If the dark days of December have you pining for flowers, foliage, and fragrance, might we suggest some trailing begonias? These fibrous-rooted members of the Begonia tribe include dozens of evergreen species and varieties that burst into aromatic bloom during midwinter. Bless their hearts.
Brazilian Heart Begonia
Blessed indeed are the apple-green, heart-shaped leaves and aromatic white flowers of Brazilian heart begonia (Begonia solananthera), one of the best of the group. As with all trailing begonias, the fleshy foliage and butterflied blooms are borne on lax stems that will cascade picturesquely from a hanging basket or scramble up a mini-trellis or other support. Give Begonia solananthera a warm, bright, partly shaded nook, and it will put on a floral show from December into spring, perfuming the surroundings with its spicy fragrance. An easy keeper, it thrives in porous potting mixes rich in composted bark such as Fafard Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed. Trailing begonias sulk when over-watered, so hold off until the soil surface is dry.
Begonia solananthera has also parented some wonderful hybrids. For example, it teamed with an unknown companion at the venerable Logee’s Greenhouses in Danielson, Connecticut, to produce the outstanding cultivar ‘Potpourri’. This 1984 introduction incorporates all the trademark solananthera features with one notable exception: luscious rose-pink flowers. It blooms a bit later than the species, typically from January into April. Also well worth seeking out is the solananthera hybrid ‘Tiny Gem’. Although its bright pink flowers lack spiciness, they amply compensate by reblooming year-round, in masses. The relatively short stems cascade to a foot or so rather than the 2 to 3 feet typical of Begonia solananthera.
Many trailing hybrids with Begonia solananthera in their lineage also carry the genes of shrimp begonia (Begonia radicans), commonly named due to the curiously-shaped buds of its salmon-pink flowers. The cultivar ‘Fragrant Beauty‘ wafts a solanatheran perfume from its pale-pink flowers but resembles its radicans parent in its lance-shaped leaves. Another excellent solananthera/radicans hybrid is ‘Splotches’, named for the silvery mottling on its tapered foliage. It covers itself with pink and white flowers in late winter and early spring, at about the same time as ‘Potpourri’ and ‘Fragrant Beauty’.
Other Trailing Begonias
Several additional trailing begonia species and cultivars make rewarding winter-blooming houseplants. Begonia convolvulacea is among the biggest and boldest of them, developing long 3-foot-plus stems set with broad glossy prominently lobed leaves that earn it the nickname “grape begonia”. White flowers appear in large branching clusters in late winter. The similar but smaller Begonia glabra climbs readily via clinging hairs, although it can also be grown as a trailer. It’s one of the parents of ‘Orococo’, another clinger noted for its copper-tinged, ivy-like leaves and white winter flowers. More diminutive is Begonia fagifolia, whose botanical name references the supposed beech-like appearance of its small fleshy oval leaves. This dainty evergreen is adorned in late winter with sprays of white flowers.
Other random cultivars of note include ‘Panasoffkee’, a bodacious thing with bold angel-wing-like leaves on stems that trail to 7 or 8 feet. The white midwinter flowers contrast beautifully with the glossy dark green, burgundy-backed foliage. The similarly angel-wing-shaped leaves of the cultivar ‘Withlacoochee’ are smaller and felted with gray fuzz. An excellent subject for a large terrarium, it creeps or trails into a 2- to 3-foot-wide clump, covered in winter with white flowers that often repeat at other seasons.
Like most plants, trailing begonias aren’t perfect. Almost all of them benefit from an occasional pinching to encourage denser, branching growth. Additionally, their profuse bloom eventually results in a flurry of fallen petals, so you’ll want to site them accordingly. Give them what they need, and these cascading beauties will give your spirits a bright boost this winter.
You have purchased your pot, invested in potting soil, planted up your plants, and your container garden is well underway. In the cool of late spring, as container plants are rooting in, there are few stresses to disrupt your plantings. But, as plants grow and the summer heat ramps up, lots can go wrong. Here are tips for getting it all right.
The first half of successful container planting starts in the planning stages, by choosing the right pots, plants, soil, and fertilizer. The second half is knowing what to do to keep your container gardens looking great. Here are our top ten tips for container care from start to finish.
Pre-Planting Container Garden Tips
Choose the right pot – Large containers made of the right materials helps plants grow more happily through summer. Big pots hold more water, provide more root space, and remain cooler to encourage good growth through the hottest summer days. Pots made of water-impermeable materials, such as stone, glazed ceramic, plastic, or resin, hold water better. TerraCotta and porous cement pots wick water away from roots because they are porous, so they are better suited to drought-tolerant plants or succulents. Containers that are light in color are better for sunny plantings because they reflect the heat of the sun. Pots must drain well and have a saucer, internal reservoir, or basin to capture excess water. Those with a self-watering base must have an overflow hole to protect against the possibility of overwatering.
