Going vertical with a steel pipe planter


A few months ago Link Davidson, who has a talent for collecting and repurposing industrial leftovers in gardens (see the garden he designed for his neighbor, Wendy), sold me a piece of heavy steel pipe. He even delivered it to my house, and let me tell you, it is extremely heavy. I found the perfect place for it in the new gravel garden I’ve started between the garage and the front entry. I had help burying two feet of its length in the ground for stability, and I eagerly planted it up with a large toothless sotol (Dasylirion longissimum) that I found on sale at Big Red Sun.


Uh-oh. This is how it looked after I finished watering it in and top-dressing it with gravel. Have you ever made this mistake? Believe it or not, I did measure the height of the root ball and thought I’d filled the pipe with enough soil to ensure the plant sat high, allowing its lower leaves to fall horizontally. But clearly I goofed, and by the time I stood back and saw my error, the plant had somehow gained about 25 pounds, and I couldn’t budge it. When my teenage son came home from school, I set up two stepladders on either side of the pipe, and we both grabbed handfuls of leaves and pulled. It wouldn’t budge. My husband came home and we tried again. No dice.


So this morning I paid for my initial hastiness with a slow excavation of handfuls of soil and gravel until half the root ball was exposed. I bungeed the sotol’s long, breakable leaves into a vertical ponytail, climbed the stepladder, jammed my arms down the sides of the pipe, and heaved it out. I felt like a farmer who’d just assisted in the difficult birth of a calf: dirty, sweaty, a little bloody, but triumphant. And here it is, raised to the right height this time, looking great in that rusty pipe planter, in the new gravel bed with a crisp limestone edge. I still have much to do: clean the stained brick siding, paint the wood siding on the garage (not visible here), and soften the whole space with more xeric plants. I will try not to be so hasty with the rest of it.

All material © 2006-2012 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

25 Responses

  1. You’ve gone all mod. Looks nice.

    Thanks! I’ve been wanting to play with a Tex-Zen look for a while. With an industrial edge. —Pam

  2. Now I see what and where…should have *never* posted on that same plant at the Springs Preserve in Las Vegas! Almost killed you. Glad you triumphed…

    A lawsuit was nearly headed your way, David. Ha! Even before your inspiration I’d been lusting after a toothless sotol in a smooth, gray concrete pipe up at the Arboretum shopping center in Austin. I’ll have to get a picture sometime. It’s a beauty. —Pam

  3. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    This is a great focal point Pam. I can’t wait to see the bed when it is finished. I cracked up at your description of how you felt after pulling the plant out. What a job you made for yourself. Well worth the effort though.

    Yes, it’s a proper Koosh ball shape now, not a crew-cut hairdo. Big difference! —Pam

  4. Lucy Abbott says:

    I LOVE IT! I’m always hungry for plants that have a very vertical look. I also enjoy columns in the garden. To me this is a hybrid of both. Nicely Done!

    Thanks, Lucy. I like to use a lot of planted pots in my garden beds to get that vertical look without resorting to a tree or large shrub. It works great. —Pam

  5. The sotol looks good and just right for the pipe treatment. A modern gravel garden will look awesome in that spot, can’t wait to see what else you put there.

    Thanks, Shirley. My main difficulty will be reining myself in and not planting too much here. But I do want to add a Mexican weeping bamboo in one corner, firebush, an agave, and a few softening Mexican feathergrass. —Pam

  6. Alison says:

    Ha! Your description of how you felt after you managed to wrestle the plant out is exactly how I feel most days after spending time in the garden. I love this plant in the rusty pipe, what an amazing focal point it will make. I’m so looking forward to seeing how this area takes shape, I’m planning to put in a gravel garden this year too, right beside our driveway. Off to Google Mexican weeping bamboo….

    Mexican weeping bamboo is one of those plants for the daring gardener here in Austin—not daring because the plant is weird or a “runner” (it’s a clumper) but because it’s pushing our zone just a bit to grow it. It’s probably happiest in zone 9, but I do see it in Austin (zone 8b) here and there, and I love it madly. I lost one in the hard freezes of early 2010, which hurt as bamboo is pricey. But it’ll come through an ordinary Central Texas winter. Which I realize is probably more than you wanted to know and of limited usefulness for a Pacific NW gardener like you! —Pam

  7. Jenn says:

    Be prepared for the soil to continue to settle, esp. if the lower tube is filled with organic material and not base sand or clay…

    I think the recent rain will have settled it pretty well, plus I watered down the new soil today, but I’ll keep a wary eye on it. —Pam

  8. Frances says:

    It looks great now, Pam, but as you were telling the tale, all I could think of was watch out for your back!!!! Please be careful, dear, we don’t want you to hurt yourself.

    The back has a few twinges that it didn’t have before, but it’ll be all right. Thanks for your concern, Frances. I’ll try not to be hobbling when I arrive at the Garden Bloggers Fling in May. —Pam

  9. I really admire that combo, but most of all, I admire your willingness to tell us, and show us, how you goofed. When you explain how you recovered, we benefit much more than if you made it look like a slam dunk. And all’s well in the end: it looks sleek and fabulous!

