container-garden design, with untermyer’s timothy tilghman

17455434178_43ce8d01a1_zTHE PANSIES are pooped, and I’m scratching my head as always around this time: What to put in the pots? In the hopes of avoiding staggering around the garden center without a plan, staring at flats of petunias and Calibrachoa and Coleus–I called for help.

I’m feeling daring, so I specifically called Timothy Tilghman, a former colleague at Martha Stewart Living, who is now horticulturist at the much-heralded Untermyer Park and Gardens in Yonkers, New York, just minutes north of New York City. The property has quickly become a destination for gardeners, a getaway where visitors are wowed by bold, contemporary plantings—including ones in containers—in a dramatic, historic setting.

A century ago, in 1915, Samuel Untermyer hired William Welles Bosworth, an Ecole des Beaux Arts-trained architect and landscape designer who designed Kykuit for the Rockefellers, to create the “greatest gardens in the world.” Soon after, they began executing that plan.

A collaboration between Untermyer Gardens Conservancy, a non-profit organization, and the City of Yonkers, has brought about a second horticultural heyday—with Timothy (below, shown trimming standards) beginning his fifth year at the site.

“We’re still in our infancy of the project,” he says, “but to be the first fulltime gardener back in what was such an acclaimed garden at the time is such a thrill and an honor.”

Read along as you listen to the May 18, 2015 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).


read/listen: container garden ideas,

a q&a with untermyer’s timothy tilghman



Q. So let’s talk pots. The pansies are looking even worse than I am.

A. All our cold-season stuff is long gone.

Q. Stretched up and pooped out.

So let’s start where a gardener starts: Where do you look for inspiration? I often find myself staggering around the garden center—I keep using that verb!—holding onto one thing that catches my eye.  Say an Acalypha or a Coleus with multi-colored leaves that I happened upon, but what goes with it?  Where do you look for ideas?

A. It is staggering to walk into a nursery and not have a good plan, or if you have a plan and they don’t have what you want, it’s so easy to get disoriented.

Q. Or they have one flat, and you needed two…

A. I was at a nursery the other day and I had my two carts loaded up, and I was working on a third, and I went back and noticed there was a whole flat gone out of my cart. I felt so bad, I had to chase down the person who had it—because it was going to ruin everything without it.

Q. It’s not just having onesies, it’s having the exact right number.

A. It really is color combinations where I like to start. To make whatever color combinations work with the area of the garden—what perennials or woodies are there, and whether it will work with them or against them.

I really try to stick to color combinations of just one or two colors. I love monochromatic pots—a lot of times I’ll just pick one color and work with that.

We almost always forget there is always green along with most every plant, so that’s something to always consider. So if I want to do a white pot, or a silver pot, or a purple pot—it gives me more flexibility where I can use that in the garden, and what plants I can use, too.

Q. So of course now everyone’s thinking: Well, but the pots they sell in the garden center pre-planted—what they call in the industry “color bowls” or “grab-and-go containers.” And I’m thinking: I’m not grabbing anything, and we’re not going anywhere together.

A. That takes all the fun out of it.

Q. They’ve got one of everything in them—speaking of not monochromatic.

A. A collector’s garden in a 22-inch pot.

Q. Well-put. You know what I mean. So you’re saying it will have more impact if we back off from that higgledy-piggeldy thing.

A. I think so. I look at color closely; I think about color a lot.  And I have trouble using more than two colors in a container combination; maybe three colors sometimes.

I think it takes someone with an amazing amount of talent, like our friend and mentor Marco Stufano, to actually put together really rich, deep colors in a single pot, or a lot of textures. So I end up simplifying compared to Marco or another legend in the field like him…

Q. …the former director of horticulture at Wave Hill, where you also worked—a pre-eminent public garden in New York City [and an adviser to the Untermyer project].

So we’re not going to have a rainbow in our pots. I have sort of orangey trim on my very dark olive-colored house, so I feel I want to pick up on that. I don’t think pastels like silver and pale pink and lavender is good, but rather vivid works better with the house. Maybe that’s silly—but I look to those colors for inspiration, too.

A. The situation you’re putting the pots in is important. As funny as it may sound, especially with pots I like to throw away my color wheel—my color theory charts—and look at college-football uniforms.

Q. Really? You’re such a jock, Timothy. [Laughter.]

A. Not anymore.

But I mean, they’re already well-thought-out combinations, and down to two or three colors. We don’t have to think that hard about it; it’s looking around for pleasing, bold combinations—whether it’s the paint on your house, or a college football team, or a really interesting diner sign. Look for color combinations that really stand out, and you can put those anywhere.