3. Choose the right plantsand numbers. Will you place your containers on a sunny patio or window box, shaded porch, or bright, windy veranda? Is your summer climate hot and dry or mild and cool? The plants you choose must grow well in their destined location and in your local climate. Gardeners planting for sun must choose heat and drought-tolerant plants (click here for a list of Waterwise container plants), while shade-loving plants such as Begonia, Browallia, Impatiens, Torenia, and ferns are good choices for pots in partial to full shade (click here to learn more about growing Torenia). Consider the final size of each plant when designing containers, and do not overstuff the pots. Crowded plants compete for space, light, water, and nutrients, which causes them stress. Before planting, read about your plant’s needs and space them properly to ensure their best performance.
4. Choose the right fertilizer. Gardeners with little time should choose an all-purpose slow- or continuous-release fertilizer to apply at planting time. Vegetable and fruit containers should be fed with plant food specially formulated for edibles. Water-soluble plant food can give plants an extra boost to encourage renewed growth and flowering midseason–particularly after plants have been trimmed and deadheaded.
6. Know when and how to water. Good watering technique is all about common sense. Most garden flowers like lightly moist soil. If the soil is too wet for too long root rot will occur. If it’s too dry for too long plants will begin to wilt and die. When conditions are sunny, dry, hot, and breezy, plants use and lose more water (drawn up through their roots and lost through their leaves) and need more water. Likewise, when it has been rainy, cool, and still the need for water is reduced. Feel the soil before you water to determine if more is needed. If it is needed, irrigate until it flows from the bottom of the pot to ensure all the roots get moist.
7. Know when to fertilize. Slow- or continuous-release fertilizer formulated for flowers makes feeding easy because applications are needed every few months, depending on the product. Apply at planting time and then as directed. Water-soluble fertilizer will encourage further flowering and growth during the height of summer. Containers also need a boost of water-soluble food after they have been trimmed back in mid- to late-summer. Proven Winners offers both a premium continuous-release and water-soluble fertilizer that we recommend for flower-filled containers.
8. Know if and when to prune and deadhead plants. To maintain any plant properly, read about its care. Some flowering plants are self-cleaning, such as sweet alyssum, Supertunia petunias, and Profusion Zinnias, while others, such as old-fashioned petunias and dahlias, need to have their old blooms removed to make way for new. Old-fashioned petunias, calibrachoa, and verbenas can become leggy, less productive, or overtake the pot as the summer wanes. Cutting the old stems back can rejuvenate growth and flowering for fall.
9. Know if and when to replace seasonal flowers. The pansies and stocks of spring often die back in the heat of summer and need replacement with warm-season summer flowers. Summer annuals that begin to look tired by early fall, like marigolds or traditional petunias, should also be replaced with seasonal pansies, peppers, or ornamental kale to keep containers looking great. (Click here to learn more about container gardening with ornamental peppers.) Don’t be afraid to replace struggling annuals when they start to visually bring a container down.
10. Know how to overwinter pots. Be sure you choose the right pots if you want to overwinter containers outdoors (click here to read about overwintering containers). If your pots contain small shrubs or perennials, place them in a protected spot. Seasonal containers can be placed in a garage, basement, or under a dry porch where they will not become damaged by the freezing and thawing of winter.
Once you have the basics down, monitor your containers, protect them from pests and diseases, give them good care, and they will reward you with season-long beauty.
More and more large, vertical planters are being designed for big harvests of vegetables and small fruits. Creative gardeners are even coming up with clever ways to create their own mega edible container gardens. Here are some of the better products and ideas, ranging from inexpensive make-your-own containers to state-of-the-art vertical gardens that perform well at a range of costs.
If you like attractive gardens made from natural materials, then this is the vertical planter for you. The Gronomics Vertical Garden (32x45x9) is made in the USA from 100% western cedar and has a footprint of just2 square feet. Simply fill it with a quality potting mix, such as Fafard Natural & Organic Potting Mix, and begin planting. The garden contains its own drip irrigation system for easy watering. Apply a continuous-release fertilizer formulated for vegetables at planting time.
The Gronomics Vertical Garden is best suited for growing greens, herbs, strawberries, and small root vegetables. The top planter is perfect for growing bush beans (as shown in the image).
The Garden Tower® is a dual composter and soil-based vegetable garden tower that can accommodate up to 50 plants in just a 4-square-foot growing space. The system is watered from the top down and features a nutrient-tea drawer at the base, which catches fertile water for redistribution in the system. The Garden Tower has lots of room for root growth, which allows deep-rooting plants, like bush tomatoes, to grow well. Fill it with Fafard N&O. Gardeners growing greens should consider also mixing in some Fafard Garden Manure Blend, which is naturally high in nitrogen. It is made in the USA of high-purity HDPE plastic and has a 5-year manufacturer’s warranty.
Just fill it with soil and plant! It is as easy as that. The modular Greenstalk® Stackable planter allows gardeners to raise it to various heights with its stackable segments. The planter is made in the USA and constructed from thick, UV-resistant polypropylene plastic (BPA, BPS & PVC-free), so it is long-lasting. One nice feature is the trickle-down watering well at the top that allows for easy irrigation and fertilization with a water-soluble fertilizer.
