Hot Pots for a Dramatic Touch

Whether you're out of room in your garden or only have a balcony for space, container gardening is a great solution. Here, Sharon Hanna gives the scoop on various types of containers and the plants they will hold.

Credit: Heritage Perennials

Above: From Proven Winners (left): Bracteantha ‘Sundaze Flame’; Coleus ‘Dappled Apple’; Coleus ‘Pineapple’; Hedera ‘Yellow Ripple’ zone 5; Lysimachia ‘Walkabout Sunset’ zone 4; Pennisetum ‘Red Riding Hood’

Some who garden in containers have limited space – balconies or patios attached to condos, townhouses and apartments.

From Netherlands Bulb Centre (right): Yellow Lilium (Asiatic lily) ‘Connecticut King’ zone 3; Colocasia esculenta (taro) ‘Black Magic’ zone 9; Alocasia (elephant’s ear) zone 10 From Proven Winners (above right): Ageratum (flossflower) ‘Artist Blue’; Coleus ‘LifeLime’; Lysimachia (creeping jenny) ‘Goldilocks’ zone 4; Petunia ‘Supertunia Lavender Morn’; inset: Ageratum ‘Artist Blue’ (Plants are hardy to the zones indicated.) Also from Proven Winners: Argyranthemum ‘Butterfly’; Supertunia ‘Royal Velvet’; Superbena ‘Dark Blue’; Nemesia sunsatia ‘Lemon’; Phormium in background Tall blue container from Heritage Perennials. Counter-clockwise: Artemisia ludoviciana ‘Valerie Finnis’ zone 4; Rumex sanguineus var. sanguineus zone 6; Echevarria; Glechoma hederacea ‘Variegata’ zone 10; Heuchera ‘Stormy Seas’ zone 3; Panicum ‘Prairie Sky’ zone 4; Lychnis coronaria zone 5; Cimicifuga ‘Black Beauty’ zone 3; Echinacea purpurea zone 3; Tradescantia ‘Concord Grape’ zone 4 From Proven Winners (left): Clockwise: Nemesia ‘Blue Bird’; Mecardonia ‘Gold Flake’; Salvia ‘Icterine’; Bracteantha ‘Bronze’; Acorus ‘Ogon’

Others of us have established gardens but no more room for those new plants we can’t live without, such as the irresistible new tulips that arrive in stores each fall, so we also garden in containers – on walkways, stairs or any other unoccupied surface. Not to mention that a container can help protect a prize Delphinium from ravenous spring slugs. Classic terra cotta adapts to most garden styles, and clay pots allow roots to breathe. On the negative side, large pots weigh a ton even when empty, and freeze-thaw cycles can damage them. Imported terra cotta from Europe is durable and more expensive; less expensive Mexican clay can be short-lived. Clay pots also need frequent watering in hot summers. An alternative is lightweight imitation clay pots, including pricey ones guaranteed to last. Wood containers come in all shapes, sizes and prices but may not suit a more formal style. Choose light-coloured containers for growing in full sun. Dark ones absorb light and plant roots will boil or bake. Zinc and other metallic pots are now widely available; just ensure there are lots of drainage holes. Metal, especially if it’s dark-coloured, gets really hot, so use a plain plastic pot as a liner. Garage sales and thrift stores offer whimsy at bargain prices: old copper boxes with wooden handles, antique potties, grandpa’s old work boots. You can use almost anything to contain plants. If there are no drainage holes, drill some or keep the containers out of the weather and water sparingly – where there’s a will, there’s a way. Ornately decorated pots suit one lone specimen shrub or small tree. If a container seems overly decorative, bottom-heavy or just wrong, let the plants do the talking. Draw attention away from the pot by keeping the planting simple. Use one of a myriad trailing plants, such as lobelia, ivy or creeping jenny, that grow quickly to camouflage unsuitable pots. For lovers of blue, a good choice is Veronica ‘Georgia Blue’, which forms a draping mat covered in small gentian-blue flowers. Are your pots worn and slightly chipped? Don’t worry – this gives them character, and that happens to be in vogue at the moment. Alpine trough from Heritage Perennials (front row from left to right): Potentilla tonguei zone 5; Sedum ‘Angelina’ zone 3; Sempervivum hybrid; Sedum oreganum zone 5; back row from left to right: Hypericum calycinum ‘Brigadoon’ zone 6; Carex buchananii zone 6 What about those huge containers that could double as bathtubs? Planted up, they become immovable behemoths. Fill those giants half-full or more with crushed Styrofoam egg cartons, plastic chips from packing crates, upside-down plastic pots, balled-up newspaper or even the leaves raked up in fall. I used this technique with a half-barrel. Top the leaves with a sprinkle of bone meal and lime, fill with soil, and plant. Presto – your leaves don’t have to be carted away and they break down over time. Container soil (or soil-less) mixes are available at garden centres. Or look for sandy blends often sold as landscaping soil. Avoid using large quantities of garden soil, kitchen compost or manure. If you use them, lighten by half with perlite, grit and sand. Heavy winter and early-spring rains will make overly rich soil soggy, and woody plant material (shrubs and trees, especially conifers) must have excellent drainage. Place a coffee filter, fine plastic mesh wire or newspaper over drainage holes to keep soil from falling out. Drainage is assisted by raising pots; buy pot “feet” or use a couple of bricks. Feeding is the key to thriving, gorgeous containers. Plant roots cannot obtain nutrients from surrounding soil, so this is your job! Time-release fertilizers are great, releasing nutrients over the whole season. Add an occasional feed of half-strength liquid fertilizer to avoid over-fertilizing, which can burn plants. Use the pictured plant groupings for gorgeous patio pots. Or create your own combinations. Always partner plants with similar requirements for drainage and nutrients. Generally, woody perennials are fine with woody shrubs, but not so good mixed with vegetables. Veggies are fine with annuals as pot-mates. Containers need not languish during winter. Try evergreen Sarcococca (sweet box) – it blooms sweetly early in the year and it’s deer resistant too. Jasminum nudiflorum (winter jasmine) is another early bloomer, and Hamamaelis (witch hazel) ‘Sunburst’ or ‘Arnold Promise’ are both bright yellow and guaranteed to brighten your patio or front steps. Viburnum bodnantense offers sweet-scented pink blooms in late winter. Leucothoe ‘Rainbow’ or red cultivars look great in pots too, edged with red-berried Gaultheria (wintergreen). Shrubs/small trees are offered at nurseries in one-gallon pots at reasonable prices. They’ll be happy for a few seasons, then will need to be root-pruned or transplanted to a larger container. Don’t forget about fall-planted bulbs: Chionodoxa (glory of the snow) and Galanthus (snowdrops) add life in late winter, and you can never have too many tulips, can you? Achieve fullness by overplanting – less is not more when it comes to containers. Large containers are uncomfortable with three tiny Primula tucked in. The height of the container should be at least half the height of the tallest plant. The general rule is to plant something tall, something full/round/blowsy and something trailing. But the main thing is to put plants together that make you feel good every time you see your creation. Sharon Hanna works at Murray Nurseries in Southlands and directs the garden program at Queen Alexandra School.