“I try to think year-round.” That’s what Fran Scully says when talking about the au courant container design that lends artistic punctuation and a bright, modern twist to the estate of the late Harvey S. Ladew.
The design horticulturalist, who has a master’s degree in historic preservation, has worked at Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton for more than 10 years and led container design for nine. Now, the euphorbia and plectranthus on the entrance pillars are the first hint of the innovative containers within. Everyday combinations do not fill the 50-plus planters in the 22-acre historic core of the property. Instead, sophisticated color combinations and plant varieties fill each one.
When Scully first arrived at Ladew, the theme was tropical, but everything had to be put away for winter. “After looking at all of the empty space in the main courtyard, we started to see it as another outdoor room and felt we needed trees, shade and comfortable sitting areas,” she says.
Now 30 containers enhance that space, filled with everything from river birch and papyrus to hydrangeas and boxwoods to perennial hostas and hellebores, and even edibles like rosemary, fennel and kale. Of the delicate papyrus, the energetic and creative Scully says, “I was told, ‘You can’t do that. Papyrus is a water plant.’ When someone tells me something won’t work, that’s my biggest motivation to do it anyway…plants are tougher than we think. Containers give us a chance to make that point.”
She is particularly interested in plants with more than one season of interest, like red twig dogwoods, cypresses and Japanese umbrella pines. She also loves perennials because they give the containers a foundation for seasonal annuals. “The great thing about non-evergreen perennials, like hostas and Solomon’s seal, is that you forget you have them in your container, and they just emerge and surprise you in spring.” Other perennial favorites include heuchera, hellebores, ajuga, salvia, sedum, grasses like sedges and Japanese forest grass, and ferns.
As for themes for the containers around the historic buildings, one year it was Mediterranean, another edibles. “Now I’m mainly inspired by shapes, colors and fun; different plants.” Sharing space with
zinnias, dahlias and many varieties of
coleus are coffee, black cotton and peanut butter plants. Because cooking is a passion, Scully compares container design to cooking. Sometimes she’s inspired by a cauliflower plant on sale. “Other times, I’m in the mood for a certain flavor like fennel… no matter what, I tell people to keep their pantries stocked.”
Scully changes the color scheme every year. “I usually look at color trends in January … A future combination might be grape, chocolate and Merlot.”
This year, Ladew’s new director of horticulture, Adrienne Hojnowski, joins Scully in container collaboration. “Adrienne has a really good plant vocabulary, trees and shrubs in particular, so she’s great to work with on plant hardiness and how plants work in designated spaces,” Scully says. In fact, they recently removed the river birch trees from the courtyard containers and replaced them with American hornbeams and a star magnolia, with a smoke bush on the way.
“Fran’s skilled design eye combined with the creative energy of the horticulture staff result in containers that evolve throughout the seasons in clever, and often enchanting, ways,” says executive director Emily Emerick. “They’re always a surprise for our visitors!”
Fran Scully’s Container Tips
1. Have fun.
“I know there are ‘rules’—like you are supposed to have three elements (thriller, filler, spiller) or that you should only combine plants that have the same growing conditions, etc., but I’m constantly breaking that. I love juxtaposing a bog plant like Equisetum against a sedum or putting a traditional shade-loving plant like hosta next to one that prefers full sun (like an ornamental grass). Or putting a traditional houseplant like Sansevieria (mother-in-law’s tongue) with culinary thyme. There are tricks like using a pot within a pot so that you can give extra water to that Equisetum without bothering the other plants. I really feel that in containers you can push a plant’s cultural needs. These plants serve as buddies in that shared space…that ornamental grass is going to give shade to the hosta, and it will be fine. My favorite thing to hear from visitors is that they never would have thought to put certain plants together, and now they want to try it at home.”
2. Balance texture.
“In my early design days, I struggled with balancing textures—too many coarse textures, and your design is heavy; too many fine textures, and you end up with a mess, and the eye has nowhere to rest. Now I just remember to use the word ‘contrast.’ Contrast that graceful, arching salvia by placing it next to that round, ruffled heuchera. Contrast that fine, silky Carex by putting it with a bold Colocasia.”
3. Buy more than you think you will need.
“Stock your pantry, because, when you realize you need more ingredients, you are going to want things right at hand. I like making containers that are full and look good from day one.”
4. If you don’t like it, change it.
“There’s no sense looking at something that doesn’t make you happy. Reach into your stockpile of plants (or go back to the nursery), and hold plants together to see if you like things.”