Thursday, January 11, 2007

Plants for Containers -- Anything Goes!

“Plants for Containers - Anything Goes!”

By Becke Davis

Containers are one of the hottest trends in gardening, a trend that continues to heat up as the marketplace tries to keep pace with consumer demands. It’s been a long time since containers were simple plastic or terra cotta pots filled with petunias, spikes and vines. As customers started experimenting with containers, the selling season began to inch back from frost-free dates to early spring, with pansies, violas and potted bulbs filling the cold season pots. The season stretched out at the autumn end, too, with ornamental grasses, topiaries of boxwood, ivy and conifers, asters, mums, cabbages and kales, with berry-covered twigs and evergreen boughs filling in after the hard frosts hit.

The availability of unusual annuals has changed dramatically since containers hit the big time. Annuals are no longer just bedding plants -- they are equally container plants, if not moreso. New cultivars of old favorites abound, as well as previously unheard of exotics, all kinds of herbs and ornamental edibles, and plants that were once housebound -- all can be found in pre-planted containers, or sold for container planting. Perennials, grasses, ground covers, cacti, succulents, rock garden plants, conifers, roses, vines, fruit trees and dwarf ornamental shrubs and trees are all possibilities for the container garden today.

As home gardeners mastered the art of container gardening, their demands grew. Anything and everything can be found for container use today - urns from England, antique garden art, lightweight faux-terra cotta containers, hypertufa troughs, hollow stones, pots decorated in mosaics and beautifully colored glazes, even old wheelbarrows and wagons, lunch boxes, Wellington boots and old shoes can be used as containers. With a price range from pennies to thousands of dollars, there are containers for every style and every budget. Pre-mixed potting soils, slow-release fertilizers and polymer pellets to reduce watering needs all add to the ease and immediacy of container gardening.

New gardeners -- and even long-time gardeners -- are often drawn to containers if they are unsure about the needs and behavior of certain plants. It is easy to get to know a plant and then transplant it into the garden later -- containers can be moved if it appears the plant needs more sun or shade. Moving a plant around in a planting bed can leave unsightly gaps in the design, and if the plant turns out to be aggressive, it might be difficult to move it or remove it at all. Containers also provide the opportunity to experiment with colors and plant combinations, since most containers need to be replanted at least once a year.

Containers are popular for many reasons, not the least of which is their portability and their “containability.” People who work 60 hour weeks may not have time for a traditional garden, but they may be willing to try a few containers, a window box or some hanging plants. As baby boomers reach the age of stiff backs and knees, working with containers that can be planted and displayed at various heights may seem much more inviting than crawling around on hands and knees in a garden bed. Containers are so versatile that they can be as effective on a rooftop, an apartment balcony, in a small city garden or on a huge suburban deck.

Containers also tie in with the move toward “garden rooms” - bringing the landscape and garden closer to the house on decks, patios and other outdoor living areas. Selecting containers that blend in or accent the architectural features of the house or that repeat colors or materials displayed on the exterior of the house can help connect the indoors to the outdoors almost seamlessly.

Whether the reason for container popularity is time constraints, fear of messing up, or the comfortable affluence of some consumers, more and more specialty nurseries, garden centers and even grocery stores are featuring pre-planted containers ranging from basic to garden couture, with a range of flowers that increases year to year. Landscape contractors who used to concentrate on planting beds with bulbs and annuals and changing them from season to season are being called on more and more to provide seasonal containers with sophisticated plant combinations.

While virtually any plants can be used in containers now, some annuals are especially popular. Begonias, once considered old fashioned bedding plants, are getting new fans, particularly of the Rex and DragonWing begonias. Geraniums (Pelargonium spp.) never really lost popularity, but the ivy geraniums and the Martha Washington geraniums are especially popular in containers.

