Meridian Star

July 7, 2013

Choose colorful options for summer containers

By Dr. Gary Bachman
The Meridian Star

MERIDIAN — Ambitious gardeners and their beautiful, themed gardens amaze me every year with their creativity. With the Independence Day holiday upon us, the most popular theme right now is red, white and blue plantings.

    I have always wanted to do one of these themed landscape displays, and in my line of work, you would think it would be no problem and assume I’ve done several. But like the shoemaker’s kids who run around barefoot, sometimes my own landscape suffers during the busy seasons.

    I decided this past weekend that, by golly, I was going to have a themed red, white and blue display of my own.

    Now, some of you may think I’m a bit touched and that it’s way too hot to do any planting for summer color. This is where the versatile combination container comes to the rescue. Sometimes the “thriller, filler and spiller” recipe can get a bit cliché, but it is an easy, tried-and-true method of putting together pretty combination containers.

    With the oppressive heat indexes we’ve been having on the coast, I was a little concerned when I went to the garden center the last weekend in June. What kind of plant selection would I find? What were my chances of finding red, white and blue colors?

    To my surprise, the first group of plants I saw on the benches was the powdery blue flowers of annual plumbago. I’ve come to appreciate plumbago as a suitable substitute for the perennial phlox paniculata that I grew in my northern gardens. Plumbago has gorgeous flower heads of tightly clumped, smaller individual flowers.

    This would work well for my thriller plant.

    Next on my list was finding the perfect filler plant, and I quickly spotted some bright red Cora vinca calling my name. Cora vinca is a good choice for any summer container. The foliage is a dark, shiny green that lives up to its role as a filler plant. As a bonus, cheery-red flowers are held up above the foliage.

    The spiller plant was an easy choice.

    Its spreading and trailing growth habit made white scaevola the perfect spiller plant for my patriotic combination. This plant has interesting flowers that resemble fans, which is why it is commonly called a fan flower.

    All three of the plants I chose thrive in the full sun and tolerate the hot, dry summer months. Since I am growing them in a container, I must keep them consistently watered to help ensure they flower all summer long.

    As you put your own themed container garden together, remember that you must never use native soil in these containers. Instead, use commercially available potting mixes that are made up of peat moss, bark and forest by-products.

    You must also maintain an adequate level of fertilization for optimum performance. Both inorganic and organic nutrient sources are available in garden centers, and more fertilizer choices are available every year.

    Controlled-release fertilizers make nutrients available over a period of time, typically from three to nine months or more. If you create a combination container now and want to continue it through the fall, I suggest you use a variety that offers nutrition for three months. Alternatively, you could apply a water-soluble fertilizer on a weekly basis.

    So if you are like me and have decided that this is the summer to try a themed combination container, be encouraged that it’s not too late to get started. The key is to select plants that will tolerate our hot and mostly dry summer conditions.

    • Dr. Gary Bachman is an assistant Extension research professor of horticulture at the Coastal Research and Extension Center in Biloxi.