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Ask The Expert: An Insider’s Guide to Vintage Planters from Stephen Block

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Ask The Expert: An Insider’s Guide to Vintage Planters from Stephen Block

March 20, 2017

Vintage planters and pots wear their patinas proudly, imbuing even a brand-new garden with an instant sense of history. Buying one can be nerve-wracking, however, because like all one-of-a-find furnishings they can be pricey. But unlike coddled indoor investment pieces, a vintage planter heads into battle against sun, wind, rain, sleet, and snow.

How do you protect a vintage planter from the elements? And if you want to choose one, where to start? For answers, we headed to Inner Gardens, the go-to source in Los Angeles for designers and landscape architects looking for statement pieces. Owner Stephen Block is a passionate collector of the old, the weathered, and the one-of-a-kind (and also has designed some of LA’s loveliest gardens).

Here are Block’s top 10 tips for choosing and caring for vintage garden vessels.

Photography courtesy of Inner Gardens.

Inner Gardens specializes in vintage pieces by th-century Swiss designer Willy Guhl. Clockwise (from left) are: a chair with oviform seat on conical base; Diabolo hourglass planters circa 70 (prices range from $
Above: Inner Gardens specializes in vintage pieces by 20th-century Swiss designer Willy Guhl. Clockwise (from left) are: a chair with oviform seat on conical base; Diabolo hourglass planters circa 1970 (prices range from $2,450 to $2,850); a French white fiberglass planter circa 1920, and a midcentury handkerchief planter. A French farm table from the Lyon region dates to circa 1880. For more information, see Inner Gardens.

1. Pick a Dealer

Before you choose a planter, choose a dealer: someone reliable who understands plants as well as planters. A dealer should be able to recommend which plants will work best in a particular container (to avoid an expensive problem down the road).  The best dealers typically “have a big inventory and are deeply in the business,” Block says.

Tip: If you buy a vintage pot on the internet, investigate the dealer’s experience and don’t be afraid to ask for more details via email or phone before you purchase. “Especially if you’re buying from a photograph, make sure you can return it,” Block says.

2. Pick a Plant

Choose a container to fit a particular plant or plants you already have in mind. (Block says a container’s size should take into consideration both the size of a plant’s root ball and the scale of your garden). Plants like to be root-bound, he says, so they can stay in a pot a lot longer than people think. Buy a planter that gives the roots a little room, but not much. Eventually—though it takes years—you’ll need to switch out the pots.

3. Look for Flaws

Have an eye out for cracks, even hairlines. Old planters with hairlines can fall apart in a second, whether from moving, shipping, or planting. Containers are vulnerable, Block says, because plants’ compacted roots put pressure on the walls. Terra cotta is particularly sensitive—and in part it’s this fragility that makes it so valuable—but cracks occur in tougher materials such as 18th-century limestone troughs. Block says to beware that even reputable dealers can miss something.

A vintage midcentury Willy Guhl handkerchief planter measures 36.5 inches by .5 inches high. Contact Inner Gardens for pricing and availability.
Above: A vintage midcentury Willy Guhl handkerchief planter measures 36.5 inches by 20.5 inches high. Contact Inner Gardens for pricing and availability.

4. Size Matters

Containers (and their plantings) are problem solvers, says Block, whether it’s to screen, fill an empty wall, or grace a tabletop. Keep in mind the dimensions of your space and the visual message you want the planter to send. Consider the scale of both container and plant when making your purchase, Block says. The size must be right for the space and the pot needs to be able to accommodate the plant you have in mind.

Tip: Always bring dealers pictures of your space.

No. 5: Mix and Match

Modern and traditional styles of planters can look good together. Homes that have traditional or Spanish-colonial architecture make a good backdrop for pots with clean, unadorned shapes, says Block. The most in-demand pots In LA right now are vintage midcentury modern pieces, he says, which clients are not afraid to pair with more ornate vessels. It’s all in the layering, says Block.

No. 6: Reproductions

Sometimes reproductions are the answer. Though no doubt vintage pieces are special, Block says reproductions have their place. When a property needs, say, many multiples of a single style of container, finding vintage is tough. Or perhaps a budget can’t accommodate the vintage price tag.

Block sources vessels from abroad. Here are three round, two-piece Japanese planters circa 50. (.5 inches by  inches high). For more information and prices, see Inner Gardens.
Above: Block sources vessels from abroad. Here are three round, two-piece Japanese planters circa 1950. (26.5 inches by 18 inches high). For more information and prices, see Inner Gardens.

No. 7: Don’t Skimp

Buy important pieces for important places. Block doesn’t hesitate to suggest a $10,000 vessel for a doorway of a multi-million-dollar home. Sometimes it takes some convincing.

No. 8: Take a Test Drive

Don’t hesitate to ask to take a vintage planter on loan or with the understanding you can return it. Most people need to view the piece in a space. Block says reputable dealers will deliver and place pieces for a charge with no obligation to purchase.

A Kalanchoe succulent sets off a cast bronze handkerchief planter from Inner Gardens&#8
Above: A Kalanchoe succulent sets off a cast bronze handkerchief planter from Inner Gardens’ Multiples collection. Call for pricing.

No. 9: Care and Maintenance

Protect vintage planters in winter. Vintage vessels are an investment and the best protection is to un-plant or move them to shelter in seasons of bad weather. Consider bringing them to a sunny spot indoors or moving them to a location protected from the elements. If left outdoors, water will find its way into crevices and that’s where problems can start. Basically, says Block, in whatever you’re doing, handle them carefully.

No. 10: What Price Beauty?

Embrace the idea that vintage vessels are visual embellishments and enjoy them as you would artwork. “Every garden needs its jewelry,” says Block.

N.B.: For more of our favorite statement pieces in the garden, see:

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