Q. For Untermyer, do you have a color combination or other inspiration in mind yet?

A. Yes, I think we’re going with the LSU Tigers this year.

Q. The LSU Tigers? [Laughter.]

A. Purple and yellow. I started out with my tulip combination, which we just finished today pulling out. They went so fast.

Q. An aside on that: I hear from our friends Glenn Withey and Charles Price, noted garden designers in Seattle, that this was the first time in all the years they’ve been planting tulips for clients that many of their favorite varieties did not bloom because of insufficient winter chill. Now, they fear, in Seattle—like has been the case in California forever—that they will have to order pre-chilled bulbs, that have had a fake winter. This is how much things are shifting.

Sorry to derail—but back to the LSU-inspired tulips. [Below photo: Untermyer’s 2014 peony-tulip combination, below, was purple and orange, in beds and even pots.]

17640880862_f5367069a8_zA. Yes, purple and yellow. We used a couple of double late tulips—one called ‘Blue Spectacle’ and one called ‘Gold Fever’ (a lot of people call them peony tulips). And then a lily tulip called ‘Purple Princess’ that came up above that.

Q. So now you’re going to do that same color combination in the pots.

A. I think I’m going to use purple and yellow for the full year—bed out plants in that, too. With the pots, though, that allow me to take those colors and pull them away a little bit—I’ll throw some oranges in as well, and some other colors that would work with that purple and yellow theme we established with the tulips, and will continue with the bedding scheme and pots.

Q. When you say purple and yellow, is some of the color coming from foliage—not all from flowers? 

A. A great deal will be coming from the foliage. That’s as important as anything. With annuals we put in pots, we usually get a full season of bloom, and there are a lot of plants to help with that.

e475ef244b2365c75e24a9e0b6355d8cI can’t use enough Coleus, though there are certainly enough out there to choose from. I used one last year called ‘Big Blonde’ [in pot above]. She gets 2-3 feet tall and turns into a small shrub, with these more yellow than chartreuse leaves. It will take the full sun, and it loved it in the ground or in a pot. I’m going to use some more of that, to pull some yellow into the containers.

That one got to a height in some containers where I loved the scale of what it was doing to the other plants, and I didn’t pinch it. I could see it going farther and farther away from its center of gravity in a big pot…

Q. Oops. [Laughter.]

A. ….but I still didn’t want to pinch it, and then we had one good rain with some wind, and I came back the next morning and some of the big blondes were drooping here on the mosaic tiles at Untermyer.  But they responded well to pinching, and are such good growers.

And there are so many purple-foliage plants, from the trailing sweet potato to the Alternanthera.

phormium and coleus in big bowlQ. The Alternanthera are some of my favorites [especially rubiginosa, spilling from big bowl, above, in Margaret’s garden]. It brings up the sort of design conventional wisdom of pot design: Some people say “spiller, filler, thriller,” or an upright spike, and then a spiller that cascades over the edge of the pot, and then the filler or medium element.  You’re mentioning some that act as spillers, sort of.

A. One of the ones I can’t get away from is a Helichrysum, the licorice plant, but the cultivar ‘Petite Licorice.’ I’ve been using Helichrysum for a long time, but to find one with these tiny leaves and a much more dense habit—I don’t even want to use the plain one any more; it’s just too coarse, and leaves gaps.

The trailing Plectranthus

Q. Love them, too.

A. They can take it dry, they can take it wet, and they just go and go. The tricolored variegated one with a little white, a little yellow and a little green can work with almost any combination.

The silver one I can’t get enough of, and I’m using it in the ground, too.

And there’s a silver Dichondra, called ‘Silver Falls.’ Here in spots it even acts like a perennial and seeds itself around a little. In the full sun, it will trail down to the bottom of just about any pot.

Q. So purple and yellow—or any sport-team combination like that—doesn’t mean I’m going to go out and buy three flats of purple petunias and three flats of yellow marigolds, and that’s it. It means bringing those colors in in many ways.

A. And to throw in an unexpected dash of orange to go with that, or any other color that really works…

Q. …like you said the silver, which cools it down and sets it off.

A. And if we’re talking about foliage color, or foliage shape—which is just as important—sometimes they need to be united, even if it is only a small combination of two or three different colors.

Q. Are there other structures or designs of planting besides the “spiller, thriller filler”—ones that you find yourself going back to? Whether it’s dictated by the types and shapes of pots you’re using, or the setting…

A. Absolutely. That one formula is pretty good, and you can work with it on a lot of levels, but that’s kind of the fun of pots: Any of these formulas are there just to be broken. Because they are in containers, there’s no permanence to them. They can be moved; they can be rearranged.

There are a lot of pots I fill up with a single plant. I like to use the Phormium, or New Zealand flax, that way. Other plants that don’t really make good combinations are Agave, for instance.