DIY Vertical Gardens
Creative gardeners have come up with economical DIY methods for vertical vegetable gardening. One popular method is creating pallet gardens, which are safe and inexpensive as long as they are constructed from untreated wood. Simply place the pallets upright, or affix them to a wall, fill them with growing media, and plant. Just find out whether the wood is pressure-treated before creating these gardens because treated wood contains heavy metals, which can leach into the soil and be taken up by vegetables. (Click here for a guide for identifying pressure-treated wood.)
Other gardeners transform everything from traditional baskets to hanging baskets and plastic tubs into makeshift vertical gardens. As long as you can provide the with planter good support, it drains well, and it holds enough soil for strong root growth, your vertical garden scheme should work.
So many other materials can be used. Something as simple as a strong, tall tomato cage lined with mulch cloth (or burlap liner) and filled with quality potting mix and compost, such as Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost Blend, can create an outstanding structure for growing vegetables. To learn how to make one, watch this Black Gold video!
When spring is in the air gardeners want to get planting, and there’s nothing like the fast burst of color that spring annuals bring to containers. They boost bulb plantings and spring-flowering shrubs with an extra pop of pizazz. Place them on a porch, patio, or beside your front door to enliven your senses and home’s curb appeal.
As spring container gardening becomes more popular, the variety of pretty flowers for the job grows. Here are eight of the best that thrive in the cool weather of the spring season. Some are old favorites and some are newer types worth trying. Those that can tolerate light frosts are noted. All prefer full to partial sunlight. Plant them in pots of fresh Fafard® Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed, which feeds plants for up to 6 months, for best performance.
Old-fashioned pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis) look a bit like traditional marigolds with their single and double daisies of orange or gold, but unlike classic marigolds, they like cool weather. These flowers are easily started from seed in spring. Plant them indoors (click here to learn how), or simply sprinkle some seeds into an outdoor pot filled with quality potting mix, like Fafard Professional Potting Mix, cover them lightly, keep them moist, and watch them sprout and grow to blooming-size in a flash. The brilliant orange, double-flowered‘Neon’ is a fun choice that reaches 2 feet, and the shorter Kablouna Lemon has frilled, bright yellow flowers.
Commonly called twinspur (Diascia hybrids), this easy annual enjoys cool, spring weather and becomes covered with colorful spurred flowers. The blooms attract bees and hummingbirds and come in shades of pink, apricot, salmon, and rose. The variety My Darling Berryis particularly high performing and has berry-pink blooms and a bushy, low-growing habit that reaches one foot. The delicate ‘Apricot Queen’ has a more trailing habit and soft, apricot-pink blooms. Twinspur is somewhat frost-hardy.
Trailing lobelia (Lobelia erinus) is a classic, heavy flowering annual that thrives in cooler temperatures. The blooms are small and numerous and come in various shades of violet-blue, purple, rose, and white. It does not favor frost, so plant it in mid-spring when the threat has passed. Plant it along container edges to make the most of its cascading habit. The varieties in the Laguna® series, such as the deepest blue-flowered Laguna® Dark Blue, are very high performing. They can continue flowering into summer with good care but must be watered regularly and protected from the full, hot sun.
Nemesias (Nemesia hybrids) are fragrant, big bloomers with low, somewhat trailing habits. They come in a riot of brilliant colors, such as bright orange, pink, red, yellow, and white, that really light up containers. They tend to favor the cooler growing conditions of spring or fall, but those in Proven Winner’s Sunsatia® series can tough it out through summer if protected from the hot afternoon sun and planted in a well-drained mix and given plenty of water. The orange and red Sunsatia® Blood Orange is a real standout as is the award-winning Sunsatia® Aromance™ Pink, which has delicately colored blooms of mauve-pink, white, and yellow.
African daisy hybrids (Osteospermum hybrids) are derived from species that originate from the South African Cape, where weather conditions are mild and comparable to those in the Mediterranean. The plants bloom nonstop in spring and will continue into summer with good care. For a sunny show, add the 14-inch Lemon Symphony to a spring pot. Its large daisies are lemon yellow with a ring of purple around the eye. Lovers of pink should go for the 12-inch-tall Bright Lights™ Berry Rose, which has large daisies of the brightest pink. Plant African daisies after frosts have passed.
Wonderful fragrance and nonstop flowers are the high points of sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima), which thrives in both cool weather and hot. It becomes covered with clusters of tiny, four-petaled flowers of white, purple, or pink that just keep going. It is sold at any garden center in spring, generally in inexpensive four or six packs. Spring classics include the low, spreaders in the Easter Bonnet series, which may have purple, pink, or white flowers. Sweet alyssum is tolerant of light frost and mixes well with just about any container combo.
Classic stocks (Matthiola incana) are made for spring. The powerfully sweet fragrance of their pink, red, purple, white, or yellow flowers make them perfect for door-side pots. The plants thrive in cool weather and can even tolerate some frost, so they can be planted early. Look for these at your favorite garden center. Double-flowered forms are showiest. Once the summer heat hits, stocks tend to fade, but they can be planted again in fall.
