Pacific Northwest | July 13, 2003Pacific Northwest MagazineJuly 13, 2003seattletimes.com home
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CONTENTS
COVER STORY
Camano Island
Laurelhurst
Ballard
Seward Park
Bainbridge Island
PLANT LIFE
NOW & THEN
SUNDAY PUNCH
PREVIOUS ISSUES OF PACIFIC NW


WRITTEN BY VALERIE EASTON
PHOTOGRAPHED BY BARRY WONG
Outdoor Living 2003

Mad for plants, a master of pots feeds his need for profusion by Packin' Them In
 
 Photo
Hammontree uses his own little deck to convincingly test his theory that any plant can be grown in a pot. The tall plant with the dramatically drooping foliage is Begonia luxurians; the tree with the large, light-green leaves is Magnolia macrophylla 'Asheii.'
YEARS AGO when Ben Hammontree lived in Fremont, he noticed a phormium tossed into a garbage can — and liked the look. Ever since, he's pounded drainage holes into the bottoms of garbage cans, added potting soil and planted them up in his uniquely flamboyant style.

"I can't think of a single plant that won't work in pots," says the former high-school track coach turned estate gardener. "After all, they start out in pots."

Hammontree began his gardening career with bonsai, because he could carry the tiny trees home on the New York City subway. After years of teaching school and coaching, he was ready for a change, and because he liked rhododendrons and heard they grow well here, Hammontree chose Seattle as his destination. He arrived here in January of 1990 and got a job at a bonsai store. He met other like-minded enthusiasts, joined various gardening societies to learn more and ended up getting a job gardening an Eastside estate. After looking at magazine photos of container plantings, he began designing his own pots, mixing and matching plants as he went. "I've become a plantaholic," Hammontree says in a confessional tone. "I'm mad and obsessed with it."
 
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The felted leaves of the licorice plant, Helichrysum petiolare 'Limelight,' a 'Violet' pelargonium, and fragrant stock (not yet in bloom) fluff out a sidewalk trash-can container planting.
This obsession led to the small roof deck off his studio apartment feeling more New Orleans than Ballard, it was so packed with trees, vines, shrubs, perennials and annuals, all grown in containers. Pots, soil and plants all needed to be carried through his apartment, but no matter. Such a display sprouting out of a few square feet of potting soil seems hardly possible, yet Hammontree squeezes as many plants into each pot as he can. "I put them in almost bare root," he explains, "and always an odd number of plants." Large, deciduous trees like the white-trimmed Cornus controversa 'Variegata,' hardy bananas, cannas, the tree fern Dicksonia antarctica and even a big-leaf magnolia form a lush, leafy layer of verticality. Honeysuckle and clematis vines lace through for an overlay of interest and fragrance. Fuchsias, pelargoniums and schizanthus add a ruff of flowers around the bottom of large-leafed plants like castor bean (Ricinus communis) and hostas.
 
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Ben Hammontree's wild-style container plantings transform his little rooftop deck from 200 square feet in Ballard to a luxuriant corner of New Orleans.
Unable to restrain himself to his own deck, Hammontree's plantings filled the sidewalk outside, where garbage cans and terra-cotta pots overflowed with banana trees, spiky phormium, and fragrant herbs and flowers. To turn garbage cans into planters, he recommends drilling at least five drainage holes in small cans, and a dozen holes in the larger cans. One of the best things about potted plantings is their portability. Hammontree, along with all his pots, recently moved to a house in Wallingford, where he is keeping many of his container plantings intact, while releasing others into his new garden.

Now that he has a little more space, Hammontree is rethinking the mix a bit. He is moving away from using tender plants and toward big-leafed rhododendrons — the plants that lured him to the Northwest in the first place. "I do like to use odd things," says Hammontree of his distinctive planting style. "I always want them to look kind of out of scale."
 
Photo
Along a Ballard sidewalk, flanking the entrance to Hammontree's apartment building, containerized foliage and flowers create an entire garden in just a few feet of space. Statuesque bananas, cannas and phormiums add height and architectural flair softened by shimmering silvery artemisia and bright pelargoniums.
Soft-spoken and modest, Hammontree's advice to those seeking to emulate the showy profuseness of his container plantings is simply, "Just get a pot and soil, and put the plants in." When prevailed upon to elaborate, he adds a few experienced words of advice:

Ben Hammontree's Recipe for Glorious Containers:

• Always use an uneven number of plants.

• Use a good, commercial brand of potting soil; there's no need to mix your own.

• Cover the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot with a broken piece of a terra-cotta pot to prevent them from getting clogged. Pots need to drain freely.

• Add a balanced 10-10-10 fertilizer to the soil.
 
 Photo
From the garden below, Hammontree's little deck is a riot of foliage presided over by his boxer, Shipe.
• Water daily.

• Remember that container plantings "like to eat," and spray them often with liquid fertilizer.

• Concentrate on mixing foliage textures, then add the flowers.

Favorite Plants: heliotrope for its sweet vanilla-like fragrance and pelargoniums (commonly, and incorrectly, called geraniums) because "they give a big bang for the buck." Hammontree often uses the vivid scarlet pelargonium called 'Violet.' He also likes Helichrysum petiolare for its softly glowing leaves and lateral growing habit. Other recommendations: brugmansia, bananas and cannas for foliage effects, begonias, schizanthus, fuchsias and lantana for long-lasting color, and hostas and ferns for that touch of lush.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle free-lance writer and contributing editor for Horticulture magazine. Her e-mail address is vjeaston@aol.com. Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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