How to make a stately outdoor urn container garden – Flower pot design tips included

April 6, 2023

Container Gardening inspiration - stately natural rouge

Flower pot design Recipe: The Stately Natural Rouge Urn Garden

Do you want to hear a little behind the scenes flower pot design story?

I created this container garden for the Summer 2015 issue of PITH + VIGOR. It is one of my most favorite pieces of container planting art ever. I love the plant selection, I love the way it mounded up, I love that dirty red color and I love the way the pictures came out. Everything about this project made me happy and proud — with one (huge) exception.

This little container garden was completely inspired by the urn that it was planted in. That red urn caught my eye every morning. It sat empty on the front porch of a home that I pass on my daily school run. The pretty color and visions of what I could plant and photograph for the upcoming issue pushed me past my shyness. I knocked on the door of a stranger, asked if I could take the urn for a day, plant it up, and return it. (Planted, for free). You know, regular garden design writer antics.

When she opened the door, I could tell immediately I wasn’t the only one outside of my comfort zone.

The woman who answered did let me take the container. But I had the feeling (especially in hindsight) that if she’d had a minute more to think, she’d probably have said no. I’d overwhelmed her.

All she could muster against my optimistic enthusiasm and surprise attack, was the very important condition that I must line it with plastic to protect the cast iron. I’ll admit – I thought this was slightly insane. (Especially given we are dealing with painted cast iron in excellent condition, and less than 24 hours of impact). But I agreed and honored her wishes.

I used a plastic bag underneath the planting – to make sure the dirt didn’t touch the metal. When I finished photographing this arrangement, I removed the trickiest plant (the Muhlenbekia). I assumed she’d have little appreciation for it and I replaced it with some cheery yellow pansies. I wanted to thank her for the favor and leave her with something that would shine brightly from the street.

It’s not you, its me.

The return was uneventful – and I explained how to take care of everything in the small container garden, but the next day when drove by, I was shocked (and kinda sad) to see that the urn was empty and none of the plants were anywhere in sight.

My friend insisted that anyone in their right mind would have loved to get back such a nicely planted urn for the darn cheap cost of letting someone borrow it for a day. And that I shouldn’t worry about it, let alone feel hurt and simultaneously guilty that I did something offensive.  But here’s the thing – it is over two years later and I still think about it. I still feel unsettled about it. And I continue to wonder why this woman has, on a couple of occasions since, pretended not to know me when we’ve crossed paths (I live in a small town – it is inevitable).

And now I certainly think twice before doing such things again.

I’ve also thought a lot about why I would even tell anyone this story. Is it to say, some people are just weird? And maybe ungrateful? Or, that you never know what is going on with someone so don’t take it personally – it is them not you. Yes, those thoughts do come to mind and probably have some truth.

Cumulatively, this and other uncomfortable encounters over the last few years put me in a place that I’ve struggled to get out of. They all add up to what has felt like a frustrating death by a million cuts.

I am a people pleaser. I regularly spread myself too thin and often heap guilt on myself for not being able to please people more. Enough is never enough and earlier this year, I pushed myself to a point where I was generally mad at anybody that expected me to do anything at all. Have you ever done that to yourself?

I have been so busy doing for everyone else, that I literally couldn’t even tell you want I wanted.

This really isn’t about anyone else, it was and is about me.  But I wonder if you recognize this in yourself too?  If you do, maybe we can work it out together. I think women tend to be this way much more than men and although I’ve found some useful advice here and there (and Oprah will forever offer helpful insight!). There is always room for more discussion, more viewpoints, more collective therapy.

I love this container – and no offense intended – but I don’t care if you don’t! Or if the owner of the urn doesn’t. I recognize that she didn’t ask for me to come swooping into her life, scooping up her obviously cherished empty urn and filling it to my liking (not hers). I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to make this and capture it and hopefully inspire you (or not – whatever).

Container Garden Plant List:

  • (1) Muhlenbekia Auxillaris
  • (1) Heuchera ‘Shanghai’
  • (1-2) Small Euphorbia Amygdaloides ‘Purpurea’  – These will get much bigger when planted in the ground.
  • (2) Armeria Pseudoarmeria ‘Ballerina Red’ – When the season changes – move these to an in-ground place where they can come back again next year.
  • Sheet Moss

After a few weeks, the perennial plants will pass their bloom season and be better served by moving them to more permanent in-ground homes for the summer. You could consider replacing them with summer bulbs like lilies or allium.

Other Flower Pot Planting Design Notes:

Antique cast Iron vessel was on loan for this project,  but a similar container can be created with either modern plastic or other composite containers that can be painted with Rust-oleum Regal Red.

Containers with a small opening (such as this one) can easily be built up into a mounded form with plants soil and moss.  Chicken wire can also be used to secure materials.  The mounded look allows for more plants and also gives a fuller more mature look earlier in the season.

Plant Finder:

Muhlenbekia Auxillaris available from  Proven Winners, Heuchera ‘Shanghai’ available from Monrovia, Euphorbia Amygdaloides ‘Purpurea’ available from Annies Annuals, and Armeria Pseudoarmeria ‘Ballerina Red’ available from Bluestone Perrenials.


Container Garden Recipe: Wild Indian Summer

Autumn Container Garden: Feathery Fall Fireworks

Fall Container Planting Recipe: Autumnal Marsala

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  1. karen wojcinski says:

    I bet you could stop at 10,000 homes with urns and only get a delighted response. But you somehow got this one in 10,000, (or a million). Please come to my house! I have an urn!

  2. Susan says:

    I just wanted to let you know how much I loved this story. I’m a garden designer and one of the main things I do is plant custom containers. As I take a morning walk or an afternoon run I want to walk up to many a doorway and ask to plant a container that is sitting unplanted on a front porch. They look so sad and I can see how wonderful they would be planted and full of greenery and flowers. I haven’t done it and I must admit after reading your post I don’t think I will but I’m so glad you did. The container is just stunning and while the owner might not have loved it I really do.

    • Rochelle says:

      Thanks susan – I’m glad you appreciated it. I’m inspired by people who make the world more beautiful, without expectation of anything in return (except perhaps some gratitude from someone, anyone, somewhere… or at least a little a unfiltered joy… so even if it is just in print (or online)… I am grateful that you are grateful!

  3. But give her props too. In keeping with the theme of not people pleasing, she didn’t bother to please you.

    Had I been her (and I prefer my containers unplanted), I would have kept the plants in the urn out of a sense of obligation to appear appreciative of what you returned to me—whether I liked them or not. Then I would have been mad that I was forced to pull all the plants out (dirt everywhere) and clean it up and dispose of it all when the time came. The whole time I would have been telling you how wonderful it was, and what a thoughtful gift, while fuming that you asked for the pot, you filled it up and assumed I’d love it, and now I have a pot full of flowers I don’t want. So, kudos to her for doing exactly what she wanted to do. I don’t have whatever that takes.

    I people please less as I get older, but it’s a lifelong journey and one I’m sure I’ll be dealing with when I’m 90 (if I get to 90).

    Although I do love how you planted this. And, the picture too. And, the story because it made me think of each person’s response in the story.

  4. Millo says:

    I’m inspired by people who make the world more beautiful.thank you

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