Susan Whiteley makes her living designing ornamental gardens and containers, so you figure, over the years, she must have made mental lists by the score - principles to keep in mind, plants and materials to seek out or avoid, common pitfalls that bedevil newbies.
But when you ask for a crash course in putting together a cool holiday container, Whiteley goes, honestly, blank. "I don't usually think about those things. I just do it instinctively," she says.
We "just do it," too, and that's the problem. The pot is usually jammed like a too-full closet. Sure, it's got the vertical element. It's got the mounded layer. It even has the trailing stuff.
But the results just don't cut it.
As opposed to Whiteley's containers, which inspire, intrigue, and delight. "It's not complicated," she insists. "Doing containers is like doing a flower arrangement."
Which is meant to reassure. But for some of us, flower-arranging is just as daunting.
Here, then, are some random thoughts about putting together fabulous winter containers. They were served up at Whiteley's large home, and small greenhouse, in Newtown Square.
The first thing she considers with clients is what kind of people they are and what kind of house they live in. "If their style is sleek and minimalist, I'm not going to do an overabundant container. I'll do something more architectural," she says.
If, on the other hand, she's designing for people whose house "overflows with things they love," the design will be "full and abundant and exuberant."
That decided, she chooses an anchor plant to place in the middle of the container. A general, not ironclad, rule of thumb: It should be 1.5 times as tall as the height of the pot.
Whiteley likes Ilex crenata 'Sky Pencil,' a very vertical Japanese holly, but she has also used small Kousa dogwoods and hydrangeas, and good-size birch limbs.
The other day she plunked a potted 'Sky Pencil' into a lightweight plastic urn filled with potting soil, then ran bamboo skewers through a pomegranate and several tiny Seckel pears and placed them alongside. Next came a couple of stems of American winterberry, or Ilex verticillata, with arresting orange berries.
The stems are expensive, $30 for five or six, but, as Whiteley says, "Just look at them." You can't not!
She adds a silvery 'Blue Rug' juniper that cost all of $8. It's a ground cover that tumbles down the side of the container.
Last, she installs a red lantern with gold candle, colors that play off nicely against the fruit, and greens from the yard. Greens are an essential element; they fill gaps and hide a lot, and while they're all technically green, there are many variations in color and texture. That is important.
And Whiteley suggests they're easy to grow yourself.
Her favorites include: 'Honey Maid' holly, which has variegated blue-green leaves and bright red berries; splotchy, yellow-green aucuba; staghorn cedar, whose leaves are bright green with white markings underneath; dwarf cryptomeria, which has ropelike leaves, and the curious umbrella pine, whose needlelike leaves shoot out like the spokes of an umbrella.
Silvery-leaved seeded eucalyptus is outstanding. Whiteley likes skimmia, too. Another favorite container element: red-twig dogwood, which is grown not for its blossoms, variegated foliage, or berries, but for its bright red stems in winter.
Whiteley pairs the red twigs in containers with plain or painted pinecones from the yard, small birdhouses from a craft store that she painted deep red, and homemade cranberry balls, which, despite the name, are nothing you'd want to eat. They're made of Styrofoam globes; fresh cranberries are attached with florist pins.
Symmetry is not the goal here. "Asymmetry is a lot more interesting," Whiteley says.
Although symmetry can be beautiful, too . . .
Whiteley designed a holiday container in front of her garage with a small 'Fat Albert' Colorado blue spruce. She adorned it with shiny and matte-finish Christmas balls the color of copper, long cinnamon sticks, seeded eucalyptus, and tiny white lights. The plastic pot, a faux terra cotta, came from a box store.
The line flows. The scale is perfect; no one element is disproportionate. And for a holiday display, it is definitely unusual - orange and blue tones rather than red and green. But it works.
"And it's not complicated," says Whiteley, 51, who has enjoyed crafts and creative pursuits since childhood.
As a stay-at-home mom for many years, she had always made Christmas cards, ornaments, and presents for her husband Chip, their three daughters (now grown), other family, and friends. This evolved into pretty sophisticated stuff - knitted sweaters and hand-painted plates, stained glass, decorated birdhouses, and exquisite multilayered cakes.
The horticulture kicked in back in 1999. Frustrated by her uneven pruning efforts and knack for killing plants, Whiteley enrolled in (and completed) the horticulture program at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square. Friends and neighbors soon began asking for garden advice, which turned into a business, Garden Views (www.gardenviewsllc.com).
Whiteley, a member of the Four Counties Garden Club, is a relative newcomer to the Philadelphia International Flower Show. But she has already won some awards.
She's an inveterate shopper, though. She buys containers at Campania and Home Depot alike. She scours the shelves at A.C. Moore Arts & Crafts for accent pieces, and the stock at regional nurseries and garden centers for plants.
But unlike us, Whiteley doesn't have to think too hard about how to put it all together. Lucky lady - she just does it.
See a video of Susan Whiteley talking about red-twig dogwood, one of her favorite plants for holiday containers, at www.philly.com/ginny.
Contact garden writer Virginia A. Smith at 215-854-5720 or email@example.com.