July and August are certainly a challenge when it comes to having fresh, fantastic and colorful containers. After many years of experience, 20 to be exact, I have discovered some winning combinations for long-lasting and beautiful container plantings. New varieties and hybrids are introduced every year, and they are certainly worth trying. Try at least two to three each year. One of them may become your “go-to” plant! Our wonderful locally owned garden centers in the Midlands usually carry the best of these new offerings.
It All Begins With the Container
One of the most important ingredients in a successful container planting is choosing the correct planter. Make sure that the container is not too small. It is very hard to manage the watering regimen if the container has a small capacity for soil and roots of the many plants included in the container. If a small container or urn catches your eye, use it without plants. Let it become an architectural focal point in the garden. It is easy to maintain the moisture in early spring, but by the time July and August come around, a small container filled with a variety of plants may need watering more than once a day. The roots also become root bound because there is no room for growth, and the water will roll off the top and not penetrate the soil. Always choose bigger rather than smaller!
It is best to choose the main focal point for the container planting first. Choose the tallest element for the center or the back of the combination. Most successful container groupings consist of three layers: the focal point or the largest element, the secondary or shorter plants and the plants that spill over the lip of the container.
For a sunny exposure, it’s hard to find a better plant than a ‘Green Giant Liriope’ for the center of the pot. These dark green leafy plants can survive in the extreme heat of the Midlands during the summer and provide an interesting texture for the center or back of a container. They grow up to 14 to 16 inches tall and are readily available in most garden centers.
The next plants to choose are the second layer. ‘Dragon Wing’ Begonia would be a great companion to the Liriope. If the container is 12 to 14 inches in diameter it will hold six 4-inch begonias. The next layer is the one that will fill in the bottom and spill over the lip of the container. A beautiful choice would be Lantana ‘Peaches.’ This trailing variety of lantana has lovely peach and light-yellow clusters of flowers with a light fragrance. They grow up to 18 inches long and attract hummingbirds and butterflies. They are also a wonderful addition to hanging baskets and window boxes.
Another approach for a sunny container would be to use a ‘Black and Blue’ salvia as the tallest element in the grouping. These grow up to 24 inches tall so they are better suited for a larger and taller container. If the container is very large, 30 inches or more in diameter, consider using two or three of these beauties for the center. This variety has deep-violet colored blooms that also attract butterflies and hummingbirds. A perfect accompaniment to the salvia is a cluster of Lantana ‘New Gold’ around the base of the salvia. Poke in five to six ‘Dragon Wing’ begonias, and the arrangement will be complete and beautiful all summer and well into fall. Other plants to try for sunny plantings are:
• Verbena ‘Lanai Peach’
• Variegated Plectranthus — an ornamental, trailing oregano that adds texture and variegation
• Lantana ‘Buttercup’
• Lantana ‘Miss Huff’
• Superbells ‘Lemon Slice’ — a wonderful, striped Millionbell Petunia
It is a much greater challenge to have a very colorful container planting in the shade; therefore, it is sometimes more successful to shoot for texture and variegation in this situation. Choose a dramatic centerpiece such as Farfugium japonicum ‘Gigantea’ for a shady container. As the name suggests, this gorgeous dark green plant has gigantic plate-like leaves. It grows up to 24 inches tall so it needs to be in a container that is at least that wide. There is also a variegated variety that works well in a particularly shady location. Under this, add eight to 10 salmon impatiens and an outer ring of blue or yellow torenia. This is a wonderful combination that will last through fall. Dead head or cut back the impatiens if they get too leggy and you will be rewarded with a new burst of blooms.
Another dramatic shady solution is to use a Heuchera hybrid as the center plant. A favorite of mine is ‘Kassandra’ which has light-pink wavy leaves with a darker underside. Their blooms are insignificant so it is usually planted for its dramatic foliage. It really brightens up a dark spot in the garden. The color will stay more vibrant if it gets a little filtered light. Add three to four containers of Torenia ‘Magenta Moon’ to this as well. This has become my “go-to” plant this summer for shady situations. ‘Magenta Moon’ is a vigorous, trailing plant with magenta and yellow bi-color blooms. This with the ‘Kassandra’ heuchera is a fabulous combination.
Try a hosta as the center plant. Hosta ‘Frencee’ is a bright white and green variegated variety that grows up to 20 inches tall. Use two to three in a particularly large container. One plant should suffice in the center of a container that is less than 20 inches wide. Add a ring of white impatiens around the hosta. Add three Torenia ‘Purple Moon’ and three Lysimachia ‘Sundew Springs.’ This is a beautiful shady container combination and should stay fresh and bright through the fall. Again, remember to dead head or cut back the impatiens to prolong their bloom time. Other plants to consider for shade locations are:
• Cyperus papyrus, Umbrella Sedge
• Caladiums, especially the white and green variegated varieties
• Variegated Algerian ivy
• Hosta ‘Sum and Substance,’ my favorite hosta of all time
• Strawberry begonia
• Variegated aspidistra
Succulents have become very popular in the past few years. These water misers thrive in the hottest months and require very little water. They prefer a lighter weight potting soil. A great combination for a sunny situation is Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ as the center plant. Hypericum works beautifully as the next layer around the Sedum and Sedum makinoi ‘Ogon’ as the perimeter plant to trail over the edge. Most succulents have much more interesting foliage than flowers, so plant these when the goal is dramatic foliage rather than lush blooms. A planting of succulents in an interesting shallow container also works well as the centerpiece of an outdoor dining table or as a gift for a friend who does not quite have a “green thumb!” Some other succulents to consider:
• Sedum rupestre ‘Lemon Bell’
• Hens and Chicks – Purple Beauty
• Rubus – ‘Emerald Carpet’
Give New Things a Try
Container gardening is a great and beneficial way to try new plants that catch your eye at your favorite local garden center. It doesn’t take a huge number of plants to make a dramatic container planting, so go ahead and try some of the new introductions that come out every spring. Grab a tray of six plants or a flat of 15! Try the combinations while you are at the garden center to see if they are pleasing. Put the largest plant in the middle of the cart with the smaller ones around. You’ll get a good idea of how the container will look when it is planted and placed in your own garden.
Garden Chores for July and August
July and August are not as busy for the gardener so it is a great time to take a soil sample to the local extension service to see what needs to be added or amended.
Stroll through the garden and examine plants and leaves for any pests or diseases. Try an organic approach to treatment.
If annuals or perennials begin to look leggy or washed out, cut them back by half. They’ll have plenty of time to grow out before the first frost. This will work particularly well with impatiens and begonias and will prolong their bloom time until late into fall.
Make notes on the calendar of when things begin and end their bloom. It is fun to look back every year and compare.
Take photographs of any exceptionally successful container plantings to have on record for next year.
Water, water, water.
Fertilize, fertilize, fertilize.
Think about starting an indoor window garden to satisfy your gardening urges during this very hot time of the year.