Gardening With What You Have

Pots With Pizazz : Bump Up Your Containers With Perennials

Christine Froehlich 05/22/2018 Comments



I have a love/hate relationship with annuals - as much as I love them, I can never keep up with their care. Especially in containers - all that deadheading, feeding and fussing makes me nuts.  No matter how hard I try, mine usually look  bedraggled by the end of the summer. 


I decided to replace my tired looking containers with perennials. Why not? They perform for a longer period of time, require less watering, feeding and deadheading than any annual I ever planted. Unlike annuals, they're always changing - for the better! Foliage colors and textures add interesting touches you can't get with annuals. If you plan it right you can even a sequence of bloom throughout the summer. Plus, I can plant in early May if I want to, avoiding extra work of putting containers together at a time when there are so many other things to do. 


But what about flowers?  I have them intermittently throughout the summer, but I've learned to make use of foliage, form and texture to create dynamic containers. 


Form and Foliage


Just because you don't have lots of flowers doesn't mean that you can't have color. Sedums are just one of many perennials to choose from. They thrive in hot sunny conditions, need little water and many varieties have gray, magenta or variegated foliage that never droops. They flower late, so you'll have blooms in August and September when everything else is finished flowering. The shorter varieties (8-12") work best, the taller ones get too leggy. This one has a mounded shape - definitely a stunner that can take a lead role. 


sedum firecracker
Sedum 'Firecracker'


 Heuchera's are versatile perennials that perform well in sun or shade. Their delicate flowers don't last long, but who cares? You can't beat them for flashy, dependable foliage. Colors range from mauve and magenta to orange and chartreuse shades. They're good fillers that make containers pop!


Heuchera 'Silver Scrolls' and 'Plum Pudding'
Heuchera 'Mega Caramel'


Be bold! Hostas have dynamic foliage that can brighten up any shady spot with a range of gray,gold or variegated leaves. Large varieties make good lead plants, smaller ones can be tucked into the side of a container to bump it up.


Hosta 'Guacamole'




 Fine leafed or wiry perennials add a delicate touch. Short ones, such as this fern or the blue fescue below can be tucked into the side of the pot.


athyrium dictum
Athyrium pictum 'Ghost'
blue fescue
Festuca glauca 'Elijah Blue'



Variegated perennials like lamium add a soft silvery texture to shade containers. This one is a terrific spiller!


Lamium 'Pink Pewter'


Design Tips: Putting them all together


I use 3 -7 perennials per pot, depending on the size of the perennial and the container. It's easier to work with quart size plants rather than gallons, but you can use both together. If you want to economize, I've had very good luck with plugs and 4 inch pots - an excellent way to trial some of those mouthwatering plants you find online.

  • When choosing perennials, pick one lead plant for the center, and choose at least two others with foliage or flowers that contrast or compliment your primary plant.
  • Choose foliage color first, because it will dominate the planter and help you determine a color scheme.
  • Think about the ultimate size of each plant and make sure it won’t overwhelm the container as it grows.
  • If you want to tuck in a few annuals for flowers, try alyssum (sun) or lobelia (shade). They can tolerate cool weather if you're planting early in the season. I just planted the container below, and as you can see I packed them in so it looks full.  I might have to prune one off another later, but I don't mind that. 
  • Don't be afraid to try perennials you aren't sure of, it's a good way to experiment with new plants. I've always wanted to plant Lithadora (the blue flowering plant in the container), but it's a quasi zone 5-6 perennial - marginally hardy in my zone 5 garden. I'll try it out in the container first and see if it makes it in the garden later. You can even sneak a small shrub in if your pot is big enough. The Sambuccus 'Lemony Lace' behind the sedum is the lead plant in this container.
perennial container
Sedum 'Firecracker,' Festuca glauca 'Elijah Blue,' Lithadora 'Grace Ward,' Sambuccus 'Lemony Lace,' Alyssum maritimum


Growing Tips

  • Use a soil medium that is friable and drains well, such as Fafard Gro Mix or Peter’s Potting Soil, or Pro Mix. Mix in a cup or two of a granular fertilizer (I like Plant Tone) to feed the root systems.
  • Break up the root ball of the plant before planting.
  • Water in with a liquid fertilizer such as Miracle Gro and groom them as needed by deadheading, deadleafing and pruning. Prune foliage here and there to keep one plant from overtaking another.   


Perennials To Try:


I coud go on and on about which ones work, but basically you should choose plants that have colorful foliage and interesting texture. Flowers are a bonus.

There are many that are suitable for container plantings, but here's a short list to help get you started. 



  • Ajuga ( purple and variegated varieties)
  • Tiarella cordifolia (Foamflower) variegated
  • Hakonochloa macra
  • Athyriium nipponicum pictum,‘Ghost’, ‘Lady in Red’
  • Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’
  • Asarum
  • Dicentra eximia 'Luxuriant'
  • Heuchera
  • Hosta variegated and gold shades
  • Epimedium
  • Lamium ‘Shell Pink,’ ‘White Nancy’


  • Carex (any variety)
  • Sedum (Cauticola,Vera Jameson-any that don’t get bigger than 12”)
  • Panicum (any variety)
  • Alium 'Millenium'
  • Calamintha nepetoides 'White Cloud'
  • Euphorbia ‘Ascot Rainbow’ 'Bonfire'
  • Perovskia ‘Little Spire’
  • Lavendula
  • Coreopsis verticillata  ‘Moonbeam’ or Crème Brulee’
  • Salvia officianalis 'Tricolor'

It's fun to play around with foliage and texture. Don't be afraid to experiment - some of my best combinations have been total accidents! I think the best part of planting perennials is that you can use them again. Instead of heaving plants into the compost at the end of the summer, you can plop them into your perennial beds or winter them over and use them again in next years containers. They grow fast too, so you'll be able to divide them and get two plants for the price of one. Can it get any better than that?


Tips For Reusing Perennials:

  • Empty the containers in October, before it gets too cold.
  • Cut back the foliage and lift plants out of the pot carefully, protecting the roots.
  • Repot the plants into a plastic container and put them into a coldframe or replant them into the garden.
  • Make sure you water plants well and mulch to protect from winter freezing and thawing.



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