Q. So now you’re talking linear, spiky, almost vertical.

A. Very upright and architectural plants.

Q. So you could have a pot that only has that.

A. Only one plant in it, yes—and right next to it, to where I just moved out some Phormium, I have some Abutilon standards [detail below] that I think I found in Copake Falls, New York…

abutilon standardQ. Did you? By the side of the road? How could that have happened? [Laughter.]

A. Because Margaret called last fall and said she had plants that needed to be adopted.

Q. That needed a better home than I could provide in winter. And they’re alive?

A. They survived—and we just potted all those up.

Q. Woo-hoo!

A. Those are plants that I’ll mix in with single-plant pots like the Phormium, and almost create an entire little border out of pots. This is around an architectural feature at Untermyer that lacks intimacy without some pots, or without some foliage on it. So to put some of these single plants out there—it would also be a good opportunity to put some of those spillers on the bottom, like the Alternanthera, to act as a top-dressing for the pot, so you’re not looking at the soil.

Q. You don’t just use annuals, do you?

A. I think absolutely anything goes, in fact I’m growing some peppers this year to use ornamentally. You can still grow a beautiful pot where the centerpiece—the thriller—is a cherry tomato.

Houseplants are great in the garden—from your typical corn plant; there are a number of Dracaena that look great—or Philodendron from the house.

Even plants that aren’t ready to go in the ground. We had a weeping golden larch, a Larix, that was donated to the garden. I haven’t decided where I want to use it, so I put it in a nice pot and we’ll use it in our container displays.

17643371761_919d22bfdd_zQ. Young shrubs and trees can spend a year or longer being wonderful pot elements.

A. There are even some pots here that I like a lot to look at, but I can’t find the right plant for them. So I’ve been displaying them without a single plant in them to show off the pots.

Q. I have a lot of beautiful small pots that I don’t like to plant up—because you’d have to water them two or three times a day in summer. But I like to make these little arrangements with them, empty.

A. With a really beautiful pot, there is no need to make it fight with a plant for dominance.

Q. So being daring as you are at Untermyer Gardens and otherwise—it can lead to some flops. And that you want to confess (or any successes to share)?

17643287625_80caeb404f_zA. One thing we’re having fun with is that area I was mentioning earlier, where we use a lot of single potted plants, with a single specimen in them. It’s around this barren, small pergola—it’s a stoa. There is really no intimacy, but it has one of the greatest views in the entire garden. So to soften that up, we created what was almost a whole border with pots on the steps leading up to the sitting area, and turned into what I though was a success.

Q. By staging some pots there it brought the whole thing down to a more intimate level, and to a destination.

A. By the end of the season, or even midseason [above and top-of-page photos], you could barely see a pot any more, and it was just this wonderful tropical border along the front of the stoa.

But there are always flops—plants that grow out of scale, like the Coleus I mentioned last year.

I’ve had entire compositions that when it got into the peak time of summer, they were so robust and growing so well that they almost shattered; they fell apart. But because they’re in pots, you can move them out of the way, or bring in new plants and redo it, or add plants to it all the time. It’s so flexible.

We’re in gardening—so we can just always bury our mistakes, anyway. With the pots, it’s even that much easier. You can almost start over again.

But be prepared for flops; there are always flops.

Q. So get the handcart ready in case you have to wheel anyone who’s looking past their prime out of the way. [Laughter.]


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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the May 18, 2015 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

(Photos from Flickr stream of Jessica Norman, except abutilon; large single pot with gold spillers; big bowl at Margaret’s garden.)

  1. Jacquie says:

    This article is so timely. It’s container planting time in my zone 5 in northeast Ohio. I find myself going to the garden centers with a “plan” to plant something different in my pots but usually end up with my usual favorites. I do try to stick with my favorite color schemes (pink, purple, fuschia, white, blue) which go best with our gray house and burgundy front door.

    This year I decided to go out of the box and plant a couple of my large pots with perennials instead of annuals. At first I thought this was a crazy idea and then I said “why not”. I was glad to read this article and find that it’s not such a crazy idea after all. Time will certainly tell how they do this summer and hopefully last over the winter. I just planted one container with a Fire Chief coral bell, Lamium Beacon Silver, a small fern and a verigated Lirope. It’s in a shaded but bright spot by the front door. Any ideas for another container for a sunny spot? I would love to hear your suggestions since I’m new to using containers for perrenials.

    Thanks for a great article. I love getting your emails! You inspire me to step out of my comfort zone.

  2. Kathy says:

    I decide to create purple and silver container. My focus plant is a Purple D’Oro, relative of Stella D”Oro, so I expect continuous purple blooms. I hope to find ‘Petite Licorice’ to hang down the sides of the container.

