By Irene Virag
The patio of my childhood was a concrete slab. It accommodated a redwood table with two benches, and the only spot of color was a lone hydrangea—we called it a snowball bush—growing near one of the corners.
I thought it was the way patios were supposed to be. Of course my parents weren’t gardeners, and even if they were, container gardening was barely in its infancy. Pots were for cooking or indoor plants.
But not anymore. Just as we view gardens as outdoor rooms, we should think of our patios, decks, or porches the same way. The patio is a transition of sorts, a gateway between house and garden. That’s one of the reasons my husband and I bought our house. The present patio is made of brick and bluestone and spans two levels. A low stone wall surrounds the larger section, doing double duty as an extra seating area, for people as well as pots. The smaller terrace leads up to a paved area by the kitchen door.
We furnished the patio with a round teak table, chairs that sport cushions in the summertime, an umbrella, and a charcoal grill we can pick up and move around. But what really lights up the patio and our lives are the planters. As with any room inside your home, patios should be pretty, as well as practical. They need to be decorated. A patio without planters is like a living room without wall hangings.
When we moved into our house, the stairs leading from our den to the patio followed a semicircular wedding-cake design and allowed no space for pots. But it wasn’t long before we had the steps redesigned to give us plenty of room for planters.
Not that we wanted to crowd our patio like a department store on Black Friday. So I went with two 22-in pots on the top landing, one on each side of the sliding glass door of the den, and smaller pots on both sides of the lower steps.
Clay pots are classic, but I have no problem using lightweight charcoal-gray pots on the upper stairs. They provide a muted effect, complement the weathered teak table, and don’t clash with the bluestone and aged brick of the patio. I use clay pots on the steps between the patios, where there is more sun.
I like symmetry and simple color schemes. For years I relied on two huge yellow hibiscus for the big pots on the top landing—they winter in a friend’s greenhouse—and seasonal arrangements for the smaller containers.
But as my patio has grown shadier over the years, I’ve embraced begonias, caladiums, coleus, elephant ears, ferns, and fuchsias, and fill in with trailing plants such as Algerian ivy, helichrysum, lysimachia, or plectranthus.
I’m fond of ivy geraniums; on the sunny side of the patio, I combine them with annual all-stars such as calibrachoa, lantana, petunias, scaevola, torenia, verbena, or Setcreasea pallida ‘Purple Heart’, a sprawling, purple-leaf hottie.
I even give houseplants, including orchids, Christmas cactus, night-blooming cereus and clivia, a summer vacation in nooks and corners. I’ve also been known to grow cherry tomatoes in patio planters. As you might imagine, I eat them off the vine.
One more thing: I’m not shy about getting ideas from fellow gardeners. In all the gardens and on all the patios I visit, I look for new flower and foliage combinations, as well as distinctive pots and interesting ways to display them.
So wash off the table, pull out the chairs, open the umbrella, and start planting your pots. It’s time to decorate the patio!
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