Viola and Pansy
Pansies and violas (Viola hybrids) are everyone’s favorite spring annuals for containers and garden edges. They are very tolerant of frosts and bloom endlessly in cool weather with their funny whiskered, flat-faced flowers. Those with the biggest show are smaller-flowered forms, like the violas in the Sorbet series. They produce loads and loads of smaller flowers in many pastel colors that really produce up until early summer. Lovers of large-flowered pansies should look for packs of vigorous Delta pansies with many buds and bushy growth. Pull them once they begin to die back and plant them again in fall containers.
Mix and match these flowers in your front pots for personal enjoyment and to wow your neighbors. They’re the best way to reign in spring.
There are lots of reasons to grow shrubs in containers. You may have a small garden or no garden at all. The only sunny spot on your property may be covered with concrete, or your soil may be so poor that even poison ivy fails to thrive. Then again, your “garden” space may be a porch, terrace or balcony. Perhaps you have acres of space but want distinctive potted garden accents. Whatever the reason, container gardening is in vogue, with the selection of beautiful, small shrubs and landscape pots at an all-time high.
Why Compact Shrubs?
Breeders are riding the container-gardening trend, producing compact versions of many of the most popular shrubs. But, don’t assume that words like “compact”, “miniature” or “dwarf” are synonymous with a “manageable size.” The compact version of an 8-foot shrub may still be 5 feet tall—too big for many containers. Always check plant tags and reference sources for the mature size of any plant before purchase.
Most small shrubs can flourish in containers that are between 18 and 24 inches wide and equally deep. If you live in a cold-weather climate, and the containers are going to stay out all winter, avoid thin ceramic or terra cotta pots, which will crack in very cold weather. Heavy, high-fired, glazed ceramic pots as well as metal, plastic, and resin containers won’t crack. (Click here to learn more about the best containers to overwinter outdoors.)
So, commit to container-grown shrubs. Pick your favorite shrub species, and do a little research to find small varieties. Attention to cultural requirements—sun or shade, drought-tolerant or moisture-loving—will prepare you to enter the universe of compact shrubs for containers. The following are a few of the better shrub options for the task.
Compact Evergreen Shrubs
For lovely rounded shape, it is hard to beat Anna’s Magic Ball arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis Anna’s Magic Ball®, USDA Hardiness Zones 3-7, 10-15 inches). Thriving in sunny spots, the Proven Winners’ plant boasts soft, almost ferny evergreen foliage that holds its color through the winter. At maturity, it tops out at around a foot tall and wide. Another rounded specimen, Wee Willie Korean boxwood (Buxus sinica var. insularis Wee Willie®, Zones 5-9, 2 feet tall and wide), has all the boxwood virtues—neat rounded appearance and fine green leaves, plus manageable dimensions. A pair of potted Korean boxwoods look wonderful framing an sunny or partially sunny entrance. For something a little less formal and a little bluer, try the sun-loving Blue Star juniper (Juniperus squamata ‘Blue Star’, Zones 4-8, 2-3 feet tall by 3-4 feet wide). Another sun lover, it has textural foliage of dusty blue-green.
Cavatine andromeda(Pieris japonica ‘Cavatine’, Zones 5-8, 2-3 feet tall and wide) combines small size with a floriferous habit and evergreen nature. The prolific spring bloomer covers itself with honey-scented bells and performs well in light shade.
Compact Shrubs Full of Flowers
Flowering shrubs grown in containers give great garden value, and it’s easy to find old favorites in smaller sizes. Rhododendron lovers can rejoice in Ginny Gee rhododendron(Rhododendron ‘Ginny Gee’, Zones 5-8, 1-2 feet tall and wide), a pink-and-white flowered beauty perfect for containers. The leaves are dark green and small, and the habit is dense. Like most rhodies, ‘Ginnie Gee’ flourishes in light shade.
Hydrangea breeders have extended the range of offerings of this popular shrub and one of the best is Invincibelle® Wee White hydrangea(Hydrangea arborescens Invincibelle® Wee White, Zones 3-9, 1-2.5 feet tall and wide ). This early summer bloomer pumps out pink, globe-shaped flowerheads that age to white. Unlike older hydrangea varieties, Invincibelle® Wee White also flowers on new woods, so blooms appear throughout the growing season. Give it full sun to partial shade, good potting soil, and regular moisture.
There are plenty of little butterfly bushes (Buddleia hybrids) to attract all kinds of garden pollinators, whether the shrubs are in-ground or in containers. Lo & Behold®Blue Chip Jr. butterfly bush(Buddleia Lo & Behold® Blue Chip Jr., Zones 5-9, 1.5-2.5 feet tall and wide ) features deep blue-purple flowers that bloom in mid-summer and beyond. All Junior requires is a sunny spot and don’t self-sow prolifically, like standard buddleia.
Container gardeners can also cultivate wonderful rose gardens full of color and scent. Patio roses boast all the winning qualities of their larger relatives in smaller packages. Some of the newest and best are all of the colorful, compact landscape roses in the Oso Easy ® Series. The double-pink-flowered Oso Easy®Strawberry Crush (Zones 4-9, 2-3 feet ) andyellow-double-flowered Oso Easy®Lemon Zest (Zones 4-9, 2-3 feet) are both effortlessly beautiful high performers.