These plants have received recent media coverage recommending them for use as container plants: Carex albula, Carex testacea, Carex oshimensis ‘Evergold’, Colocasia esculenta ‘Illustris’, Heuchera spp, miniature Hosta, Isolepsis cernua, Acalypha wilkesiana, Iresine variagata, Hibiscus spp., Dianella tasmanica ‘Variegata’, Abutilon spp., Nassella tenuissima, Cuphea spp., Crocosomia spp., Oplismenus hirtellus ‘Variegatus’, Oxalis spp., Calocephalus brownii, Cordyline australis ‘Red Sensation’, Ipomea batatas ‘Sweet Caroline Bronze’, Alternanthera ‘Joseph’s Coat’, Mandevilla spp., Helichrysum petiolare ‘Lemon Licorice’, Torenia spp., Thymus spp., Ajuga spp., Ageratum spp., Gomphrena spp., Perilla spp., Dichondra argentea ‘Silver Falls’, Phormium tenax (‘Dazzler’, ‘Maori Queen’ and ‘Pink Stripe’), Lamiastrum galeobdolon ‘Hermann’s Pride’, Asparagus densiflorus ‘Myers’, Tradescantia pallida, Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’, Nierembergia caerulea ‘Purple Robe’, ‘Purple Barron’ ornamental millet, ‘Black Pearl’ ornamental pepper (a 2006 AAS Selections Winner), lobelia, coleus, lavender, red crane kale and white crane kale, pentas, the rex Begonia cultivar ‘Fireworks’, all kinds of gerbera daisies, passion flower, black-eyed Susan vine, calla lilies, cannas, caladium hybrids and cultivars, Swan River daisy, Persian shield, tricolor sage and ‘Rachel’s Gold’ salvia and New Guinea impatiens -- and these are only the tip of the iceberg.

The following list includes some of the annuals getting the most favorable press. Many of the hybrids and cultivars listed are marketed as Proven Winners and have won numerous awards.


*Angelonia, Summer Snapdragon (Genus: Angelonia) - Not only are these great plants for containers and hanging baskets, angelonia is also an excellent, long-lasting cut flower. A South American sub-shrub, angelonia performs best in full sun -- it is tolerant of both heat and drought. Colors range from white to pink, purple, pale blue, deep blue and bicolor. Hybrids and cultivars include ‘Angelface Blue’, ‘Angelface Blue Bicolor’, ‘Alba’, ‘Carita Purple’, ‘AngelMist Plum’ and ‘AngelMist Purple Stripe’.

*Bacopa (Genus: Sutera) - This plant has received a lot of media coverage recently, even though it is more of a filler than the star of the show. It is a vigorous grower, suitable for sun or shade, with a trailing habit that makes it suitable for hanging baskets as well as containers. Covered with masses of tiny flowers that bloom all season, bacopa is usually mixed with other plants but is also attractive on its own. White is the most common flower color but there are also cultivars in pale pink and very pale blue. Cultivars include ‘Giant Snowflake’, ‘Snowstorm Giant Snowflake’, ‘Glacier Blue’ and ‘Ice Blue’.

*Calibrachoa, Million Bells (Genus: Calibrachoa) - One of the hottest of the hot annuals this year, calibrachoa got its common name because of the extremely abundant flowers that resemble bells or tiny petunia blossoms. Calibrachoa is a South American native that has been known in Europe for more than 200 years. It wasn’t until a Japanese company began marketing calibrachoa hybrids in 1988 that it gained recognition, coming to the U.S. in the early 1990s. The habit of calibrachoa is mounding and trailing or weeping. The flowers spill over the sides of containers or hanging baskets, giving them a lush, colorful look. Plant in full sun and add a slow-release fertilizer to ensure blooms from May until frost - this plant is a heavy feeder. Soil should be well-drained but moist, and the soil pH should be near or below 5.8 to avoid incidence of root rot. Hybrids and cultivars include ‘Superbells Pink Kiss’ (trials of over 200 hybrids and cultivars at Pennsylvania State University resulted in this ‘Superbells Pink Kiss’ earning the top score, and the designation “Best of Species 2003”), ‘Million Bells Terra Cotta’, ‘Million Bells Trailing Magenta’, ‘Mini Famous Sweetheart White’, ‘Mini Famous Cherry Pink’, ‘Spring Fling Lemon’, ‘Starlette Trailing Rose’, ‘Starlette Sunset’ and ‘Colorburst Carmine’.

