Known for her color artistry, Barbara Libner limits container plantings to two colors, plus green. "My thing is a juxtaposition of color, not a riot of color."
NO ONE IS better at smallest-scale urban farming than designer-garden consultant Barbara Libner, although she probably doesn’t consider her vegetable artistry as urban agriculture.
Picture a glazed mahogany-colored bowl filled with colorful rainbow chard, herbs and ruffled, burgundy lettuces tucked around the edges. Libner pots up such textural, edible combos for Ravenna Gardens at University Village, where she was hired as seasonal help a dozen years ago and never left. Her hot-selling pots prove you can enjoy the look, taste and nutrition of growing your own food no matter how little space you have.
But at home? Well, she’s mostly a garden-in-the-ground girl. She and her husband, David, plan to build a new deck in the backyard large enough to feature pots and more pots. “I’m just starting to do pots at home, after planting so many for other people,” she says.
The couple lives in a 1940s bungalow in Wallingford, where the garden is more about foliage than food. Libner has planted edibles in a few galvanized-metal troughs along the driveway. Here she grows blueberries, kale, lettuce, arugula, chard and snap peas. “These are ‘Sugar Ann,’ ” she points out. “They’re sweet and crisp, the best-selling peas at Ravenna Gardens.”
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All that squeezing vegetables into pots at work has paid off; Libner’s finely honed eye for scale, texture and color is clearly at work in her own garden. The pink climbing tea rose ‘Aloha’ winds up the iron railing on the front porch. ‘Just Joey,’ with its butterscotch-colored flowers, mingles with fragrant catmint beside the driveway. And three small golden rain trees (Koelreuteria paniculata ‘Fastigiata’) trim the walkway.
When she moved in a decade ago, the garden was nothing but flat lawn. Libner sliced out areas of grass, planting mostly small shrubs, conifers and grasses for low maintenance. “Plants need to earn their keep,” she says. “You have to be ruthless in a small garden.” She grows few perennials and no annuals. “I get nervous with cottagey flowers; I like to see the shape and form of a plant.”
The winter garden along the side of the house has an orange pot as focal point, surrounded by evergreens such as nandina, a sprawling dwarf podocarpus and coppery carexes. Japanese forest grass and oakleaf hydrangeas fill in for summer. A golden hop vine spangles an arbor that opens to the back garden. “It’s not a very bloomy kind of garden,” Libner says.
And what kind of pots does this container expert plan to put on her new back deck? Libner prefers matte black or rustic brown pots that show off variegation and texture. She uses long-lasting foliage plants in pots, like Ilex crenata, Podocarpus ‘Red Tip,’ heucheras and small hebes. She refreshes the pots seasonally by adding pansies in spring, begonias or coleus in summer, and cyclamen during the colder months.
Known for her color artistry, Libner limits container plantings to two colors, plus green. “My thing is a juxtaposition of color, not a riot of color,” she says, although she admits she’s never met a variegated leaf she didn’t like.
Libner does a big spring and fall garden cleanup. Her mom, who lives in a condo and misses dirt under her fingernails, comes to lend a hand with weeding and edging. “My deal is transformation,” says Libner. “I’m not so much on the maintenance.”
Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer. Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Mike Siegel is a Seattle Times staff photographer.