rest on windowsills and adorn courtyards. In formal chateaux and palace gardens, tubbed sweet bay, oleander, and orange and lemon trees are common, along with ornamental urns, introduced for architectural effect.

In Scandinavia, there are large plant containers in public squares and on broad sidewalks, in fact, wherever they do not interfere with pedestrian traffic. In front of City Hall in the heart of Copenhagen, great concrete containers with geraniums and other summer flowers are grouped among the benches where people sit in the sun.

In Britain

London, Dublin, and Edinburgh have window boxes and urns that decorate banks, department stores, public buildings, and offices. Azaleas and other spring flowers are followed by hydrangeas and geraniums in the summer and chrysanthemums in the autumn. Plant boxes are often placed on top of department store marquees. These are also a familiar sight in Paris.

In all these countries, with their centuries of experience, we can find ideas to adapt to our own climate, styles of architecture, and manner of gardening. The multitude of containers and plants offer many possibilities for adding architectural accent and introducing a distinctive kind of garden beauty.
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