    1. Jacquie says:

      I would love to find a purple Day Lily! So tired of seeing the yellow ones everywhere. Where do you live and where did you get it? Thanks!

  3. Vickie says:

    It is so wonderful to see the picture of all those containers and their plants. Here in Kansas, last night we had a horrible night of terrible storms with very heavy rain. A tour of my yard this morning was heartbreaking as all my irises are beaten down. I had a lovely large stand of light lavender and another of tangerine among several other colors including “Beverly Sills” in smaller stands. So sad. My peonies are equally destroyed. Earlier, they have provided such a wonderful show. I’ve been babying “Kansas” for a couple of years now and suddenly, this year, she went crazy with showing off her bright red double blooms. In addition to a double peony ring, I had to stake her she was so heavy with blooms. I had fed her with a huge handful of bulb food in the fall just to see what would happen. Now we know. The pink doubles were gorgeous. A couple of singles were lovely too. The whites have such a strong fragrance that the entire garden was perfumed by their hearty blooms. Alas, all gone. I came inside to sulk after picking up quite a lot of deadwood. On a happier note, my vegetable garden is still low growing and did not suffer at all.

  4. Beverly, zone 6, eastern PA says:

    My latest containers were comprised of my own overwintered Coleus cuttings, now fair sized specimens, combined in a plastic nursery pot, set inside of a decorative terra cotta pot. I love getting more than one season from the same Coleus plant. There are gobs of succulents here just crying out to be combined into a sunny container and that is next on the list, accented with a rock chunk from my husband’s mountain climbing days. Lots of ideas in this article!

  5. Ellen Blackstone says:

    Wow, how incredibly inspiring, Margaret! Memorial Day Weekend is always my shopping time for tomatoes and containers, because there’s no point in planting tomatoes any earlier than that in the Pacific Northwest. I now have a list. Thanks.

  6. Dennis R. says:

    Hey Margaret, Yonkers born & raised. I know Untermyer’s like the back of my hand. Was just visiting there last month.

  7. Charlie says:

    Thanks for the advice: I’m going to try the color combos. The three basic color opposites create wonderful contrasts: red/green, yellow/purple, blue/orange. These are the primary colors and their opposites. I like the idea of the sports jersey combos too. Guess I’ll have to check out a sport store to view various team shirts!

  8. Mark says:

    No matter how much of a plan I start with, I’m limited by what the garden centers have and I don’t want to spend an entire day running around to a dozen of them to fill a few pots. This year I went to the place that had so much wonderful stuff last year but their selection was way down. I made do and think I did well. The next weekend I stopped at another place that normally doesn’t have much and they’ve vastly expanded! I know where I’ll shop next year.

    The “thriller, filler, spiller” phrase just makes me cringe, even though I fall back on that old formula with at least one pot every year.

  9. Brenna says:

    I got a kick out of the sports team combo recommendation. Ever since the black and yellow petunias appeared several years ago, I have planted a container in honor of my hometown, Pittsburgh, using the Black and yellow petunias, yellow calibrachoa and white angelonia. The Black and Gold (Steelers, Pirates and Penguins) pot always brings a smile to my face when watering it (and a little bit of homesickness)!

  10. Dee says:

    What a timely article! I just had 4 damaged boxwoods (2 front/2 back) and decided to replace them with large pots that I can plant each year. Do you have a recommendation for a large pot that can withstand a terrible winter? I’ve been looking at plastic pots that look like plaster…

    1. margaret says:

      Some fiberglass pots or resin ones (higher quality plastic, not the thin, brittle stuff), as well as wood (think whiskey barrel) and metal are winter-proof, but remember that in cold zones you needs lots of soil mass to insulate roots. Meaning: very big pots! I’d ask the garden center what the specific ones you are interested in are made of and whether they are rated for winters outdoors, because though many look alike they are not all the same quality/durability. I wheel my big resin pots into the garage (plants and all) all winter, where they stay frozen but dry.

  11. Tibs says:

    I suck at pots. I make a plan and end up running around like a demented spaniel at the nursery because they don’t have what I need or something totally different catches my attention. Since my pots are in shade for the most part, one year I potted up the plain green hostas I was thinking out. I convinced myself I was providing vertical interest. No color. Boring. So now I let the kids do the deciding. They get me a hanging basket or pot for Mother’s Day. I play off those colors and textures. This year it is patriotic. Red white and blue. And I finally broke down and bought the fertilized potting soil hoping they won’t poop out on me mid summer.

  12. MEW says:

    Hi Margaret – I can’t seem to find your recommendations for fertilizing containers. Do you have general recs for frequency? And, more important, what do you use? I know you say to avoid the blue stuff but can’t remember what you do use.
    Many thanks as always for all the great information and help. I appreciate it! Mary Ellen in Delaware

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