Patio containers

Credit: Brand X Pictures/Home and Garden/Alison Miksch

Four-season perennial patio container

The only limitation to keeping colour on the patio all year is the size and number of your containers!

There are two schools of thought when it comes to year-round container colour. The first, and most common, is to select one or more “woody” plants – small trees or shrubs – that will provide structure, then surround this feature plant with annuals and perennials that will display colour throughout the seasons. The second is to use a combination of plants that look great at various times of the year.

In the first instance, start with a focal point such as a Camellia japonica cultivar or Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella.’ Both are broadleaf evergreens that look attractive all year and provide seasonal interest – the camellia with its late-winter or spring blossoms and the skimmia, which transforms from small pink flowers to bright-red berries in early spring. These evergreens could be under-planted with Vinca minor (periwinkle) or Lamium galeobdolon ‘Hermann’s Pride’ (silver nettle), two evergreens that produce small flowers in spring and summer, respectively. To add even more colour to this shade-loving combination, a splash of impatiens will keep the container looking cheerful all summer.

An alternate choice could be to use a small tree such as Acer palmatum ‘Red Pygmy’ or ‘Shaina.’ These cutleaf Japanese maples remain fairly small and provide colourful foliage in the fall. Surround them with spring-flowering bulbs, flowering annuals in the summer, pansies in winter. For a more tropical look, I’d suggest Trachycarpus fortunei (windmill palm) or Phormium (New Zealand flax). The palm is fine on its own, but the Phormium is eye-catching when complemented with ornamental grasses.

If you prefer to plant your containers with a selection of perennials, the following would look spectacular at various times throughout the year. Start with Helleborus orientalis (Lenten rose) for winter foliage and blossoms; plant a few Galanthus nivalis (snowdrops) and they will peek their heads through the foliage and flower in early spring; then a Heuchera ‘Palace Purple’ for showy late-spring and summer foliage. To keep the container looking great all summer, I would add Geranium ‘Johnson’s Blue’ and Coreopsis verticillata ‘Moonbeam’ for their long-lasting blossoms and light, lacy foliage. You’d need a half-barrel to hold all of these suggestions, so with a smaller container you may want to pick only your favourites.

In our photograph, we show another variation of using perennials for a four-season show. The feature plant is Phormium tenax (New Zealand flax), one of the showy bronze cultivars. Hardy to zone 8, this plant needs protection from frost in colder zones. Winter interest comes from a white-flowering Erica carnea (winter heath) and pansies. In spring, the ajuga will produce brilliant foliage in hues of green and bronze, with the dark-leaf heuchera adding more contrasting colour. Summer colours and bright foliage would come from Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ (golden Japanese forest grass), Rudbeckia (black-eyed susan) and a splash of blue from wild rye.