Or you could consider an English patio rose. The rose-red, repeat flowering Sophy’s Rose (Zones 5-11, 4 feet) is the largest size one would consider for a container rose. James L. Austin (Zones 5-11, 4 feet), with its large, fully double flowers of fuchsia pink, is another good choice. Those wanting a less demanding color should consider the highly fragrant, palest yellow, double rose Vanessa Bell(Zones 5-11, 3 feet).
Colorful Leaves for Extended Interest
Container-grown shrubs, like their in-ground relations, can be the workhorses of the garden, providing interest in multiple seasons. The leaves of the southern favorite dwarf variegated aucuba(Aucuba japonica ‘Variegata Nana’, Zones 6-10, 4 feet tall and 2-4 feet wide) are dark green splashed with gold, lighting up the garden. This shrub is best in a large pot placed in partial shade to full sun.
Lil Miss Sunshine® Bluebeard (Caryopteris x clandonensis L’il Miss Sunshine, Zones 5-9, 2-3 feet) is a stunner, sporting golden-green leaves and azure blue flowers in late summer. Grown in full sun, this sunshiny plant will provide interest throughout the growing season.
Compact fruit-bearing shrubs are also gaining momentum, and the little blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries in the Bushel and Berry® series have quite a following. One to try isBushel and Berry® Peach Sorbet blueberry (Vaccinium Bushel and Berry® Peach Sorbet, Zones 5-10, 1.5 feet tall and 2 feet wide ). The leaves attract attention, ripening from peachy-pink to green and eventually turning red in the fall. Bell-shaped white flowers appear in spring, followed by blueberries in early summer. Supply full to partial sun, fertile acidic soil, regular water, fertilize and blueberry harvests are guaranteed.
Raspberry lovers can rejoice in Bushel and Berry®Raspberry Shortcake® (Rubus Raspberry Shortcake®, Zones 4-9, 2-3 feet tall and wide). Single, white, spring flowers give way to big red raspberries. The canes are also thornless, which will please raspberry pickers. Like most other fruiting plants, Raspberry Shortcake ® produces best in full sun.
A Few Words About Culture
Success with shrubs in containers starts with the right pot. Make sure it is three times wider than the plant’s root ball and contains drainage holes at the bottom and a saucer to catch water. When you have matched a shrub to a container, fill the container with a quality potting mix, like Fafard® Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed that feeds plants for up to 6 months. The addition of a continuous-release fertilizer will help plants grow their best.
At planting time, make sure the plant’s roots are not pot bound and intertwined when you remove it from the container. If they are, gently loosen them. Make sure the final soil level is 2 inches below the rim of the container, and firm the soil around the new shrub, making sure there are no air pockets. The top space will allow plenty of room for water. Water thoroughly until it percolates through to the bottom of the container. Potted plants require more water than those grown in-ground, and that often means daily watering while the plant establishes roots, as well as in dry seasons. In general, water when the top three inches of soil feel dry to the touch.
Begonias are so much more than summer bedding plants. This dizzyingly diverse genus encompasses more than 900 tropical and temperate species and 10,000 cultivars – most of which are not Semperflorens hybrids (the botanical name for the ubiquitous wax begonia). Growing in a wide range of forms and habits – from elfin perennials to cascading vines to large shrubs – they offer a myriad of possibilities for garden and greenhouse. They also offer something for every season. Winter, especially, is a great time to have some begonias around the house – including those types that bear splashy evergreen leaves in a range of fanciful shapes and colors.
Cane begonias, for example, are a group of shrubby species and cultivars distinguished by their thick, fleshy, bamboo-like stems and typically large, flamboyantly marked leaves, often of “angel-wing” shape.
Numerous cane varieties are available, including Begonia maculata ‘Wightii’, whose elongated, olive-green “angel wings” are decorated with silvery-white dots and maroon undersides and clusters of white flowers hover over the foliage in summer; Begonia aconitifolia ‘Metallica’, named for its shimmering deep green, purple-veined, hand-shaped leaves with red-purple reverses. Pink-flushed white flowers appear in fall; and Begonia ‘Cracklin’ Rosie’, with pleated, shiny, dark olive-green, pink-dotted leaves with maroon undersides. New leaves are suffused with copper.
Also noted for their flashy leaves are the prima donnas of the tribe, the Rex hybrids, which trace their lineage to the begonia species of that name (it arrived in Europe from Northeast India in the mid-nineteenth century). Most Rex begonias have heart-shaped leaves with brash silver splashings and unequal lobes that sometimes spiral at the base. Rather fussy in cultivation, they require high humidity and porous soil kept neither too wet nor too dry. Cultivars include ‘Raspberry Swirl’, with relatively jagged, red-purple, silver-edged leaves; and the award-winning, Rex-like Begonia ‘Fireworks’, which is distinguished by its crisp, silver-washed leaves with black-purple veins and purple margins.
Numerous other begonias make great winter foliage plants. Among the many possibilities are ‘Caravan’, an easy-care, shrubby cultivar thickly clad with lime-green-veined, chocolate-suffused leaves that bring elephant ear (Colocasia) to mind; ‘Connee Boswell’, whose deeply lobed, maple-shaped, heavily silvered leaves have dark green, purple-flushed veins and rims; and ‘Madame Queen’, unique for its heavily ruffled, olive-green, red-backed leaves that have the look of an ornamental kale.
