Walking into Clarke de Mornay‘s 500-square-foot brick patio garden in San Francisco is like walking into a botanical wonder of oddities, rarities, specimens and, well, complete lush loveliness. More than 300 pots of various sizes are artfully arranged in tiers and layers, creating a well-tended and well-designed pastiche of plants. Clarke is a horticulturist, designer, and sales specialist at Flora Grubb Gardens, and over the course of his nearly 15 years working there, he’s acquired some serious Mediterranean-climate plant knowledge, as well as an eye for what is unique and striking.
Clarke cites the lush courtyard gardens in Mexico, Thailand, and Morocco, and the lanais in Hawaii as inspiration for his botanical backyard: “There is something about the mix of cactus and succulents, bougainvillea and citrus, palms and orchids, bromeliads and kitchen herbs that is eclectic and funky. [They do] well in pots in various light conditions, evoking a sense of sunny holidays and generally warming the spirit.” When asked if he, given the choice, would always go with a potted garden, he replies, “I would always have pots on a patio, a deck, or near a seating area. I like the ease of movement and the changeability of potted plants.” He added that there is more control with pots when it comes to design, watering, weeds and pests, plus the pottery itself adds to the design.
Please keep reading to learn Clarke’s top tips for container gardening:
1. Pick a theme.
When it comes to plants and pots, Clarke strongly urges sticking to a color scheme, taking care to avoid using every color flower or every variegation or hue of leaf. “Too many things stuffed in a pot, too many different types of plants, and a pot of every color will quickly make things, to put it kindly, not look as good as they could,” he says. Clarke likes his planters in warm, earthy tones, helping it to look intentional. “Two reasons I like more neutral tones: first, it mimics nature, which is what we are trying to do, right? Secondly, San Francisco can be chilly and gray, so warm colors help with that.”
2. The right size pot for the plant.
Choose pots that have room to grow. “With many succulents, you can keep them for many years in a small pot, but in general the size of the pot should be chosen with the ultimate size of the plant in mind, especially with herbaceous plants.”
3. Go big.
While a bunch of small pots can be fun to collect and plant, they don’t add much to an overall design. “Add pots and plants of different heights to create immediate scale. Also, incorporating big statement plants can make a huge difference, and remember that large shrubs or trees in large pots can create privacy and instant screening.” Last, Clarke shares this smart equation: soil volume = water retention. This means, the bigger the pot, the less you may have to water it.
4. Pack the soil.
When it comes time to plant, “it’s important to carefully pack down each layer of soil as you fill in the pot, especially the big ones,” Clarke advises. The reason is that settling will inevitably happen, but tamping down the soil helps greatly. In Clarke’s potted garden, he mostly uses an organic palm and cactus mix, sometimes amended with volcanic pumice. “I always suggest high-quality soil. It makes all the difference,” he says. “Rocks on top of a pot add a nice finishing touch.”
5. The right plant for the right spot.
While working at Flora Grubb, Clarke has seen his fair share of people choosing plants based on what they like and then putting it somewhere regardless of what the plant needs. Clarke suggests you ask these questions: How sunny is your space? How windy? How hardy is the plant? Clarke recommends your local garden center as a great resource, better than the internet alone. And, of course, if you are in the San Francisco area, definitely visit him at the store.
To more on Flora Grubb, see:
- Landscape Designer Visit: At Home with Flora Grubb in Berkeley, CA
- From Flora Grubb Gardens: 9 Secrets to Growing Succulent Plants Indoors
To see photographer Caitlin Akinson’s garden, go to: