Selecting the Best Plants for Planters

Janet Larkin
Frederick County Master Gardener Program

There are lots of new annuals on the market. Some are common plants that now have varieties with different colored flowers or different colored foliage. Many annuals are now vegetatively propagated instead of grown from seed. This means that the best plants are reproduced and colors and characteristics are true to form. Sadly, this also means that individual plants tend to be more expensive. Most of these newer varieties are grown in 4 to 5 inch pots instead of in smaller market packs. A good way to keep costs down while still enjoying the newer plants is to mix standard old-fashioned plants with exciting new ones. For instance, you can mix hardy, reliable, upright growing begonias, marigolds, salvia, vincas or zinnias with all the newer trailing plants such as bacopa, calibrations (million bells or tiny petunias), scaveola, lantana, or vining torenias.

Or you can keep your standard old planter of geraniums and ivy and just add a chartreuse colored vine to make it new for 2002. You could use Plectranthus coleoides 'Gold Delight', a new color of Swedish Ivy, or Helichrysum 'limelight' or 'variegatum'. I read somewhere that chartreuse is the new neutral. By the way, chartreuse is not pink! It is that yellowy green color of fennel flowers. Other sources of "chartreuse" are the new vinca vine called "illumination", Solanum variegata, which has a vining habit that both trails downward and climbs upward, Lysmachia nummularia 'Aurea', a perennial , and the Bacopa with it's small white flowers , called "gold n' pearls".

This year you will find many vibrant colored plants that have a tropical feel. In fact , many plants that we use in this area as annuals are actually tropical plants that would live year round in a different climate. They thrive in our hot, humid summers. Iresine herbstii is a tropical herb from South America that is the brightest, bright neon red-pink. It will always steal the show.

Also, I'm seeing more and more plantings with foliage as the focal point. Now you can have a colorful planter without having any flowers at all. For instance the old fashioned coleus now has many varieties that would rather be planted in full sun. You will find the word "solar" or "sun" in their names. Colors range from pale, yellowy, lime green to almost black reds and every mixture imaginable. "Ducksfoot" coleus has a lobed leaf that resembles ---you guessed it---a duck's foot! Coleus does produce a spiky purple bloom similar to a basil flower but I like to pinch them off because they distract from the foliage and because the plants get much bushier with fairly frequent pinching back.

If your traditional home can handle it, you might try some type of orange flower mixed with dark reddish foliage such as red fountain grass (pennisetum rubrum), an annual grass that now comes in compact forms that only grow a foot or so tall as well as giant forms that can grow up to 6 feet. Put them in a black container for drama and add a touch of chartreuse and you are miles away from geraniums and ivy!

If you are feeling patriotic why not put red and white flowers in a blue container? Most "blue" flowers are really purple, so find a "true blue" pot or bowl to plant in instead of pretending that pansies or ageratum are blue.

For something different you might try planting a mixture of plants that all need to grow in an unusual environment, such as filling a planter without a drainage hole with all sorts of bog plants. You can't over water them! What could be easier? Many standard nurseries now carry water plants. Bog plants are sometimes labeled as marginal plants. Along those same lines, you could plant a shallow rocky, well drained planter full of alpine, or rock garden plants. Most plants of this type are used to windy, exposed sites and fill in the cracks and grooves of unusual containers. Be sure you group plants with similar cultural requirements together. Don't plant species that always like to be moist in the same container with a plant that likes to dry out between waterings. If you aren't sure, you can always plant individual plants in different planters and group the planters together in an eye pleasing arrangement.

On a basic design note, this year, instead of wild elaborate mixtures of many types of flowers, I'm seeing simpler designs such as a grouping of all the same plant in different sized containers of the same shape, or planters filled with just one color flower instead of three or four different colors. Also, these days you can find interesting shaped or colored pots that are the main attraction. They should be filled with plants that won't compete for attention, such as a simple grass, moss, or evergreen.

Another different approach is to forget the flowers altogether, and plant a tree. Citrus trees have traditionally been planted in containers this far north (George Washington did it), and then they can be brought inside to your "conservatory" during the winter months. Or you can go completely tropical and plant a palm tree in a pot. Many varieties can handle sunlight, but most that you will find have been raised to be interior plants and must be very gradually acclimated to a sunny, outdoor location. You can under plant a tree with a shallow rooted, low, hanging basket-type plant or cover the soil with a fine mulch, gravel, or moss.

Have fun with your container plantings and don't forget to water them! I recommend collected rainwater.

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