Brazilian Heart Begonia
Perhaps most desirable for winter display are the begonias that go one better by flowering during this season. The cascading stems of the easy-to-grow Begonia solananthera are frothed with fragrant, white, sometimes pink-tinged flowers from early winter into spring. Fleshy, lettuce-green, heart-shaped leaves provide a year-round display. The B. solananthera hybrid ‘Potpourri’ one-ups its parent by producing rosy-pink blooms over an even longer season, sometimes flowering into early summer. A few cane begonias add to their value by blooming on and off throughout the year (‘Paper Snowflake’ is among the best, with silver-flecked angel-wing leaves and heads of deep pink blooms). And some wax begonias excel not only for summer bedding but also as year-round, ever-blooming pot plants. For bright, easy, four-season color, few house plants can match the endless succession of salmon-red blooms brought forth by the Semperflorens hybrid ‘Cotton Candy’.
Most indoor begonias thrive in a warm eastern exposure or other brightly lit but not overly sunny location. They also often benefit from relatively high humidity (which can sometimes be provided by placing the pot on gravel in a saucer half-filled with water). An airy, humus-rich, soil-free potting mix high in peat (such as Fafard Professional Potting Mix with RESiLIENCE) works best. Water when the soil surface is dry, either from the top or by immersing the base of the pot in water. Then stop by the windowsill now and then to enjoy the winter show!
Cannas emerge from dormancy and hit the horticultural market in late winter and spring, so now is the time to get the show started. Numerous varieties are available from on line and local nurseries, either as potted plants or as bare-root rhizomes (the technical name for the thickened underground stems that give rise to all that splendiferous summer growth).
Newly purchased plants should be grown indoors in a suitable potting mix until danger of frost has passed, such as Fafard Professional Potting Mix. Ten- to twelve-inch plastic pots and a two-inch planting depth work well for this initial, indoor growth phase. For their outdoor, summer home, cannas need containers of a grander and more massive order planted in a water-holding mix, such as Fafard Ultra Outdoor Planting Mix. An 18-inch-plus clay or ceramic pot (or something in the way of a cast iron urn) is ideal. Large wooden or terra cotta planters also work well. Simply knock the plants out of their temporary, indoor containers and place them at the same depth in their outdoor quarters. Then stand back and watch the fireworks happen (making sure to water liberally and fertilize regularly through summer).
Although spectacular on their own, containerized cannas make an even more extravagant statement if combined with other heat-loving plants. For example, the flowers and foliage of gold- and red-hued Coleus provide a striking foil for the sunset foliar tones of Canna ‘Phaison’ (right). The possibilities are practically limitless, given cannas’ wide range of floral and foliage colors.
When choosing cannas for container gardening, the sky’s the limit. For a lavish summer display on a less colossal scale, use a “dwarf” canna cultivar such as ‘Pink Sunset’, which offers dazzlingly variegated leaves and soft pink flowers on 3-foot (rather than the usual 5- to 10-foot) plants.
Or you can go the other direction and opt for something outrageously gargantuan such as the banana canna, ‘Musaefolia’, a Victorian-age behemoth that towers to 14 feet. A bathtub of a container (and lots of water) is recommended.
Cannas slow their pace in fall, requiring reduced water as they gradually die back to their rhizomes. Dormant plants can be moved indoors, pot and all, for the winter, or the rhizomes can be lifted and stored in paper bags in a well-ventilated location. Either way, cool temperatures (below 60 degrees F) are best for storage.
In early spring, move containerized cannas to a warmer niche and water sparingly until growth resumes. Split overwintered bare-root rhizomes into divisions of 3 or more “eyes” (the red, swollen growth points spaced along the rhizomes), and plant them in containers (as described above). And start planning this year’s summer spectacular.
Nothing is more pleasing and cool in summer than a water garden filled with water lilies. Most gardeners don’t consider growing these beautiful aquatic flowers because they lack the desire or space for a pond, but ponds are not needed if you grow small. Watertight, spacious troughs or pots can be converted into tiny water gardens for miniature water lilies. If you have a partially sunny patio, deck, or garden space that can take the weight of a water-filled pot, you are set!
Choosing a Container
Water lily pots have to be large and spacious, so start by choosing a container that’s at least 15-18 inches deep and 24-40 inches wide. This will give you enough space for your lilies. Pots must be watertight. Specialty “no hole” pots designed for aquascaping are sold, but you can also line large pots with pond liner, which is often a cheaper option. Simply cut the liner to a size that will fit in your pot and place it snugly along the inner lip of the pot. It helps to apply a strong, non-toxic adhesive along the edge to keep it in place.
Choosing Miniature Waterlilies
True miniature water lilies are so tiny that some have flowers the size of a quarter. Many are pygmy waterlily (Nymphaea tetragona) variants, which are very hardy—surviving winters as cold as USDA Hardiness Zones 4-11 with good protection. They come in a suite of colors that include ivory, pale yellow, pink, and red. The best for home gardens are easy to find online or in specialty stores.
One of the tiniest miniatures is the white pygmy water lily (Nymphaea tetragona ‘Alba’). The hardy plants reach 18 to 24 inches across and sport tiny white flowers that float alongside teensie lily pads. Another beautiful white-flowered variety with much bigger, tulip-shaped flowers but a small growth habit is ‘Hermine’.
The peach-pink-flowered ‘Berit Strawn’ (Nymphaea ‘Berit Strawn’) has larger flowers (3 to 4 inches across) and pads of deep green with some reddish mottling. The little plant is perfect for container growing, very hardy, and will bloom nonstop from early summer to fall. Plants will spread between 24 and 30 inches.
One of the smallest red-flowered miniatures is ‘Perry Baby Red’ (Nymphaea ‘Perry Baby Red’). Its rosy-red flowers compliment dark green pads. Plants spread 12 to 36 inches across.
An older, classic mini water lily is the hardy ‘Indiana’ (Nymphaea ‘Indiana’). Its tricolored, 2- to 3-inch flowers are in shades of rose-red, yellow, and orange. The diminutive plants have a spread of 12 to 28 inches across and small green pads with reddish spots.
One of the best yellow-flowered water lilies is the cheerful ‘Yellow Pygmy’ (Nymphaea ‘Helvola’). Its flowers are only 2 inches, but they are bright and pretty. Plants reach 18 to 36 inches across.
There are lots of great sources for miniature water lilies. Lilypons and Texas Water Lilies are good sources that offer quality selections.
Water lilies grow from fleshy tubers that must be grounded in smaller pots and sunk below the surface of your water container. Choose a wide, shallow pot that will provide plenty of space. Planting depth can be 10 to 24 inches from the water surface. Pots should be placed where they can get 6 hours of sun per day or more. These planters can only be prepared after the threat of frost has passed.
Line the pots with porous but tight-knit plastic burlap bag. Fill it with a 3:1 mixture of heavy loam and Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost. Add just enough to fill the pot bottom and hold the waterlily tuber. The compost and soil must be well combined before planting. Finally, add a teaspoon of a slow-release, all-purpose fertilizer to the mix. Overfertilization can cause algal bloom, so don’t add more during the season.
Cut a small hole in the bag and sink the tuber into the soil, so the top of the plant meets the soil line. Once it is planted, line the top 2 inches of the pot with pea gravel to help keep the soil and plant in place. Place a 1- to 2-inch thick rock along one side of the pot, so it sits at a slight angle. Doing this helps with gas exchange for healthy root growth. Small- to medium-sized water pots don’t need aeration filters.
Gently fill the pot with clean tap water to a depth a couple of inches below the lip of the pot. Soon the plant will put forth fresh pads followed by flowers.
Maintaining Potted Waterlilies
Keeping the water clean in your water lily pot is essential. Remove any debris that falls in the water, and cut old leaves from your water lilies. Refresh the water regularly as it recedes.
Water-filled containers cannot be allowed to freeze in winter, even if your water lily is hardy. They are too exposed above ground and freezing and thawing will cause the containers to crack. The best course of action is to drain the container before the first freeze of the season, remove the lily from the pot (being sure to cut back the leaves), and store it in a water-filled bucket in a cool, dark place through winter. Water lily tubers should be divided every two to three years.
These cool, impressive containers will brighten any summer garden spot. If you want the tranquil beauty of a pond without all the work and hassle, plant a water lily pot this season.
Container plantings are notorious for drying out quickly and needing extra water through the worst summer months, lest they dry and shrivel in a day’s time. Miss one morning watering and the most beautiful contained petunias or impatiens can go from great to ghastly full wilt by evening. Thankfully, there are ways to reduce the need for daily container watering while also ensuring lots of pretty potted plants for porch and patio.
The four factors to consider when designing water-wise container gardening are 1. pot size and type, 2. soil and soil additives, 3. plant drought tolerance, and 4. pot placement. Get these factors right and your containers may require half the water normally supplied to summer pots.
Container Size and Type
Container size and type are things that most gardeners don’t consider as water-saving, but the larger and more water-impermeable the pot, the more it will conserve water. Think about how plants move water. They take it up through the roots, the water travels through the plant, and then it’s released from tiny pores in the plant’s leaves and stems. Basically, the plant pulls water from the soil. A larger pot holds more water and provides more root space—offering a bigger well of needed moisture. And, an impermeable pot surface simply means that less water will be lost due to evaporation. Terra cotta pots are the worst when it comes to evaporation while glazed ceramics and plastic or resin pots keep water at the root zone.
Soil and Additives
Some soils and amendments like peat moss hold water well and others like perlite encourage drainage. Our best water-holding potting soils contain lots of rich organic matter in addition to water-reserving additives, such as the Moisture Pro™ water-holding crystals Fafard® Ultra Container Mix with extended feed and RESiLIENCE®. The RESiLIENCE® additive, which is OMRI-listed for organic gardening, helps plants further by helping plants reduce water stress during hot, dry times. The addition of coco coir (we recommend Black Gold Just Coir) or Fafard Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss further enhanced water-holding to reduce the need to water every day.
