Tips on Growing Perennials and Woody Plants in Containers

Hostas, maidenhair fern, ornamental grasses of many kinds, dwarf varieties of lillies, and many climbers make for dramatic container plants.

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

“Favourite plants, isolated from others for better viewing and enjoyment, can be wonderful. Hostas look very dramatic in containers. Similarly, maidenhair fern (Adiantum pedatum) is glorious in a pot, as is Schizostylis coccinea, which flowers for weeks and weeks in a container.” – Therese D’Monte Ornamental grasses are excellent in containers. Try sedum, blue fescue, northern sea oats, black mondo grass or switch grass. Dwarf varieties of lilies can easily be grown in containers. Not only do they look lovely, they fill the air with wonderful fragrance. Good drainage and a loam-based soil are imperative. For optimal effect, plant bulbs 15 cm (6″) deep and 15 cm (6″) apart. Keep them well watered during the growing season. Beautiful climbers like clematis can be grown in containers. Use a large wooden barrel or a container that is at least 60 cm (24″) deep and 45 cm (18″) wide. Ensure your container has extra drainage holes and fill it with a good soil-based medium. Fill the pot to within 10 cm (4″) of the rim to allow for the addition of a layer of mulch in spring. Clematis suitable for container cultivation include:

  • C. alpina
  • C. macropetala
  • C. ‘Doctor Ruppel’
  • C. ‘Vyvyan Pennell’
  • C. ‘Miss Bateman’
  • C. ‘H.F. Young’
  • When creating a perennial miniature garden, keep these basics in mind:
  • Most miniature plants dislike being uprooted, so design your container in advance.
  • Include some dwarf evergreens in your container planting as “anchors” to ensure winter interest (Consult with nursery staff to obtain the right dwarf species/variety.)
  • Select miniature perennials that bloom in succession from spring to fall.
  • Avoid aggressively spreading plants.
  • Fertilize sparingly.

For your container perennial miniature garden, consider the following plant selections:

  • Dwarf Evergreens
  • Abies -fir, various slow-growing miniatures
  • Chamaecyparius -false cypress, various slow-growing miniatures
  • Picea glauca, P. abies -spruce, various slow-growing miniatures
  • Pinus mugo ssp. pumilio, P. sylvestris ‘Perkeo’ -pine
  • Juniperus squamata, J. horizontalis ‘Glauca’ -juniper

Easy Dwarf Perennials Alchemilla alpina, A. ellenbeckii -lady’s mantle Antennaria dioica -pussytoes (cat’s foot) Aquilegia caerulea, A. flabellata -columbine Armeria caespitosa -thrift Artemisia schmidtiana ‘Nana’ -wormwood Dianthus alpinus, D. gratianopolitanus -pink Erica -heather, many dwarf varieties, colours and blooming periods Euphorbia myrsinites -spurge Gentiana acaulis -gentian Geranium subcaulesence -cranesbill Iris crestata -crested iris Leontopodium alpinum -edelweiss Phlox douglasii -phlox Pratia angulata -white star creeper Primula auricula -primrose Saxifraga aizoon, S. callosa, S. cotyledon -saxifrage Sedum acre, S. kamschaticum, S. spathulifolium, S. spurium -stonecrop Sempervivum -hens and chicks, esp. varieties with large rosettes Solidago minutissima -golden rod Thymus serphyllum -thyme – Ingeborg van Driel, GardenWise Magazine writer A trough garden is the perfect way to experience the delicate beauty of alpines. You can make your own lightweight version of the stone farm troughs originally used in these miniature gardens. All you need is a styrofoam cooler, plywood, 1-cm (1/2″) wooden dowelling, nails, sand, peat and cement.

  1. First, nail 5-cm (2″) pieces of dowelling to the bottom of the cooler. These will create drainage holes in your trough.
  2. Invert the styrofoam cooler (without its lid) over a piece of plywood that is a bit wider all around. Build a four-sided frame of plywood, making it at least 2.5 cm (1″) wider than the cooler’s widest point and 4 to 5 cm (1.5″ to 2″) taller than the cooler. In a large plastic pail, mix together 2 parts sharp sand, 2 parts sieved peat and 2 parts cement (a mixture called hypertufa). Pour the mixture into the space between the cooler and the plywood frame, making sure that there is at least a 2.5-cm (1″) thickness of hypertufa at the top (which will eventually form the bottom of your trough). However, do not cover the ends of the dowels with hypertufa. Allow the trough to set for at least a week before removing it from the frame.
  3. Pay attention to the needs of the plants that will call your trough home. Full sun suits most, but create shade for the tender plants using a few well-placed rocks. Remember the corners and use plants that will cascade. Dwarf shrubs and conifers are a must for a focal point, creating height in flatter areas. Visit VanDusen’s trough garden for more ideas.

– Carolyn Jones, GardenWise Magazine writer and photographer