Star Gardener Playing With Pots

Simple is better in planting successful containers
Petunia and Verbena Abby Jane Brody Photo

   Planting containers can be a daunting task, but it needn’t be. The more you play with the plants, their colors and textures, the easier and more fun it becomes.
    Last week I had one of those epic, serendipitous moments: At Amy’s Flowers in Water Mill, I took multiple images with a digital camera until I saw the plant combination I preferred and would like to live with this summer. There is nothing like a photo image to focus the eye.
    I was attracted to three different coleus. One was red splotched with yellow, and each of the others was solid red and yellow. How to combine them? Of course, any decision is subjective, but the most appealing to me was to emphasize the mixed color, planting three in the center, accented by one each of the red and yellow on either side. The yellow is on the darker side where it will light up the shady space.
    If you want to use a camera as an aid, please visit Amy’s or your favorite garden center on a weekday when it won’t be crowded, and be considerate of others. 
    If you haven’t been to Amy’s Flowers, you must. Amy Halsey has been propagating and growing container plants for years and monitors their performance carefully. I was attracted to a new color combination in a petunia and she warned against it, saying it didn’t seem very strong.  She has a terrific eye, and you won’t find many.    
    In my 30 years of gardening, I’ve never used the annual phloxes. The colors, in shades of purple and pink, are vivid and eye-popping. Amy says they practically take care of themselves. What more can you ask?
    Petunias, too, have come a long way over the years. The colors become better and better, and some are self-cleaning and compact as well.
    Verbenas have also been improved. In the old days many would simply melt and disappear during our humid summers, and I stuck to those with very fine-needled foliage for good performance. Today, the selection of tough verbenas is much more varied, and they are never without flowers.
    Perennials and grasses can be superb in containers, as well as in garden beds. Heuchera Caramel is one of my favorites for containers. Pair it with the sizzling-hot, tender fountain grass, Pennisetum Fireworks, and Japanese forest grass, Hakonechloa macra All Gold. A new heuchera this year, Encore, is a combination of rose, amber, and silver. It’s a knockout. At home I’ve planted it as a groundcover in partial shade to pick up the orangey highlights of the Japanese full-moon maple, Acer’s Autumn Moon, but it would be fun to use it in a container and plant it out in the garden later.
    Last summer a combination of Pennisetum Fireworks with the red and purple-flowered Cuphea Firefly was a great success and I’ll probably use it again.  The cuphea never stopped flowering.
    Some of the most arresting containers I’ve seen were designed years ago by Edwina von Gal as single-grass statements.  She filled a large, low, bronze basin with tawny Mexican feather grass, placing it on the wide front stoop of a client’s house, where the grasses were in constant motion from a light breeze. An inspired idea was alternating the columns supporting a very long pergola with sleek upright metal containers planted with the silvery upright Miscanthus Morning Light.
    Simple is better in planting successful containers unless you are among the few gifted designers like Dennis Schrader of Landcraft Environments, one of the premier wholesale producers of tender plants for containers on the North Fork.  Try devoting a single plant, say purple petunias, to a single pot. Vary the size of the pots, the texture of the foliage, and the color of the flowers and foliage, making sure they are complementary. Then, mass the containers. You can shift them around to change the montage as it pleases you, and you can always add or subtract as the summer progresses.
    Don’t be skimpy. Sure, the plants will grow, but a pot stuffed with plants has the luxuriance we expect from containers.
    Recently I saw a photo of bright red containers in a southern California garden. They added verve and jauntiness. But you may not be able, or want, to purchase an entire container wardrobe. You can’t go wrong using simple, inexpensive terra-cotta. If weight becomes a problem, try some of the better-looking plastic terra-cotta look-alikes and tuck them in the rear.
    Select plants that are tough and perform well no matter the weather. Advice from a grower like Amy Halsey can be a big help. A few of the proven stalwarts for sun are angelonia, a weaver in white, pink, blue and purple; bacopa; the euphorbia Diamond Frost that has clouds of tiny white flowers all year round; petunias, and verbena. In shade or partial, the selection of fuschias, coleus, and gingers gets better and better.
    Where do you begin? I like to walk slowly through the entire assortment first, then return to those plants that are like magnets. Take out the one you like best and walk around again, pull­ing out selections that would work well with it. There is a plectranthus with dark purple stems, spikes of electric blue flowers in late summer, and rich green leaves that are purple underneath. It grows to a foot or more in height and doesn’t need another thing to make it the starting point for a grouping. A good companion is the Eucomis Oakhurst, an architectural plant with dark plum leaves, stems, and flowers. Add some angelonia and perhaps the cascading silver lotus or Dichondra Silver Falls and you are well on your way.
    Don’t overthink your choices. Instinct is good. Have fun. Remember: Next summer your containers can be completely different.