There are so many beautiful container-friendly garden flowers that stand up to heat. For containers, it’s great to choose heavy-flowering annuals that look nice until frost—either with their foliage, flowers, or both. It’s also nice to try new garden center offerings, in addition to solid standbys, that will wow and impress.
For warm container color, try the new Bidens Campfire® Fireburst with its tiny hot daisies of orange-red and gold. Annual Bidens bloom continuously and look great alongside the red and orange flower of Lantana Rose Bandana, and gold-, -orange, and magenta-flowered Zinnia Pinwheel Mix, which are also compact. All stand up to hot, dry weather once established.
The outstanding Cuphea Vermillionaire® is another super tough, super pretty bloomer producing lots of orange-red, tubular flowers through summer that attract hummingbirds. These glow container plantings when placed alongside tall, Angelonia Angelface® Superwhite and soft, airy Mexican hairgrass (Nasella tenuissima). Another great hummingbird flower for heat and containers is the new Salvia Ablazin’™ Tabasco with its taller stature and scarlet flowers that shine alongside the chartreuse leaves and purple plumes of Pennisetum glaucum ‘Jade Princess’.
Containers of bold succulents are also welcome for those wishing to water as little as possible. Pots of colorful Agave, Aloe, cacti or sedums look great through summer and can be brought into a sunny indoor spot through winter. The only caveat is that these plants tend to want a better-drained soil, such as Black Gold Cactus Mix.
Where you place your plants can make a big difference in how quickly they lose water. Exposed areas with hot sun and wind will always dry plants out more than protected areas shielded from the wind and sheltered from the sun during the hottest time of day. Morning and afternoon sun is always less beating, so place planters in spots where this level of sun dominates and light shade it provided around noon.
Planning ahead with these four steps for water-wise containers will save water, time, and headaches through summer. Your containers will still need regular care and water for the best health and looks, but you will be able to enjoy them more and worry less about summer container instant-wilt.
Gardening, no matter what or where you plant, should be fun. Container gardening has an overwhelming fun quota because experimentation, creativity, and even mobility are part of the experience. Planting in pots is also a great equalizer. The smallest children can start seeds in paper cups, as can seniors, the disabled and just about anyone else. The idea that some people are born with a green thumb is a myth. The contagious fun of growing flowers or edible crops in interesting containers has been known to turn even lifelong black thumbs bright green.
Interesting containers, like interesting people and ideas, are everywhere. Look around the house, apartment or garage. Are you harboring an out-of-commission tea kettle? Fill it with boiling-hot-colored portulacas. Up to your eyeballs in plastic detergent containers? Cut them off to form bright-colored oval planters and pot up some of the currently fashionable succulent plants like hens and chicks (Sempervivum). Put a miniature African violet in an orphaned teacup from the local antique shop. In some parts of the country, people have been making “crown tire” planters out of bald tires since rubber began hitting the road. The tires can be decorated to suit your fancy. If your neighbors will be offended by a front-yard tire display, put it in the rear.
Avid container gardeners are always on the prowl for unique planters. Yard sales are a good source, as are dollar stores. Check out local curbsides on bulk pick-up days. People discard an amazing number of plant-worthy containers.
Repurpose existing receptacles. A picnic caddy, designed to hold plates and cutlery for outdoor dining, also makes an interesting, portable herb planter. Make an ultra-fashionable statement by making a container garden in an old purse or insulated lunch sack. Plant a gaudy croton in an old wastebasket. Once your mosquito-repelling citronella candle has burned down, take out the leftover wax and use the candleholder as a plant pot.
Doing It Right
Once you have found your planter, get your supplies. Create simple temporary plantings by sinking nursery-potted specimens into imaginative containers lined with plastic. Disguise unsightly edges with sphagnum moss. For more permanent plantings, check the bottom of the chosen container. If it already has drainage holes, you are all set. If not, and the vessel can withstand being pierced, create holes in the bottom. If making drainage holes would ruin the container, create drainage room by covering the container’s bottom with a one-inch layer of fine gravel before adding the potting medium and plants.
Good potting mix is essential. Most plants benefit from an excellent all-purpose medium like Fafard® Ultra Potting Mix with extended feed with Resilience™. Depending on the types of plants in your containers, you may need specialist planting media, like Fafard® African Violet Potting Mix or Fafard® Cactus & Succulent Potting Mix. Differences among the various potting mixes are determined by the amount of drainage material incorporated into the mix, as well as the addition of nutrients specific to different plant types.
Pick plants for containers the same way you select garden plants—right plant, right place. Container specimens in small to medium-size vessels are easy to transport, so it is sometimes easier to match light requirements to plant types. Sun-loving plants, including most flowering varieties and many edibles, require full sun, which means at least six hours of direct sunlight per day. Shade lovers, like begonias, can get by with as little as a couple of hours of dappled sunlight.
No matter whether you plant a miniature blueberry bush in an old spackle bucket or an entire small vegetable garden in a leaky wheelbarrow, be sure to water regularly. Container plants tend to be more thirsty than those grown in-ground. Fertilize regularly as well, especially if your plantings are nutrient-hungry annuals.