*Diascia, Twinspur (Genus: Diascia) - A few years ago few people had heard of this South African native, but it’s hard to find an upscale, preplanted container or hanging basket without Diascia in it this year. The flowers are tiny but abundant, and they bloom from early spring to late summer, performing well in sun to part shade. The hybrid ‘Diamonte Coral Rose’ was an All-America Selections Winner this year in the cool season bedding plant category. It was selected for its long bloom time, vigor, and profuse flowering. In southern testing over the winter, it performed well under cool growing conditions and it also performed well in hot summer conditions. Other hybrids and cultivars include ‘Rose Queen’, ‘Appleblossom’, ‘Trailing Antique Rose’, ‘Ice Pole’, ‘Apricot Queen’, ‘Pink Adobe’, Coral Canyon’, ‘Wink Pink Improved’, and ‘Flying Colors Red’.

*Lantana (Genus: Lantana) - Lantanas have long been a standard of southern gardens, where they are very heat tolerant and can grow into small shrubs. In the midwest they have gained popularity as a plant for containers and hanging baskets as new and improved hybrids and cultivars have expanded their range of colors. From pale pastels to hot reds, oranges and vivid yellows, lantanas usually feature blossoms with a combination of colors. Cultivars include ‘Patriot Classic Parasol’, ‘Classic Desert Sunset’, ‘Classic Hot Country’, ‘Weeper Dove Wings’, ‘Popcorn’, ‘Pillar Deen Day Smith’, ‘Petite Rainbow’, ‘Confetti’, ‘Tropical Temptation Mimosa’, ‘Goldsonne’ and ‘Athens Rose’.

*Nemesia, Cape Jewels (Genus: Nemesia) - The small but abundant flowers of Nemesia resemble snapdragon flowers, and, like Diascia, it is in the same plant family. Nemesia blooms for a long time starting in early spring, but it does not like extreme heat or drought. Keep the soil evenly moist and in areas where summers are very hot, site it in cool, somewhat shady spots. Hybrids and cultivars include the ‘Sunsatia’ series (Banana, Cranberry, Raspberry, Mango, Coconut, Lemon, Peach, Pear and Pineapple), ‘Blue Lagoon’, ‘Compact Pink Innocence’, ‘Candy Girl’, ‘Blue Bird’, ‘Carnival’, ‘Tapestry’, ‘Retired Innocence’ and ‘Safari Violet Rose’.

*Osteospermum, Cape Daisy, African Daisy (Genus: Osteospermum) - As the common name indicates, this genus is an African native that looks like a daisy. The flowers come in a wide range of colors and often feature a center ring of a darker or contrasting color. Plant in full sun to part shade in moist but well-drained soil. Deadhead to prolong the bloom period. Hybrids and cultivars include ‘Soprano Lilac Spoon’, ‘Orange Symphony’, ‘Cream Symphony’, ‘Sunscape Daisy’, ‘Stardust’, ‘Silver Sparkler’ and ‘Salmon Queen’. (Note: Osteospermum is sometimes confused with another daisy-like plant called African Daisy, the South African Dimorphotheca pluvialis, also known as Cape Marigold or Star-of-the-Veldt.)

*Petunia, Calituna, Supertunia, Wave Petunias (Genus: Petunia) - These hybrid petunias are just a few of the new, improved varieties that perform well in containers and hanging baskets. The Calitunas are the result of a cross between traditional petunias and million bells (Calibrachoa spp.), providing long bloom time, profuse flowering, vivid colors plus heat and cold tolerance. Supertunias were bred for long bloom time, a self-cleaning habit plus fragrant flowers. Among the many excellent petunia cultivars are ‘Mini Blue Veined’, ‘Mini Purple’, ‘Lemon Plume’, ‘Purple Calituna’, ‘Mini Appleblossom’, ‘Bordeaux’, ‘Double Peppermint’, ‘Wave Purple, Tidal Wave Silver’, ‘Easy Wave Salmon’, ‘Double Wave Blue Vein’, ‘Vista Bubblegum’, ‘Raspberry Blast’, ‘Priscilla’, ‘Royal Velvet’ and ‘Double Dark Blue’.

