Lauren Hall-Behrens of LilyVilla Gardens carved an urban paradise out of an old orchard behind her home in Portland. Her stunning containers, composed of only two or three plants each, add year-round height, texture and structure.

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WALK RIGHT past the petunias and lobelia at the nursery this spring, and head toward the succulents and evergreens. That’s the advice of savvy garden designer Lauren Hall-Behrens of LilyVilla Gardens, who carved an urban paradise out of an old orchard behind her home in Portland. Her stunning containers, composed of only two or three plants each, add year-round height, texture and structure to the scene.

Consider how she repurposed scrap metal into two sturdy columns and plunked 24-inch pots on top to flank the stairs down to her patio. Each pot is planted with a ‘Silver Spear’ Astelia chathamica, an evergreen perennial that looks like a flax plant dipped in molten silver. These spiky centerpieces are grounded with a variegated mass of angel wing Begonia ‘Hatachoia.’ Enough drama? Not quite. Gleaming Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’ cascades like shimmering curtains down the sides of the pots.

No wonder a visitor to Hall-Behrens’ garden commented that these two pots functioned like earrings for the house.

Instead of flowers, Hall-Behrens chooses foliage plants that carry containers through the seasons with a minimum of water and fuss.

“I’ve only had one client, ever, ask for a high-maintenance garden,” she says. So while she uses containers as accents, and to play around with plants, she also keeps them as easy-care as possible.

If only a couple of skillfully paired plants can have such effect, why do we keep stuffing a bunch of flowers into a pot? It’s hard to resist all the brilliantly colored begonias and geraniums and coleus. Those little six packs of bright potential seem to induce amnesia when it comes to how much water, fertilizer and deadheading is needed to keep them going.

“I try not to fertilize at all,” says Hall-Behrens, explaining she isn’t comfortable using chemicals. She avoids flowers that need heavy feeding, and gives plants a boost by filling pots with a good organic soil mix.

Hall-Behrens suggests starting with large, deep pots so plants will have more root room and need watering less frequently. Smaller containers can turn into a desert landscape over the course of a single warm afternoon.

She chooses plants for how their textures and shapes will fit into the overall feel of the garden. “Drama in a garden is based on the strength of the scene, not individual plants,” she explains. Small evergreens are great year-round anchors to carry a container composition through the seasons. Hall-Behrens’ favorites include the little evergreen holly Ilex crenata ‘Dwarf Pagoda’ that grows only a few inches a year. Upright in shape, it’s also contorted enough to suggest that a swirling wind just blew through.

Even more twisted is the dwarf Hinoki cypress Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Gracilis’ that lends movement to any container planting. The slim Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil’ packs a lot of punctuation while taking up little space. Hall-Behrens suggests using one evergreen plant per pot for structure, then playing with color and texture around its base.

In her own garden, she started with a tall, matte-black container, anchoring it with an exotic-looking Brugmansia ‘Betty Marshall.’ At the foot of this statuesque annual, she planted a spreading Setcreasea purpurea. This showy foliage plant is related to the familiar houseplant called a wandering Jew, but its leaves are resoundingly purple, glossed with an otherworldly metallic sheen. Hall-Behrens set the black pot into the center of a garden bed where ornamental grasses lap at its base. The whole picture is pretty fantastic, created with just a pot and two plants.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “petal & twig.” Check out her blog at