Tooling down Main Street in the picturesque college town of New London, New Hampshire, no one would ever suspect that just a block behind the business district there’s a secluded swath of 14 acres where a distinguished artist and his “horticultural partner in crime” have created a lushly blooming container-garden paradise. “They’re a movable feast,” says famed children’s literature artist and writer Tomie dePaola of his many overflowing pots.
He unabashedly revels in the abundance. If one is good for him, 25 are better, and 100 are downright fabulous. Lobelia, dusty miller, dwarf petunias, anyone? They’re here, likely crammed together in one of countless peripatetic vessels of one sort or another.
Even more abundant than his plethora of containers is dePaola’s own impressive oeuvre. He’ll turn 80 this September, and next year will mark the 50th anniversary of his off-the-chart success in the children’s book world. He’s published close to 250 books, won a Caldecott Medal for illustration, a Newbery Medal for writing, and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award, a lifetime achievement honor, thus far given to only 18 recipients. And he’s won the Sarah Josepha Hale Award — the only children’s author to do so. Classically trained, he also paints large canvases for galleries and for his own walls.
Back in 1985, he bought from Emil Hanslin, founder of the still thriving Yankee Barn Homes company in Grantham, New Hampshire, Hanslin’s own Yankee Barn homestead with its adjacent 200-year-old cow barn (“Art House,” Design New England, September/October 2010). Over the years, dePaola has customized the house with four additions, giving it his own bespoke look. Outdoors, he’s followed the philosophy of the late, great landscape architect James van Sweden to eschew stiff, boxy forms, instead naturalizing with drifts of flowering perennials, ornamental grasses, and ferns. “Think big, even in small spaces,” wrote van Sweden about gardens. “Don’t put in three, put in 300. The worst thing you can do is be ditsy.”
Of dePaola’s renovations, the first and the last had the most impact on the landscape. The first ensured the house’s privacy by adding a tall fence along the road, fronted and softened by a long garden bed of perennials, varied for successive bloom. Next to the driveway, doors open to the now fenced-in cobblestoned courtyard that connects the house with the magnificent old barn that contains dePaola’s studio, where he paints and writes. There is also an office where Bob Hechtel handles all business affairs, dealing with publishers, arranging book tours — all the nitty-gritty stuff that enables dePaola to, in his words, “do what I do best, create art, undisturbed.”
Onboard professionally with dePaola for 30 years, Hechtel was just a spectator at first as the landscape was planned but got his hands in the dirt gradually by filling pots with flowers and foliage to enliven the courtyard. When dePaola celebrated his 70th birthday by adding a huge vaulted room to face what he quaintly calls his “front yard,” everything changed for Hechtel, who assumed the role of container-garden guru for the new room’s curved brick terrace. “Planting just grew on me,” he says by way of pun. “Tomie wanted the intimacy of masses of color close to the house to enhance the glorious vistas.”
DePaola credits a day trip to White Flower Farm in Litchfield, Connecticut, with the start of what he calls his dazzling miniature garden-beds-in-a-pot. There, they saw an oversize Italian pot, tailormade to be the focal point of the addition’s outdoor hardscape, which is edged by a curved stone wall. Annually, and according to Hechtel’s mood, its contents change. Around the bend of the terrace, the kitchen garden has benches to loll on and tiered tables massed with pots of flowering herbs and foliage plants.
All pots are clay or glazed ceramic. “I’m a snob about clay pots,” says Hechtel. “I prefer them because they leach salt out of the soil and age beautifully with a wonderful patina. But, in truth, plastic pots have their assets, too. They need less water, can take a colder climate, and are lighter to handle. Sometimes I sneak smaller ones in among the others, particularly the herbs.” To plant the pots, he first covers the hole at the bottom with a piece of screen, then uses potting soil from the hardware store, and fertilizes with Espoma Flower-tone Blossom Booster, an organic plant food.
Because Hechtel lives right down the road, it’s easy for him to drop in anytime to check on his horticultural charges, often changing them seasonally for prolonged impact. Just remember to stop short of clutter, he says. Successful massing also requires restraint.
DROUGHT-TOLERANT MEDITERRANEAN culinary herbs such as rosemary, thyme, and sage do particularly well in pots set in sunny places. Keep them near the kitchen door or window to allow for quick clips by the cook.
FOR CONTAINERS THAT don’t get full sun, begonias, impatiens, monkey flowers, coleus, torenias, or bacopa are recommended. Sedum is the choice for pots that are not going to be watered regularly.
TO CREATE AN ATTRACTIVE mixed planting, add a trailing plant such as calibrachoa, Surfinia petunias, ‘Cascade’ lobelia, or trailing verbena or dichondra that will spill over the sides of the pot.
LARGE CONTAINERS tend to yield better results, as moisture evaporates more quickly from small pots. Select pots with plenty of drainage holes in the bottom. If reusing a flowerpot, dump out any old soil, which may be depleted of nutrients and contain pathogens. Scrub the interior of the pot with hot water and then soak it in a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water for an hour. The bleach solution will eliminate any contamination. Rinse with clear water.
ALWAYS USE A POTTING MEDIUM, not soil from the garden or compost. Mix in time-release fertilizer such as Osmocote. Fill the container with the medium-and-fertilizer mix. Adding water-retaining granules (available at most garden centers), which store and slowly release moisture, will reduce watering chores. Hydrate the beads before adding them to the planting mix. This will keep the planter from overflowing like a volcano the first time it is watered.
TRANSFER PLANTS to the container by gently removing them from their pots, teasing out potbound roots. Set them in the planting mix so the top of the root ball is level with the surface of the potting soil. Water well so the soil settles slightly lower than the top of the container, which makes room for future waterings.
TO GAUGE IF a planter needs water, insert a finger into the soil up to the second knuckle. (Do this daily in hot weather.) If your fingertip feels dry, add water slowly and deeply until it starts to run out the bottom of the container. Add water-soluble fertilizer every other week.
REMOVE SPENT FLOWERS regularly to encourage more blooms. People tend to wildly overestimate the amount of sun their containers get, so if plants don’t bloom, try moving the planter to a sunnier location.
— Carol Stocker