Small wonders

Containers of all descriptions can rescue a mid-summer garden

July 05, 2008|By Nancy Taylor Robson | Nancy Taylor Robson,special to The Sun

July is tough on the garden. The early perennials have given out, leaving gaps in the beds. One quick fix is a container garden. It can beautifully plug a hole and lift your flagging spirits in one shot. Start with the container - a classic big ceramic pot, a funky washtub on bricks, a half-barrel that anchors a bed or a big terra-cotta pot are only a few possibilities.

The water needs will vary depending on the plants' normal requirements, container type, weather, and how large the plants are when you start. A porous container will wick moisture from the soil, while a plastic or fiberglass pot won't. Plants also lose a lot of moisture through leaves in hot, dry windy weather. Smaller pots need more frequent watering than larger pots.

A container garden can be any collection of plants. But it's more fun is to pick a theme to guide the design. That not only helps to unify the look, it can help you create something meaningful to you and spark a little conversation with friends and neighbors. Themes can range from a butterfly bowl brimming with butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa), purple coneflower (Echinacea), and ironweed (Veronica) to something drawn from Shakespeare's sonnets to the favorite plants of your favorite person to the colors of your favorite sports team. While the choices at garden centers tend to narrow in the doldrums of July, the five suggestions below have taken into account what is available at the garden centers right now.

Fragrant container

A fragrant container is multidimensional since it has both visual and scent appeal. It's also a great garden for the sight-impaired.

"We have folks come here from the Maryland School for the Blind just to smell the plants," says Lysa Wieman, shift manager at Poor Boy's Garden Center in Baltimore.

One fragrant combination is nemesia, Purple Wave petunia and heliotrope, whose fragrance is reminiscent of vanilla.

"Heliotrope 'Marine Blue' is very, very fragrant," says Wieman, "and Purple Wave is the most fragrant petunia. And we carry nemesia in pink, white and purple, so you have some color choice."

Additionally, Purple Wave petunias bloom steadily throughout summer and into the beginning of October, which gives the container garden "legs." Wieman suggests either a neutral-colored pot or a rich blue, which will deepen the purples and work well off the green foliage.

To include a fragrant spiller that cascades over the edge of a pot, use coconut creeping thyme (Thymus coconut) or pineapple mint (Mentha suaveolens 'Variegata'). "It's a very nice mint that has variegated foliage and adds a nice splash of white that would fill a container fairly well," says Wieman.

Hummingbird container

Hummingbirds are inordinately fond of red blooms, especially tubular blossoms, though they also are drawn to other plants, such as trumpet lilies.

"For a hummingbird container, you could use gaura, million bells (Calibrachoa), and cardinal vine (Ipomoea sloteri)," says Cindy King, horticulturist at Kingstown Farm Home and Garden in Chestertown and new chair of education at the Maryland Nursery and Landscape Association. "Another option, and a great new plant, is Mexican false heather (Cuphea hyssopifolia), which comes in bright red and beautiful flaming shades," she says.

Portulaca, which sprawls and is virtually heat-proof, and upright fuchsia (Fuchsia fulgens) both attract hummingbirds, too.

Position the pot so it gets either morning or late-afternoon sun but not the scorch of midday. An eastside spot at the edge of a tree line works well because hummingbirds like things in the open. If you've got a thriving hummingbird container, you won't need to worry about keeping the feeder clean and full.

Color-themed container

Muffin Evander, owner of Cultivated Designs in Baltimore, likes using color as a theme because color makes for some pretty dramatic containers. She has a container at her home whose predominant plant color is chartreuse. It includes canna Pretoria with chartreuse-and-Kelly-green leaves and long-lasting tangerine blooms, cuphea, chartreuse sweet potato vine (Ipomoea 'Margarite') and coleus 'Glennis,' whose leaf has a green edge and chartreuse center.

One of Evander's favorite color themes is orange, provided mostly by tropical plants, which are mid-summer garden center staples. A planting of coleus 'Sedona,' black-leafed canna australis and orange million bells (Calibrachoa 'Dreamsickle' or 'Tequila Sunrise'), stuffed together with firecracker plant (Cuphea 'David Verity'), 'Red Threads' (Alternanthera ficoidea) and apricot begonia solenia, creates a bold look.

"Put this combination in a large planter - at least 24 inches in width - because the cannas need a lot of root room and moisture," Evander says. "A sage-green pot works really well with this."

All but the begonia are sun lovers, but with careful positioning, the canna's leaves can shade the begonia. This eye-popping garden ends up being about 4 1/2 feet tall.

Cooking container

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