May 25, 2018
In the Garden: Contain yourself
Pots and planters are the ideal solution for small outdoor spaces. Here’s how to make the most of them
By Brian Minter
The best way to energize today’s smaller outdoor spaces is through the art of gardening. And the best way to add the beauty and warmth of plants to these diminutive spaces is in containers that make a big impact in a compact size. Here’s what you need to keep in mind before you start a container garden.
Containers must multi-task. They must not only look amazing, but they also need to provide a bit of privacy from our close-by neighbours. It’s even better when they can offer some pollen and nectar to bees and “hummers,” as well as a bit of shelter for birds.
Style is important. Containers accessorize our patios and balconies, and they should be used to create a look that reflects our tastes and fits our lifestyle. Using fewer of the right pots is far more effective than scattering a whole series of unconnected, nondescript pots about our decks.
Bigger is better. Larger pots make a statement. Larger pots also create a critical mass of soil and moisture and make caring for the plants much easier, especially on those very hot summer days. Weight is also a factor. Many of today’s stylish containers are lightweight, especially the new resin, poly and plastic pots, and this can be a stability issue in certain weather conditions. Durability should also be considered.
Soils matter. Lightweight, open and porous soil that drains quickly during heavy rains is essential for containers. At the same time, the soil must have the moisture-retaining properties so critical during the heat of summer. Professional mixes are the way to go. Brands such as Sunshine Mix and Pro-Mix are ready to use. When trees, shrubs or perennials are planted in containers, a one-third portion of coarse matter, such as fine bark mulch or perlite, should be added to the soil mix to allow for excellent drainage through the heavy rains of spring and autumn.
Create art! There’s an old adage familiar to most long-time gardeners: thrillers, fillers and spillers. It’s not far off the mark of where we need to go with our containers. No question, a thrilling focal point is the key to getting the look just right. Tall, narrow conifers like Hinoki gracilis, unique slender Japanese maples and ‘Twombly’s Red Sentinel’ come to mind. For narrow broadleaves, I love the columnar Japanese holly called ‘Sky Pencil.’ Height is important because it adds a vertical element that is so often missing in container plantings.
Fillers rock. I really detest the word “filler” as it suggests that’s all these plants contribute, when in reality, accent plants are the key elements that bring your containers alive. The many new varieties of vibrant heucheras and heucherellas can play a huge role here. Head-turners include deep purples like ‘Forever Purple’ and vibrant yellows like ‘Key Lime Pie,’ as well as the subtle tan-bronze of ‘Sweet Tea’ and the eye-popping red-bronze ‘Fire Alarm.’ Both heucheras and heucherellas are so versatile they can be used in full sun or shade.
I’m a big fan of the euonymus family because of their bright foliage. ‘Moon Shadow’ has quite a sophisticated look, and the new mini-leafed varieties, such as E. microphyllus ‘Butterscotch’ and E. micro variegatus, tuck nicely into containers.
Spillers are spectacular. Now, that’s a great descriptive term. I have a passion for grasses, especially the evergreen carex family, and seeing them tumbling over the edge of a pot is so charming. ‘Evergold’ has been the old standby, but the vibrant lime-yellow of ‘Everillo’ is pure magic. White variegated ‘Everest’ is an interesting option and ‘Evercolor Everoro’ is a more compact variety.
For shady spots it’s hard to beat the Japanese forest grass ‘Hakonechloa.’ The varieties ‘Aureola’ and ‘All Gold’ are my favourites, but a locally discovered new variety, ‘Sun Flare’ has been attracting a lot of attention for its intense yellow leaves tipped with deep crimson. For some lovely flowered spillers, try the beautiful pink or red ‘Dragon Wings’ fibrous begonias. Being trialled this year is the new yellow foliaged ‘Canary Wings.’ It should be spectacular.
As patios warm up this summer, you’ll need some heat lovers like canna lilies. The yellow striped ‘Pretoria,’ the red-bronze-striped ‘Tropicana’ and the rich, almost black ‘Australia’ will give you a rich palette to anchor your pots. To echo these colours, lesser-known alternantheras such as ‘Party Time,’ ‘True Yellow’ and ‘Brazilian Hots’ will provide a vibrant pop of drama.
The new heat-loving coleus are amazing. The Dummen Orange Company has developed a series of blended colours that look truly sophisticated. Its Main Street series are among the best. For single accents, ‘Main Street Dutch Mill Drive’ and ‘River Walk’ are stunning.
Not to be outdone, the many new varieties of sweet potato vine not only love heat, but also perform beautifully until fall. Coming in shades of hot lime, bronze and almost black, they offer much to any sun-loving container. They are also now available in compact forms.
Monochromatics are powerful. All-white containers are particularly dramatic. Using silver foliage with white flowering accent plants creates a very classy combination.
Years ago, I conducted garden tours to Japan and during those visits I gained a deep appreciation of the colour green. For shady locations in need of a very quiet, restful container, a subtle mix of ferns will help create that peaceful ambience.
With a long summer season ahead, beautiful containers will make all the difference for enjoying patio time with friends and family . . . or even for you alone.