Midsummer is when containers can really stand out. Perennials in your garden might be on pause, but your pots should be waving the glad hand. And if they’re anything less than high prime, you need a little help from an expert. Fortunately, Jen Plasky, container garden and seasonal decor specialist at Sam Bridge Nursery & Greenhouses in Greenwich, Connecticut, is fully versed on keeping containers flamboyant. With 25 years of experience in the field, container coach Plasky is idea central for keeping your pots perky throughout summer.
Here are her suggestions for containers that keep chugging along no matter what the weather delivers.
Summer can put the stress on containers, so you want to make the right choices up front. Plasky’s wise advice is “know yourself and know your pots.” Is your life so busy that you sometimes forget to water? Opt for fiberglass rather than clay. “It will hold water longer,” she explains. Even if you feel fairly confident going the clay route, select something of ample proportions. Small clay pots will be constantly thirsty. Similarly, make smart choices with plant material that you love. Don’t settle for less.
Not all annuals are great in containers long term. Plasky steers customers away from petunias, lobelias, and bacopas for summer containers. They tend to look magnificent in spring and early summer, but they lose oomph by midsummer. “These plants are heavy feeders, high maintenance, and unforgiving if you fail to water,” she says. “Over the long haul, they’re not a good choice.”
Some plants perform primarily in spring’s cooler temperatures and then go into a lull when hot weather hits. They might be great options early in the season, but they will need changing out if you want to dazzle your friends and neighbors during the sizzle of summer. Nemesias, alyssums, pansies, violas, and Cape daisies (osteospermums) like to keep their cool — hot temperatures shut down their bud production. Sure, you can cut them back and often enjoy a repeat late-summer show, but when the heat is up, they’ll let you down.
Plasky has moved on from the thriller/filler/spiller equation. Instead, she likes to simplify the scene. “Mixed containers with many ingredients always look unbalanced toward midsummer,” she says. “They usually don’t end well.” By focusing on one to three strong players, she achieves maximum impact when designing pots. “Most containers are meant to be seen from a distance,” she says. “When you limit the number of plants, the design is riveting from the road.”
Rather than mixing shapes arbitrarily, Plasky works a scheme that will grow evenly. Her formula for success is to install concentric rings of plants, “like a layer cake.” Balance is achieved by using the same plants in each ring. This reads well from the road.
“Pack plants in so your planter looks like a finished product immediately,” Plasky says. “You want to put in enough plant material so that if something does not thrive, its neighbor fills the space. You don’t want gaps.”
Be realistic about your container’s needs. Even though you’ve selected low-maintenance plants, you will need to water regularly. “Work watering into your schedule,” Plasky suggests. She is also a strong advocate for nutrition. Feed your little green athletes, either in the form of a time-release fertilizer added at planting or a dose of liquid fertilizer every two to three weeks while the pot is performing.
When Plasky creates containers for Sam Bridge clients, she finds herself turning to a few container favorites that succeed dependably against some fairly tough conditions. Here’s her roster of reliables.
Alocasia and Colocasia: With large, heart-shaped leaves, this is another architectural head-turner. Amazingly low maintenance, elephant’s ears now come in some really impressive colors, including purple, green, chalky blue, and nearly black, often sporting markings and midribs that stand out. They dote on warm weather and partial shade, creating a spectacular display without need of further fillers. The thick leaves are durable even in downpours.
Caladium: Got shade? Plasky has a favorite performer that will make your shadows shine. These foliage plants come in an array of truly flamboyant colors with dramatic spots, streaks, and contrasting veins as part of the show. Some hug the ground, others reach two feet or so, but they are all crowd-pleasers and incredibly easy, as long as you give them a low-light situation.
Creeping Jenny: No doubt about it, this creeper can cover ground in a flash. Lysimachia nummularia “Aurea” sends out long chains of golden, thumbnail-size rounded leaves. It makes a great maintenance-free groundcover below other showier performers in a container, acting like living mulch. Equally happy in sun or shade, it has Plasky’s vote for problem-free performer. However, it is winter hardy in Westchester, so don’t let it escape into your garden — unless you want a whole lot of Jenny creeping around.
Dragon wing begonia: The shiny leaves and bright red or pink flowers of this fast-growing spin on the begonia can fill a container solo. Created to withstand a variety of growing conditions, including gentle sun or shade, this low-maintenance begonia produces blossoms nonstop throughout the summer.
Euphorbia “Diamond Frost”: Although the individual bracts on this ground-hugging plant are tiny, they are produced in such profusion that Diamond Frost will achieve a dense silver mound below any plant that you want to profile. Usually used as a groundcover, it fills the soil below a star performer with an airy puff of white. A low-maintenance sun-lover that tolerates forgetfulness with the watering can, this is the perfect match for a higher-profile container companion.
Lantana: With thick foliage and prolific blossoms in cheerful colors, lantanas form little bouquets that make an impact from a distance. From raspberry to tangerine to softer shades, lantanas make combinations with companions a cinch in a container. They are sun-loving plants but will tolerate partial shade; they are also deer and pest resistant.
Mandevilla: If you’ve got a sunny place for a vine, this tidy bloomer is the easy-care answer that Plasky plugs in. Vining branches dense with shiny oval leaves climb quickly to fill in space. Meanwhile, the foliage is peppered with pink, red, or white star-shaped blossoms in profusion throughout summer. No need to give this plant a companion — it will fill its container all alone.
Red Abyssinian banana: Yes, you can grow a banana in your backyard! Actually, this eye-riveting foliage plant is not going to feed your love of fruit, but it grows really quickly to 6-plus feet tall with gorgeous pleated burgundy and green leaves. Ensete ventricosum “Maurelli” will impress without container mates. Give it bright light, and watch it take off.
SunPatiens: This new group of impatiens is Plasky’s favorite go-to filler for containers. Bred with more thickness to their leaves and flower petals, SunPatiens don’t melt when the mercury rises, and they endure high humidity, rain, and other harsh weather with no trouble. They come in the same range of colors as other impatiens and make great companions for fellow container plants.