Have you ever considered “painting with plants”?
Story by Susan Crawford Photography by Susan Albert
We gardeners pride ourselves on the artistry of our landscapes, but I recently encountered a woman who takes the concept to a whole new level. Her name is Victoria Ritland and she creates framed “paintings” to display on easels in gardens. Not oils. Not watercolors. These “paintings” are assembled with live plants. Looking at her intricate and vibrant designs, most of them featuring an astonishing variety of winter-hardy succulents, I found myself equally awed and dazed by the question, how on earth does she do that?
It turns out that the same reaction propelled her into the realm of living plant artists. “I was so amazed seeing a living frame that I knew I had to make them,” she says. “It’s a different take on vertical gardening, creating a living picture with plants, a 3-D picture that is constantly growing and changing. They are works of art that are unique containers with an artistic flair.”
Ritland is an enthusiastic teacher, and she was eager to explain the process, but the task seemed way beyond my skill set. She demurred, although she did make an admission. “This all started with my love for gardening and my husband David’s woodworking skills. The two passions blended together to make a home-based business called Victoria’s Garden. We handcraft outdoor furniture and garden accessories.” So she has some expert help with the construction of her frames, but she assures me that anyone who can use a drill and a stapler and a screwdriver can do it. In Victoria’s words, here’s how.
Materials needed for the frame:
¾-inch pressure-treated pine and ½ inch plywood
Waterproof wood glue
Coated chicken wire
Staples, nails, wood screws
Step 1: Make a frame planter
I like the vintage look, so I repurposed an old frame. Protect it from the elements with a coat of water-based clear acrylic. Then build a box 2-3 inches deep to attach to the frame. When making a shadowbox for the frame, I use ¾-inch pine for the sides and ½-inch plywood for the back. Coat the box with a water-based stain and drill drainage holes. Staple coated chicken wire to the inside of the box and then attach the box to the frame with exterior waterproof wood glue or L brackets.
Step 2: Time for design
Once the container is built, you are ready to plant. Fill the box with a mixture of peat, perlite, or vermiculite. As with any container, don’t use garden soil. It’s too heavy and compact.
I have planted different pictures, but my favorite is the “bouquet” of flowers in a vase. Before choosing a design and what plants you are going to use, you need to know where you are going to display your artwork and what kind of lighting it will receive.
Use plants that have similar growing requirements. Low-growing plants that stay small work best. I use succulents and sedums; they’re available in a wide variety of colors, shapes, and sizes. They are easy to grow and are some of the least demanding plants in the garden. Use hens and chicks (Sempervivum) for the flowers of the bouquet. Then use one of the following ground covering plants for the background: Thymus praecox ‘Elfin’, Irish moss (Sagina subulata), or a Sedum.
Step 3: Time to plant
This is the fun part. Having the design in mind, use wire cutters to cut the wire so you can place your prop in the soil. I use a ceramic pot as the vase. Then cut the wire as needed to place the plants in. Once a plant is in, push back the wire around the plant. Stagger the sizes and colors. When finished with the planting, water in the plants, and let the frame lie flat for a while so it can settle. The plants are secured in the frame by watering them in.
These frames are not designed for indoors. Since they are very heavy, it would be difficult to hang them on a wall, and watering would be really hard. In winter it is best to store the frame and plants in an unheated garage, so the plants go dormant. I have not had to water them during winter. Of course, the best place for the plants to overwinter is in the ground, though you’d have to dismantle your frame if you want to do that.
For the finishing touch, fill in the empty areas with green sphagnum moss. Display your artwork on an easel. This is a living picture and will continue to change as the plants grow and mature. Trim back the plants if they become unruly. Check the soil under the plants. If dry, water lightly. I just spray lightly with a hose. Don’t overwater. If needed, use floral pins or wire to train the plants as they grow.
It’s time to unearth the artist within you. Go forth and paint your garden and home with living masterpieces.