I hit upon the idea of planting shrubs in containers the year I came home with an assortment of new plants I scored at a GWA (garden writers) conference. I intended to write about their performance, but most were in 4 inch pots and I was reluctant to plant them in my garden. I'm probably not the most careful gardener around. I knew I'd forget where they were, accidentally step on one or pull it out. So I grabbed some of my favorite containers, assembled a few combinations and added a couple of perennials for a little color. By the end of the summer I was hooked.
Combining shrubs is the best! You can't beat berrying, flowering,variegated,magenta, chartreuse and gray foliaged shrubs for year round interest. Annuals and perennials don't provide much shape, but shrubs have horizontal, vertical, rounded and weeping forms that are fun to play around with. Plus, they add height and width to your containers. And by the way, it's a great way to trial plants you aren't familiar with.
There are many advantages to changing up your planting scheme.
Take a spin through any decent garden center and you'll find shrubs of all different sizes, shapes and color to choose from. Trees with cool branching habits are fair game too. Pair them up with late blooming perennials or annuals to create a jazzy fall container.
Mix it up with evergreen and deciduous shrubs. A combination of both will provide long lasting color throughout the winter.
If you want to focus on late summer and fall combinations, try combining deciduous shrubs that change color or berry.
Consider structure. If you choose a tree or shrub with interesting branching or a weeping habit such as such as this Japanese maple in the photo below, it will look good long after the leaves fall. Berrying shrubs, such as the Hypericum planted next to it bump up the fall look - and it has yellow flowers all summer!
The lead plant in the container below is an evergreen, Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Gracilis.' The plants around it, fuschia and Japanese forest grass (Hakonochloa macra) can be cut back after frost. I stick winterberry branches in later to give it winter color.
3 keys to success:
1. Winterproof container - my favorites are frostproof terracotta and high quality fiberglass. Wood, cement and iron will work too. Elevate container a few inches off the ground to promote drainage and prevent the pot from cracking. Containers should be large enough to contain the shrub or shrubs - at least 20" in diameter.
2. Choose shrubs/perennials that are hardy to one zone below what you would plant in your garden. For example, if you are in zone 5, choose plants that are hardy to zone 3-4.
3. Don't let your container go into the winter dry. Keep it well watered until the end of October, early November.
How to plant:
What to do at the end of the season:
A list of plants I've tried: Don't stop here. Experimenting with new stuff is half the fun, and there's so much more out there.
Weigela ‘Midnight Wine’
Hydrangea ‘Lemon Daddy’
Rhus ‘Tiger Eyes’
Juniper ‘Blue Star’
Chamaecyparis ‘Blue Feathers’
Green and White Variegation:
Weigela ‘My Monet’
Hydrangea – variegated blue
Eleutherococcus sieboldianus ‘Variegata’ – variegated aralia
Cornus ‘Ivory Halo’ (red twig dogwood)
Diervilla 'Cool Splash'
Ilex crenata compacta
Ilex mexervaea (blue holly)
Hydrangeas – dwarf varieties
Roses – ‘Knockout’ series and miniatures
Rethinking container schemes has given me a whole new appreciation of how to use them in the garden. In addition to the ornamental factor, containers have practical purposes such as:
1. Adding height to garden beds and filling up holes.
2. Covering up ugly stuff like gas meters, tanks, air conditioning units.
3. Areas you can't plant in because of roots,rocks and other terrifying soil conditions.
Aside from a few dogs, most of my experiments have made it into the garden, beefing up my collection of woody plants. Needless to say, I'm done with emptying containers and dragging them to the garden shed - mine are staying planted and put. Doesn't get much better.