Wednesday Vignette – the sweet sound of styrofoam

Styrofoam as planter fillerI’m currently working on beautifying the outdoor spaces of a houseboat – which is a first for me. It involves a number of changes, but the one thing that has been occupying my time lately is the backbreaking work of removing root bound plants from large containers and planters. I would describe much of what was there to begin with as poor choices for that location; large shrubs which invariably would blow over in the sometimes 60 mph winds that wipe the back decks clean in winter. To remedy this, the people who sold the house to the current owners had made these interesting contraptions of boards that were screwed directly into the deck, then put the pots on top, and secured them with bungee cords. Functional perhaps, but not very elegant, as you can imagine. And so much of it devoid of any logic reasoning. After removing most of it, I have three rather obvious takeaway observations to share:

  • Containers with openings larger than their base will always be more likely to blow over in strong winds, than planters with a large base. (Which is why rectangular planters are so popular on houseboats – duh!)
  • I understand the conundrum of weight distribution on floating homes, but seriously—don’t fill the bottom half of the pot with styrofoam. Just don’t. It makes them disproportionally top heavy, and even more prone to tipping over.
  • Large shrubs and trees become windsails in exposed locations. A better choice might be swishier plants like grasses and perennials, and lower, more compact shrubs. At least that’s my theory, and I’m sticking with it, until proven wrong.

Anyway, long story short – I hired my muscly friend William to help me. Yesterday we tackled the built-in planters in the front. Cussing like sailors over the waterlogged, plastic-filled mess, we slowly and painstakingly emptied each cavity. One contained a dead Cotinus, and another a struggling Snowbell (Styrax japonica). Long skinny (a shovel blade’s width) troughs had Clematis, Hydrangeas, and other, smaller things. They all had in common that they were a bitch to remove. We persevered, and—bit by bit—out they came, their roots encased in large blocks of styrofoam. (Which makes it that much harder to reuse plants, which I had been asked to do, when possible.)


William with one of the many blocks in the Cotinus planter.


A small mountain of plastic from about half of one of the trough planters. Sheesh…


I totally get the temptation of using fillers instead of good soil—it’s cheaper, weighs less, and is endlessly easier to transport in a little cart— down the long ramp to the boardwalk below, and from there, out to your slip. It was clear that whomever had planted this, way back when, had totally opted for easy and cheap. As you probably figured out, plants don’t really thrive in styrofoam. But, since they do want to live, they brave the odds and push out those roots as best they can. The roots had grown right through the styrofoam blocks, knitting them together into larger, matted clumps. As I write this, we have one cavity left to empty (the one with the Snowbell). So far, we have removed more than three (3!!!) large garbage bags filled to the brim with styrofoam. And I have grown to loathe the squeaky sound of pitchfork penetrating plastic. I can’t wait for it to all be gone, so the fun of planting can begin!


This, my friends, is how the Cotinus died. The poor thing drowned! Just like what happens if you put rocks in the bottom of containers, styrofoam can effectively block the drainage holes. For happy plants, skip all that other stuff, and just use soil.

About annamadeit

I was born and raised in Sweden, By now, I have lived almost as long in the United States. The path I’ve taken has been long and varied, and has given me a philosophical approach to life. I may joke that I’m a sybarite, but the truth is, I find joy and luxury in life’s simple things as well. My outlook on life has roots in a culture rich in history and tradition, and I care a great deal about environmental stewardship. Aesthetically, while drawn to the visually clean, functional practicality and sustainable solutions that are the hallmarks of modern Scandinavia, I also have a deep appreciation for the raw, the weathered, and the worn - materials that tell a story. To me, contrast, counterpoint, and diversity are what makes life interesting and engaging. Color has always informed everything I do. I’m a functional tetrachromat, and a hopeless plantoholic. I was originally trained as an architect working mostly on interiors, but soon ventured outside - into garden design. It’s that contrast thing again… An interior adrift from its exterior, is like a yin without a yang. My firm conviction that everything is connected gets me in trouble time and time again. The world is a big place, and full of marvelous distractions, and offers plentiful opportunities for inquiry and exploration. I started writing to quell my constant queries, explore my discoveries, and nurture my curiosity. The Creative Flux was started in 2010, and became a catch-all for all kinds of intersecting interests. The start of Flutter & Hum at the end of 2013 marks my descent into plant nerd revelry. I occasionally contribute to other blogs, but those two are my main ones. For sure, topics are all over the map, but then again - so am I! Welcome to my blogs!
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24 Responses to Wednesday Vignette – the sweet sound of styrofoam

