CONTAINER PLANTS THAT LAST

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If your patio is shaded and you like a tropical look, caladium containers are a good choice.

CREATE A PORTABLE GARDEN FOR YOUR PATIO THAT WILL THRILL FROM SPRING THROUGH THE CHILLIEST AUTUMN EVENINGS.

Spring has sprung, and we’re all eager to get outside and spruce up the patio. Maybe it needs a power wash; maybe it needs a rearrangement of your favorite outdoor furniture. Or perhaps you’ve undertaken a complete renovation, and it’s time to add the finishing touches.

Nothing completes the patio like plants, and plants in containers are the perfect way to provide color, fragrance, and a connection to the great outdoors. Choosing long-lasting plants that take you from now until it’s time to go back inside will give you time to spend enjoying your outdoor space—for months on end.

But where to start? The selection of annual plants can be overwhelming, and many of them will last for a few months. But perennials and shrubs also perform well in containers, and most of them will thrive throughout the seasons and on into the following years. That means less work for you, and more time to enjoy your outdoor space.

When you choose your plants, consider features like flowers, fragrance, foliage. Ultimate size also should be considered. But even small trees can be grown in containers, and if your plant appears to be outgrowing its pot, you can either repot to a larger container or plant it in the garden. If you’re not sure, check with your local independent garden center and ask the experts.

The plants suggested here are just the beginning. Many of them can be used in combination, as companions to other plants in a mixed arrangement that serves as a mini-garden. Others can stand on their own. Use them as a guide, and you’re well on your way to making your patio the place where you’ll spend time each and every day, from the first hints of spring through the nippiest days of fall.

As always, check out your local garden center for inspiration, as well as instruction. Many offer classes and workshops, and can help you create container gardens that are perfect for your patio. They can assist you in your choice of plants, as well as the most appropriate potting soil and nutrients.

ROSES = FLOWERS AND FRAGRANCE

Despite their reputation for being finicky, many roses thrive in containers. Small shrub roses do well; larger shrub varieties are best left for the garden, as are climbing types, although these can do well with proper support. Look for plants that offer long or continuous bloom, or fill your pots with roses that bloom in succession to provide seasons-long flowers and fragrance.

A lovely white selection is ‘Iceberg’, a floribunda type with large clusters of medium-sized, pure white, sweetly fragrant blooms. If you prefer pink, try ‘The Fairy’, a small shrub that produces a profusion of small, soft pink, pompon-like flowers. Looking for deep red? There’s Black Cherry™, a magnificent floribunda with old-fashioned, damask-type fragrance.

Choose your flower type, choose your color, choose your container, and plant some roses.

FORGO THE FLOWERS

A container that highlights just one plant can be a standout, and one that features colorful or textural foliage speaks for itself. Many plants are better known for their brilliantly colored and intricately patterned leaves rather than fleeting flower displays.

Look for coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides), whose foliage is available in hundreds of shades from bright and happy yellow and chartreuse to deep, rich maroon—and everything in between. Toothed leaves often feature frilled and ruffled edges, adding delightful texture. The plants produce rather nondescript flowers in a long spike; these can be pinched to help promote bushier growth.

Coleus is a tender perennial that can be planted in the garden in zones 10 to 11, but in cooler regions, you can simply bring the container inside to overwinter.

The dramatically veined leaves of coral bells (Heuchera), as well as its relatives, foamy bells (Heucherella) and foam flower (Tiarella), will last throughout the seasons, and in colder zones, the plants can be transplanted into the garden in fall. These selections can stand on their own or be used to fill in as a sort of “ground cover” in containers that feature taller plants.

If your patio is shaded and you like that tropical look, caladium containers are a good choice. Large, arrow- or heart-shaped leaves bob atop slender stalks, and the range of colors and patterns is nearly limitless. Ranging from brilliant white to the deepest reds, leaves are speckled, veined, and splashed with gorgeous color. They’re hardy plants in warmer zones—9 to 10—but the tubers can be dug and overwintered indoors. Or bring the entire container inside and you’ll be ready for next spring.  

Ornamental grasses grow beautifully in containers, and selections range from petite, tufted mounds—look for fescues and carex—to tall and stately types that can serve as punctuation points or screening on a patio or deck. Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’ and ‘Burgundy Giant’ (purple fountain grass) create fountain-like displays, and Miscanthus sinensis (Japanese silver grass) can provide height and coverage for a large patio. Be sure to investigate the Miscanthus varieties that are least aggressive in your area.  

ELEGANT EVERGREENS

If your containers are frost-proof, they’re ideal for evergreens that can remain on the patio even in the coldest months. They’ll perform beautifully and elegantly throughout the year, but after you’ve brought the furniture inside, a selection of pines and broadleaved plants will maintain their vigor and keep your patio the outside room you’ve worked hard to create.

Buxus (boxwood) is a natural choice, but consider Ilex crenata, too. Holly does well in containers, and some variegated selections will display more than just green leaves.

A plant that’s similar to holly is Mahonia aquifolium—Oregon grape holly. It performs best in a protected area, out of the wind. Rich blue fruit, similar to tiny grapes, are a unique ornamental feature.

For those whose winters are not extreme, selections of Rhododendron and azalea provide greenery that will tide you over until the blossoms emerge in spring.

The collection of needled evergreens that do well in containers is long enough to fill an encyclopedia; there are beautiful pines, firs, spruce, and arborvitae that thrive in pots. So you might want to consider colors: “evergreen” does not always mean green. Some pines and junipers tend to bronze up during the colder months, presenting a beautiful, deep purplish tone. Others remain dramatically blue, such as Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star’, a short plant with steely blue foliage.

For a bit of sunshine on your patio, consider a few of the golden-hued evergreens. Chamaecyparis (false cypress) offers several cultivars with gold, yellow, and yellow-green foliage in feathery fans that dance on the slightest breeze. ‘Aureovariegata’ boasts green foliage with creamy yellow highlights; ‘Golden Sprite’ is a slow-growing choice with dense foliage that has golden-yellow tips and an overall amber hue in winter.

RULES OF THUMB

When you’re planning your long-lasting container gardens, there are a few simple things to keep in mind. Think of them more as guides than strict rules, because one of the joys of creating container gardens is the ability to swap out plants and rearrange the combinations. Following these guides, though, will simplify your project, help to ensure longer-lasting arrangements, and allow you more time to enjoy your patio retreat.   

  • Keep it simple. Don’t overwhelm your container—or the plants you choose—by overplanting. You may love a dozen types of flowers, but planting them all together is recipe for disaster. Limit your containers to combos of three complementary plants, and both you and the plants will be happy. There’s always room for another container.
  • Match sun and watering requirements. The plants you choose for your containers should have similar cultural requirements—for example, don’t plant a sun-loving lavender in the same container as a shade-loving caladium. Likewise, be sure that your companions require the same amount of water.
  • Be careful when combining scents. If you’re creating a container garden to provide your favorite fragrance, make sure the plants you select don’t have competing scents. Choose one and surround it with foliage that will not detract from or mask the desired effect.
  • Combine complementary colors. Some designs call for a clash of color that’s loud and fun and screams for attention. But complementary colors—such as those found opposite each other on the color wheel—are easier on the eye. Or choose variations in the same family, such as gradations of pinks or purples, or even a selection of whites. It’s easier on the blood pressure.