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Urns: Ancient burials to garden art

Purple Tradescantia fills this tall urn for the season.
Purple Tradescantia fills this tall urn for the season. TNS

It began in the Old World when ancient Roman urns were periodically unearthed around the time of the American Revolution. Most held ashes of the Romans whose empire once governed much of Britain and Europe. The urns ended up decorating formal 16th- and 17th-century manor house gardens. In China, centuries later, the Jiahu site yielded funerary urns that were 7,000 years old, and these beauties are inspiring designs of decorative urns flooding into our garden centers.

Urns are among the most universal elements to bring elegance and aged looks to virtually any garden from a palatial estate to a small condo courtyard. If you look at the urn as a freestanding art element, it becomes a pivot for the surrounding planting choices. When considering a decorative urn, you must consider size, shape, texture and color to find one perfectly tailored to your garden.

▪  Choose a size that works with the space. Larger landscapes need big urns able to stand out without being gobbled up by expansive spaces. These must also be visible at long range. In smaller spaces you’ll see that urn close up and personal.

▪  How the urn is finished is important if it is to blend into architecture and garden style. Natural clay urns, much like Roman amphora, provide that very ancient old-world appeal of Mediterranean planting. North African water jars imported through Moroccan traders and heavy Mexican terra cotta that are similar and preferred for desert and xeriscape gardens. For more contemporary looks, seek the bright sleek modern glazes to create bold contrasts of texture and form. In gardens of plant lovers, the textured Asian traditional urn surfaces of ancient excavated ceramics are ideal.copied today with imports.

▪  Add sticks to a narrow-mouth urn — from agave stalks to bamboo — for a more vertical effect without adding maintenance.

▪  For plants, the size of the mouth and body of the urn are crucial because these are rarely used directly for the plants, rather as a cachepot to contain smaller pots filled with plants. This is better than actually filling the urn with earth due to potential oversaturation and problems with white minerals and overall weight.

▪  Small urns for small spaces can be used to hold traditional nursery-grown patio plants from 1-gallon sansevieria of midcentury modern or cascading petunias in a hanging basket. Larger urns should strive to hold a 5-gallon nursery pot. The larger container allows you to buy a new plant each year to give your urns a fresh look. for the season.

A trick to support the nursery pot is to obtain a few others of the same size and stack them upside down inside the urn until they bring the base of the 5-gallon pot to the right level. You want to see the plant but not the ugly black pot. Be sure the urn’s drain hole is free-flowing so when you water plants the drainage won’t build up inside.

▪  Make it visible from oft-used interior windows to enjoy this year’s creative endeavor every day.

Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com. Contact her at mogilmer@yahoo.com or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256.