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When we are consistently dealt ‘poor weather’ hands, it’s time to look for more creative ways to bring colour into our lives.
For a few years now, many major international horticultural companies have been trying to come up with perennial container combinations to match the beauty of annuals. There have been some fairly good attempts, but it’s hard to match the consistent colour displays that annuals do so well.
A couple of years ago, I was travelling with some key plant designers from the eastern United States while they were visiting the West Coast, and it was interesting to hear their comments about the many challenges of perennial containers. The main issues were the length of blooming times, the ability of combined perennials to perform concurrently, their compatibility with each other and the ultimate quality of their display. Many older, perennial varieties did not meet the criteria of the new expectations, but they agreed that the newer, longer-blooming varieties certainly seemed promising.
Darwin Plants in Holland has been instrumental in introducing many perennial varieties that have a longer-blooming habit, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. With perennial containers, however, it is far more important to consider a number of other factors, such as the foliage — its colour, shape and form — which can play a key role in the overall look of a container. Evergreen perennials, like euphorbias, heucheras and grasses, make ideal companion specimens in containers.
There are many other great options for creative perennial containers. The carex family of grasses, particularly the EverColor series that includes Everillo, Evergold and Everest, are prime examples of excellent container perennials. Another great choice is Acorus gramineus Ogon, a compact, upright variety that loves hot sun and performs year-round.
For shady areas, it’s hard to beat hostas for their many unique textures, leaf shapes, colour options and range of sizes. In containers, they are less of a target for pesky slugs, and they continue to grow and expand as the season progresses.
Some excellent varieties of ferns are often overlooked, which is unfortunate because many are evergreen in milder climates. Most striking are the Japanese painted ferns (Athyrium niponicum Pictum) with their spectacularly coloured fronds. The autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora), with its new bronze growth, is a must for containers, and I love the look of deer ferns (Blechnum spicant) with their elegant foliage and black stems.
For a spectacular splash of colour, the brunnera family, with its striking silver leaf patterns and early, forget-me-not, blue flowers, are also ‘must haves.’ Jack Frost and Sterling Silver are two great varieties, but newer ones, like Queen of Hearts and Jack of Diamonds, are incredibly vibrant and showy.
For a spill-over effect in perennial containers, the new Feathered Friends varieties of ajugas are quite amazing. They are far less prone to mildew, and their wide range of foliage colours and attractive blue flowers add spice to shady spots.
Tall focal points add a nice vertical element to any design. While not many perennials fit this bill, especially early in the season, sometimes the inclusion of narrow-growing broadleaved plants, like Green Spire euonymus and the Japanese holly, Ilex Sky Pencil, fit nicely into container plantings. Calamagrostis Karl Foerster, a tall, narrow ornamental grass, has a brilliant architectural form that is quite stunning. With the slightest breeze, this grass will add movement to a perennial container.
In late June, all the grasses come alive with new growth. They continue to thrive in the heat stress of summer yet require little maintenance. Grasses combine well with long-blooming perennials, like all the new rudbeckias, coreopsis and echinaceas, for a classy, vibrant summer display. Lavandula stoechas (Spanish lavender) has large purple blooms that continue to flower all summer.
Today, creating a perennial container for pollinators and hummingbirds has become very important. Not only do you get a nice perennial look, but the addition of visiting bees, butterflies and hummingbirds will also make your containers come alive. In addition to perennials, like long-blooming penstemons, achilleas, salvias, nepetas, gauras and agastaches, it’s nice to add a few tender perennials or hardy annuals to enhance their attraction capabilities.
Some of the most popular plants to attract hummingbirds are the numerous varieties of cupheas, with their long, narrow cigar-like flowers.
They’re available in many colours, but orange is the best. Upright fuchsias, especially the old Gartenmeister variety with its bronze foliage and long, tubular orange flowers, is another great hummingbird magnet. The new miniature buddleias, like Proven Winners Pink Micro Chip, are super butterfly attractors and also have a nice perfume.
In very hot, dry situations, hardy perennial succulents create beautiful displays from spring well into winter. Available in a wide range of colours, from the deepest purples, bronze, green and variegated varieties, spectacular, but more tender mangaves make dramatic focal points. Surrounded with the many new sempervivums, like the gorgeous Chick Charms series and the new sedum varieties, like the SunSparkler series, you can create some stunning displays.
Larger containers and the critical mass of soil they provide will produce the very best results in both summer heat and winter cold. To ensure excellent drainage, all perennials need a special soil mix — one containing plenty of coarse materials, like fine fir or hemlock bark mulch. Once established, an application of a slow-release fertilizer, like 14-14-14, will keep them growing to their full potential.
Some varieties may need a little tidy-up or cutting back, but all of them require minimum maintenance. If I’m not happy with one or two plants or want to make an upgrade, I simply use a small, narrow pruning saw to cut out the root ball; plant it in my garden; then pop in a new favourite performer.
If you’ve never created perennial planters, this year might be the ideal time to begin. Their weather tolerance, unique beauty and pollinator attraction will all make for a wonderful new addition to your patio.
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