  1. We kept digging out styrofoam. That could be a useful tip about bases to combat our strong winds

  2. Kris P says:

    What an interesting project, Anna! As to the styrofoam, yuck. I hate that stuff. Even the sound it makes something rubs against it is unnerving. I hope you’ll show us the completed project when you can. Here’s my WV:

    • annamadeit says:

      I definitely will post more photos, Kris! But right now, the entire front is covered in muddy tarps, so not a lot to see. I’m also waiting for the owners to return after a month away. There are some decisions to consider that only they can make. Fingers crossed! 🙂

  3. “plants don’t really thrive in styrofoam”…oh my! What a disaster. Here’s my WV:

    • annamadeit says:

      Oh, it was AWFUL! Tearing all those roots as we pried out those squeaky blocks… And the damn peanuts. At least they floated to the top in that clogged planter, so were pretty easy to collect and discard. But yes, this is taking quite a bit longer than I actually calculated for. 😦

  4. Grace says:

    Aw, so the owners are away, making you free to cuss like sailors and you undo the this idiocy. They were probably too embarrassed to stay. 🙂 Best of luck in the project and don’t hurt yourself.

    • annamadeit says:

      Thanks, Grace! Haha – as houseboats go, the neighbors are never far away, so we tried minding our language. The owners are great, and have no fault in this planting. It was done long ago by a previous owner, and is apparently very common on floating homes. I bet that’s due to both access issues and weight. It’s a pain to haul any heavy stuff to the end of the dock. I’m very grateful to the owner who hauled 21 cu ft of good soil down for me. He even checked in a couple of weeks ago to see if I had enough or if I needed more. I probably will need some more eventually, but we’re still removing the old stuff. Soon, though, the fun begins! 🙂

  5. Alison says:

    I tried styrofoam peanuts one summer in annual containers, to save my back. The plants did not thrive and I learned my lesson. Never tried it again. I also don’t do annuals in containers any more, but that’s another story. Good luck with this big, muddy, unwieldy project.

    • annamadeit says:

      Yeah, I can totally appreciate the idea of styrofoam making it easier. I think both William and I can feel it in our bodies today. I definitely need to do some stretching before heading back down there. Will post more as we get closer!

  6. Mary says:

    At Master Gardener booths we showed a cutaway of a pot that had been partially filler filled. Just dont do it. The soil above can’t stay hydrated and hold nutrients. The plant will try anything to get its roots down below, etc.. Using any bulk item under soil will decrease the plants ability to thrive. Put the same soil all the way down.

    • annamadeit says:

      We are 100% in agreement, Mary! What were they thinking??? In three pots that undoubtedly had been planted later, we also found tons of garbage – empty plastic bottles, plastic bags, etc. No wonder those plants looked like crap… 😦

  7. Tina says:

    Wow, what a project! Like Kris, I hate the sound of Styrofoam, as well as most of its other qualities. I was charmed by the photo of your friend, William, in his hoodie. A sweater, hoodie or anything else that might mean cool temperatures is a strange concept to me!!

    • annamadeit says:

      It got cool quickly here – almost over night. Two months too early, I might add. Very strange. Parts of town even had a little frost the other night. I’d better move the houseplants in, even though I’m still in denial….

  8. Ugh, I would never fill a container with Styrofoam. That sound makes me want to cover my ears.

  9. hb says:

    Time for houseboat owners to explore Epiphytes?

  10. tonytomeo says:

    This sort of made me laugh. A colleague in Los Angeles believed that if he put big stones in the bottom of a large pot on his front porch, that it would be less likely to be stolen, because it would be heavier and more difficult to move. The poor olive tree that lived in the pot did not have much soil to disperse roots into. It sort of worked I suppose. If I were that concerned about a large pot being stolen, I would not have put it on the front porch, or would have lived somewhere else.

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