Potted pleasures

'Keystone Kopp' coleus, 'Frost Fire' superbells and 'Fireburst' bidens - Proven Winners

'Keystone Kopp' coleus, 'Frost Fire' superbells and 'Fireburst' bidens - Proven Winners

Milton Berle once said “A thing of beauty is a job forever,” and that’s probably true of even the smallest garden. Planted containers, on the other hand, are playthings of the adventurous gardener.        

While gardens require long-term planning and care, container gardens invite self-indulgence. For once, you can toss aside all of those worthy gardening virtues like patience and caution.

With containers, there’s the instant gratification factor: You can dress a deck or pretty up your patio in a single afternoon using pre-planted containers from the garden center. There’s also the controlled splurge effect: Because pots need just a few specimens, not dozens, you can raise your price point for plant material. And finally, there’s the push-the-envelope tease: You can grow plants that otherwise wouldn’t thrive in your soil (or your climate) as special features of the summer garden.

Proving the old axiom that good things come in small packages, compact container gardens create dramatic effects in tight quarters where plants couldn’t ordinarily thrive. Hang flowering baskets from the eaves, tuck a tub of bright foliage under a porch roof or dress your house with window boxes and you’re claiming new territory for roots and shoots. This is especially important for smaller properties or city gardens where space is at a premium.

You needn’t stick to traditional ideas about the best plants for pots. Geraniums, petunias and salvias have brightened suburban door steps for generations, but they are hardly the only choices. Today’s horticultural marketplace offers a wide array of specimens suitable for container growing -- everything from tropical species and compact hardy shrubs to towering ornamental grasses.

Given a big enough tub, you might grow plants of substantial size, like an elegant Japanese maple, a rose pruned to resemble a small tree or a thick clump of bamboo. These outsized container plants can serve as dividers on a large patio, as a windbreak for more delicate species or as accents around a pool. A wheeled dolly under large pots makes them moveable without back strain.

Small shrubs are under-utilized as container specimens. Consider a young evergreen, a compact hydrangea, or a perpetual-flowering rose like those in the Knock Out series for your containers. After enjoying it close at hand all summer, you can plant the shrub in the ground come fall. The plant will be bigger and stronger for having received close attention through its first season.

Foliage plants are container stars, not only because they offer intricate form and color, but also because they require less in the way of grooming than flowering plants.

'Fire & Ice' caladium, 'Diamond Frost' euphorbia and 'Black Cherry' supertunia - Proven Winners

'Fire & Ice' caladium, 'Diamond Frost' euphorbia and 'Black Cherry' supertunia - Proven Winners

For vivid color, try some caladiums, tropical plants grown from bulbs. Their heart-shaped leaves can be green, white, pink, red or any free-wheeling combination of those hues. Alocasias and colocasias, commonly known as “elephant ears,” grow impressively large leaves up to two feet long. Trailing foliage species include silvery or yellow-splashed plectranthus, variegated ivies and nearly white lamiums.

Herbs are another group of excellent container subjects, especially if you keep you container of culinary herbs near the kitchen door. Dill, sage, chives and marjoram are wonderful as fresh seasonings, mints make a savory garnish in cold drinks and basil is a “must” for fresh-picked tomatoes.

When shopping for flowering annuals, look for the latest from “designer” brands like Proven Winners and Simply Beautiful. These companies offer improved varieties of old-fashioned favorites like petunias and lobelia, as well as such newer, less well-known species.

Try angelonia, similar to snapdragons but including blue flowers; exceptionally vivid verbenas and ageratums, both bearing fat clusters of tiny flowers; and miniature petunias sold as “million bells.” Annuals will bloom all summer provided spent flowers are trimmed off regularly to prevent them from setting seed and considering their work done.

About the only groups of garden plants that generally don’t shine as season-long container plants are perennials and cold climate bulbs. Programmed to bloom prolifically but rarely for more than three weeks, perennials are designed for a garden where a changing tapestry of bloom is the sought-after effect. Temperate zone bulbs like daffodils, tulips and lilies also commonly produce just a single burst of flowers.

That doesn’t mean you should avoid these plants, only that you should plan to replace them or move them to an inconspicuous place after they have peaked. Periodically renewing plants is a designer’s trick for container collections always at their peak.

For four-season interest, try an array of potted tulips, pansies and daffodils for spring, followed by annuals and tropical species adapted to summer’s long, hot days. When they begin to flag, replace them with fall favorites like chrysanthemums, asters and dwarf goldenrods. Then as the days grow short, refresh your containers with arrangements of evergreen boughs, pine cones and attractive branches.

However you decide to fill your containers let your creativity and imagination run free. Try daring color combinations, unfamiliar plants and unconventional partnerships of foliage and flower. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. So have fun, and cook up something special for those ever-tempting garden pots.