How do you navigate the (vast, usually) choices at garden centres and find the best plants for containers?
Ever gone to the GC and wandered around in frustration, unsure about where to find what you want (and with not a single helpful-looking person in sight)?
Then (flash of the obvious) it occurred to me that if I knew types of plants, and particularly if I had a sense of types of plants for containers, I’d be so much better off, when it came time to go plant shopping.
Healthy gardening is all about concentrating on what looks good and works, (not to mention efficient shopping) and leaving what doesn’t, really, to, well, other types of gardeners. (I think of them as high-maintenance gardeners).
Look around any garden centre and you’ll notice (once you get past the gift stuff up front) everything is organized by types of plants.
So, once you know just a bit about plant types, you’ll also know something about plants (and be able to find them, unlike the kid at the cash register!).
Annuals live fast and die young. They never develop a root system because they don’t need it, instead putting all their effort into flowering. Most bloom, produce seeds, and that’s it.
At the GC annuals are those rows (and rows and rows) of packs of 6 or 8 little plants, gathered into big trays (called flats) and usually with buds or a few blooms already. You will often see them called “bedding plants” because, lots of them together (mass planting) fills up entire beds (big splash of colour) in larger in-ground gardens.
But they look so nice up close, you’ll want them in your containers.
You might also see this term on plant labels “grown as annual.” This means the plant is a perennial (someplace warmer) but, where you live, it can’t make it through the winter.
Annual Care is easy. Water, feed every two weeks or so, remove spent flowers and tidy them up (because container gardens are meant to always be ready for their close-ups) and that’s it.
This is the small group of flowering plants that get started in one season (usually summer), but they don’t bloom until the next spring or summer, and then two years-time’s up.
There are biennials that work OK as plants for containers, but they also take up space that another bloomer could claim.
But if you become smitten by a particular biennial and simply must have it, try to stagger plants in your pots so that some are in their leafing year, others in their blooming year.
These are the ones with staying power! They get off to a slow start, generally looking like a sad wisp or a bit of stick their first year, which is all about growing roots. Not much of anything happens above ground level.
In the second year, they look better and they might bloom, or that might not happen (as with peonies) until year 3.
Perennials require patience, but many are superb plants for containers and worth the wait.
They may flower, but with foliage plants it really is all about the multi-coloured leaves.
The absolute front-runners in this category are coleus and sweet potato vine.
Generally, foliage plants are there to showcase the flowers at centre stage. However, you could have an entire garden with nothing but a mix of foliage plants, and have eye-popping colour and variety all summer long, for minimal effort.
If you have health or mobility issues but long for colour, a coleus garden is doable, easy and almost no-effort, beyond planting and watering.
Bulbs, tubers and corms
Bulbs, tubers and corms are just about all perennials, but they require special care. These plants all grow from a fat root that is round, more or less (bulbs and corms) or chunky (tubers) and needs to be uprooted, cleaned, dried, stored away and replanted at the beginning of the growing season.
Or that bulb/tuber/corm can stay planted (in a pot that can remain outside or be stashed in the garage or a shed over the cold season) but must be dug up and divided every 2 or 3 years (the bonus is you get more plants).
Some of these are flowers that bloom in the spring – tulips, hyacinth, narcissus. Or in summer – day lily, gladiolus, and others.
Or are forced for Christmas and the holidays, such as amaryllis and paperwhites.
Technically, every flowering plant we have has wildflower DNA and some garden flowers could (and do, as garden escapees) revert to the wild.
But in gardening (and garden centers) wildflowers means annuals native to particular areas, such as woodlands, meadows, or prairies.
Easy to grow in their home and native land (or somewhat similar conditions), they can offer benefits (such as being drought-tolerant) and pest-resistant, as plants for containers.
Wildflowers are almost always grown from seed. You will find seed mixes for particular purposes also, such as attracting butterflies or pollinators and other helpful insects.
Succulents are perennials that have developed the ability to store water in their leaves, roots, and/or stems.
As container plants, that means less frequent watering.
All cacti are succulents, with the ability to live in arid climates and on deserts, storing what little rainwater they get in their stems.
Other succulents, such as jade plant and ZZ plant store moisture in their thick leaves, and this has made them popular as houseplants.
Among flowering succulents are the third type of succulents, plants that live in trees, including Christmas cactus or holiday cactus, orchids and kalanchoe.
Succulent plants for containers do well in a protected spot on balconies or decks or in their container out in a larger garden in milder seasons.
Tropical plants for containers
When you think of larger houseplants, the ones that leap to mind are probably tropical plants with their huge, glossy leaves, a reminder of their rain forest homes.
Dramatic as indoor plants, they also enjoy a protected spot outside in summer.
Some tropicals, such as hibiscus and gardenia, have become popular garden and sun room or conservatory flowers, and are also good candidates for outdoor container gardens.
These natives of the seaside and central prairies and plains have become popular container plants in the past few years for their beautiful stems and seed-heads, though most don’t have flowers.
They are drought-tolerant, meaning less watering required, and they rustle gently in the breeze on high-rise balconies.
Climbers & vines
Small climbers and vines trail from containers or fill in between other flowers, while larger ones can also work, given a bit of support.
Some are annuals; others are perennials. Some flower, while others are grown entirely for the beauty of their leaves.
If you want to create height or a bit of privacy on your balcony or deck, nothing works better than climbers and vines in containers.
Shrubs & trees
Many shrubs do just as well in containers as they do in the ground. Others less so, but there are specific varieties, for example roses for containers, that are good choices.
Increasingly, the world is becoming aware of the beauty and benefits of scaling back, taking up less space, using fewer resources.
Plant breeders are developing smaller versions of garden faves that are wonderful in containers. Look for “dwarf” or “miniature” on the plant labels of lilacs, citrus and fruit trees, and more…
If you love to cook, you already know how herbs add zip to your meals.
But even if you don’t have time (or the interest) to cook often (or hardly ever), add a few herbs to your containers and you will get attractive plants, flowers, lovely scent and, possibly, something to liven up your salads or one-dish meals.
I’m more of a gardener than a cook, but I love to have a bit of fresh mint (for chops), chives to add to summer salads, and dill (for the scent and lacy flowers).
Herbs that I’ve found super easy to grow, and a pleasure to have, are thyme, parsley, lavender, and more that I’ll tell you about on the Herbs page.
Fruits & Vegetables
Strawberries, cherry tomatoes, salad greens, green onions, and scarlet runner beans are all easy-to-grow plants for containers, taking little space and looking attractive while providing food that is fresher and tastier than anything you’ll find at the store or the market.
Plants for containers that do MORE
- More Edible plants for containers
- Scented plants for containers
- Attract butterflies
- Attract birds, including hummingbirds
- Repel pests – rabbits, raccoons, deer or your own (or the neighbours’) pets
- Brighten up a patch of shade or a shady corner