    Thanks, Jane. I’m just trying to keep it real. We all goof; it’s a great way to learn how to do things right. :-) —Pam

  10. Leslie says:

    That is looking like such a great start Pam…and I know just how that feels to have to redo some error in judgement. Can’t wait to see the next step!

    Mistakes happen, don’t they? I’ll have more pics soon, I hope. —Pam

  11. Greggo says:

    Looks great! I get more inspiration from you than anyone else. I have a lust for rust..lol.

    Why, thanks for the compliment, Greggo! Lust for rust—that’s a good one. —Pam

  12. Gail says:

    Pam, Love the pipe and love the story! The new garden already looks great. gail

    It’s pretty minimalist at the moment, Gail! But I’ll soften it up soon. —Pam

  13. peter schaar says:

    Pam, great beginning! I’ve long wanted a place for D. longissimum. My Agave ovatifolia is planted in a large cobalt blue pot in almost pure drainage rock. So it has not settled at all, but now that I want to put it in the ground, I am having to hand dig the rock out a tiny bit at a time. A spade will not enter the rock at all. I’ve been at it for a couple of weeks and have a long way to go. Caveat emptor!!!

    A couple of weeks?! Wow, it’s cemented in there, isn’t it? We gardeners must be a determined bunch. Enjoy setting your whale free. —Pam

  14. Bonnie says:

    Reminds me of your previous struggle with another agave- was it the Whale’s Tongue?- when you moved from one house to another. Girl, you are a glutton for punishment.

    Bonnie, moving that ‘Whale’s Tongue’ agave was a whole ‘nother ballgame. I still look back on that as my craziest, most determined gardening moment. —Pam

  15. Cheryl says:

    It looks F A B U L O U S !!

    Thanks, Cheryl. :-) —Pam

  16. Love the pipe planter, Love the plant…and Love that you shared the photo of the sunken plant…..ain’t that just the way things go sometimes?

    It sure is, Loree, especially when one wants something done right n-o-w. —Pam

  17. Cyndy says:

    I feel your pain, but the end result is so worth it – wonderful piece.

    Thanks, Cyndy. I bet you do feel some new-garden aches and pains yourself these days, eh? —Pam

  18. Robin says:

    oh, Pam, that is so hilarious! Like Bonnie, I immediately flashed back to your Whale’s Tongue moving story. The things we do for our yards, right? I can’t wait to see the finished product on this area of your yard, I love the vision. It’s such a fun update for an older ranch home; to bring in ultra modern and industrial touches really moves the architecture nicely into this era. Awesome.

    Thanks, Robin. I do hope that it will all work with our plain ranch house in that way. —Pam

  19. Cynthia says:

    Very cool. I, too, can’t wait to see the finished bed.

    I’ll be sure to post more pictures, Cynthia. —Pam

  20. Scott Weber says:

    I’m much the same as Greggo…I find so much inspiration here, Pam…even for things I know I’ll never pull off myself…I keep them tucked in my little “Idea” list, just in case the opportunity presents itself someday :-) I can only imagine how heavy that pipe was! Where on earth woud you get such things?

    I have an Idea list too, Scott (I’m migrating it to Pinterest now), and I’m honored to think that any of my creations are on yours. That pipe—yes, it’s so heavy! I don’t have any idea where Link found it, but it’s not moving now! —Pam

  21. mamaholt says:

    Oh, Pam, that area is looking WONDERFUL!!!! I LOVE it. I have done similar things soooo many times. Ouch. Well, just loving that area and the whole re-do SO much. It looks so modern, but not cold…clean, crisp, fantastic. Now when your book sells a million copies, people can drive by and see your lawn reform in action. Can you come do my yard now? har har.

    “When your book sells a million copies”—how I wish! But yes, I am glad to have gotten rid of more lawn before the book comes out. The back lawn is long gone, but I didn’t want to appear a fraud with lots of front lawn. ;-) —Pam

  22. Diana's - sharing Nature's Garden says:

    Tres chic –love it!

    Thanks, friend. :-) —Pam

  23. Candy Suter says:

    So it’s a pipe! And you painted it? Really awesome. Why didn’t you just put a pot with plant on top of it? Just wondering! It definitely will be a great focal point!

    Candy, it’s a rusty pipe—I didn’t paint it. I just like the look of it as a planter, so I stuck that plant right in there—and love it! —Pam

  24. [...] next?” the neighbors may be wondering. “Tires and old boots?” That’s the infamous toothless sotol (Dasylirion longissimum) in the steel pipe. And I still need to scrub clean that brick. [...]

  25. Shyrlene says:

    Pam – this is ingenuity at it’s best; you have such a gift for creative design and ‘best use’ re-purposing. It reminds me to keep a broad view in ‘growing’ my gardens and remembering hardscape and inorganic materials. (So awesome!)

    What a nice compliment, Shyrlene—thank you! I’ve always been interested in hardscape and architectural accents in the garden. They are a great way to express your creativity, and they don’t need to be watered! —Pam