Back in the 1980s, I interviewed Stanley Marcus, board chairman of the luxury retailer, Neiman Marcus. I’ll freely admit I was a bit gobsmacked. My father, himself a great merchant in my eyes, had run a small department store in a small town in rural western Ohio. Dad had an eye like no other in terms of quality, style, affordability and what his clients wanted. To Dad’s market, his goods were top of the line.
Perhaps I got a bit carried away, complimenting Mr. Marcus on what he chose to offer his clients. He tolerated my fawning for a moment, then raised an authoritative index finger and said, “Never forget, good taste need not be expensive.” He was right! Dad’s career had shown me that long ago. But hearing that from this legendary retailer … well, I was even more gobsmacked.
That aphorism about taste and cost goes way beyond what anyone might find in the aisles of Bergdorf Goodman, Saks or Walmart. It applies to the garden as well. The photo above, I think, makes the point. There’s not a thing in the picture that cost more than $50.
Now, forgive any immodesty here, but I have some highfalutin' plants in my garden. Never mind. The humble little assemblage you see pictured, and which I change regularly, never fails to garner compliments from even the most erudite plants people who’ve visited me, the legendary Rosemary Verey among them. Allow me to break it down a bit for you.
The pedestals came from a poured concrete garden ornament dealer near Anacortes. Each cost less than $50. Similar pedestals almost always are to be found if one is not distracted and blows past the gnomes, frogs, mushrooms and tacky Buddhas. They are available in assorted heights and shapes, making interesting groupings. Regular hosing when I water quickly discolors the raw concrete; moss creeps in and, voila! Patina. Ask me where they came from or what they cost and, if I’m in a petulant mood, I’m likely to say, “I had them shipped over from Rome, not certain what century, but old.”
A terra cotta or rustically glazed pot, turned upside down, can also make an excellent mid-level pedestal. Clay flue tiles or log rounds, evenly cut on both ends and stood upright, also work. My pal, the painter Leo Adams in Yakima, uses old rusted iron sewage and pumping pipes on end. These look especially exotic with trailing plants cascading down around them. Vinca major is a good choice.
Back to the photograph. The top container holds a collection of three different small, variegated English ivies: Hedera helix “Needlepoint.” These were snipped from friends’ gardens when my son was little; he turned 40 last month. Initially 8-inch shoots, we took them home, rooted them in water, then planted them in a sizable pot with a rich mix. These ivies will also be available right now, in 4-inch pots, ready for planting. But there’s fun to be had in getting kids to change the water every few days, witness the white dots appear on the submerged stems and then see roots snake out (read that one more project to keep pandemic-bound kids entertained and learning).
Assemble an ivy pot like this, and you will have a low-maintenance dream. Water it when you think about it, shoot a bit of fertilizer to it when you feed other container plants. When tendrils get too rambunctious, snip them back, making the planting all the more thick and luxurious. You’ll have a long-lasting, totally undemanding, living art object to move wherever needed when any part of the garden needs perking up.
The geranium came off the sale table at Fred Meyer, 99 cents. It was mislabeled Pelargonium “VancouverCentennial.” Close enough for me, still pretty and who can resist a stray cat, dog or plant in need of love? The hosta, “Hadspen Blue” was another good deal from the distressed plant table at Fred’s, $7.99, 50 percent off as I recall. My savings account is growing!
Now, one more lesson when it comes to grouping a disparate collection of plants and containers. Try to stick to the Rule of Threes. Three levels: floor, short pedestal, tall pedestal; three textures: ivy, geranium and hosta leaves (the bloom is a bonus); choose three compatible containers (no brightly glazed pots, here); three foliage colors: green, cream and blue (the touch of burgundy add another bonus).
So, should this assemblage of horticulture and garden ornamentation strike you as tasteful, you have Stanley and Dad to thank. None of it was pricey. If you choose to duplicate the effort, have a good time in the hunt for plants, containers and pedestals, as well as in the planting and sense of satisfaction once finished. Should you be asked where it all originated, the question likely comes from someone who, too often, reads labels. Have some fun. Mess with them a little. Just shrug your shoulders and say, “I really can’t remember. Rome? Neiman Marcus, maybe?”