*Schizanthus, Poor Man’s Orchid, Butterfly Flower (Genus: Schizanthus) - This plant performs in sun to part shade but is best grown from early spring or in late summer since it doesn’t hold up in the heat of mid-summer. The plants are compact but covered in small, exotic-looking blossoms. Cultivars include ‘Angel Wings’, ‘Pure White’, ‘Pure Scarlet Shades’, ‘Royal Pierrot’, and ‘Treasure Trove Lilac Bicolor’.

*Verbena (Genus: Verbena) - Although verbena has been around a long time, the range and clarity of colors and exciting new cultivars and its cascading habit has made this plant a favorite for hanging baskets and containers in full sun. Colors range from bright white to pink, rose, salmon, coral, violet, scarlet, burgundy, lilac, hot pink, bright red, red with a white eye, purple and white, and more. Cultivars include ‘Patio Hot Pink’, ‘Patio Blue’, ‘Cherry Blossom’, ‘Tapien Salmon’, ‘Tapien Blue Violet’, ‘Tamari Sakura Pink’, ‘Superbena Burgundy’, ‘Superbena Blue’, ‘Babylon Neon Rose’, ‘Tukana White’ and ‘Homestead Purple’.


Originally published in The Landscape Contractor magazine

File Name: NewPlantsContainers.doc
Word Count: 2,085


“The latest craze in container gardens -- perennials!,” by Stephanie Polsey Bruner, Garden Gate magazine, Issue No. 69, 2006

“Great Plants” and “Classic Groupings,” Fine Gardening magazine/Container Gardening special issue, Summer 2006

“Foliage Fever,” by Bobbie Schwartz, The Buckeye, ONLA magazine, April 2006

”Containing the Landscape,” by Rita Randolph. American Nurseryman magazine, July 15, 2005

“Calibrachoa Culture and Varieties,” by Alan H. Michael, Rob Berghage and Dave Johnson, Pennsylvania State University

All-America Selections website

Proven Winners Website

Succulents, by Yvonne Cave, 2003, Timber Press, Portland, OR

Rare and Unusual Plants, by William C. Mulligan, 1992, Simon & Schuster, NY

P. Allen Smith’s Container Gardens, by P. Allen Smith, 2005, Hortus, Ltd./Clarkson Potter Publishers, New York, NY

Media references: Country Almanac Container Gardens magazine issue #86, Garden Gate magazine issue #69, Country Living Gardener magazine Spring 2006, Fine Garden magazine’s Container Gardening special issue, Sunset Container Gardening magazine, better Homes & Gardens Garden Ideas & Outdoor Living magazine


Renee said...

So glad to find your blog. I think container gardening is fun at least partly because you get to start over every year -- you can experiment with new color schemes, in ways that would be impossible (or impossibly expensive and labor intensive) in a perennial or shrub border. If you find something you love, you can grow it again. And if something was a mistake, you don't have to live with it or repeat it.

Treethyme said...

Hi! I completely agree. Not only is container gardening a good way to get to know new plants and experiment with them, but it is such an adventure because you can start new every year (if you want to).

By the way, I love your purple jacket/blazer!

Libby said...

I have a huge favor to ask! I came across your blog while searching for a Garden store in Cincinnati that sells calibrachoa. I swear I have a poisonous thumb and I cannot keep anything alive :( I'm hoping the calibachoa can survive in some containers in front of my condo this summer, as I am listing my condo for sale and would like to have some pretty colorful flowers to liven up the front of the house.

If you have any suggestions for locating started calibachoa plants at a center in Cincinnati, please email me at and know that it will be greatly appreciated! :)

Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge!

Tony Destroni said...

hi good day . nice post you have . id learned a lot. this is one of the best way of gardening even you dont have much space you can still do planting . thanks for sharing this . i hope you have a post about wind spinner other garden and home accessories , im interested on this i hope you can help me . thank you!

Becke Davis said...

Hi Tony - I don't normally post about garden accessories, but you can see some really nice wind spinners here:

and here: