Season 2 • Episode 11 - June 12, 2023

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If you have colorful containers that you put together in the spring, you may notice that they are looking a little tired now as we approach summer. Or, you might be thinking of building a fresh container for the warm days ahead. Well, to get some ideas for doing both we stopped by Portland Nursery on Stark Street in Portland, Oregon to talk with Laura, one of their plant experts and a wholesale grower, to get some ideas for summer plant combinations for planters and containers. Laura had put together some great combinations of different types of plants for us to share.

Before we begin, lets talk about a basic rule for planting containers that will assist you in making your plant selections. This is the rule about ‘thrillers’, ‘fillers’ and ‘spillers’. These refer to the types of plants you select when planting.

A ‘thriller’ is the main plant in your container. This is the focal point of your planting. People usually choose a large distinctive plant to start building around. It can be an annual, though most people pick a large perennial, a dwarf tree or a shrub to start with. Remember this is a container and so you can plant whatever you like and replace it later. The key is to get a container big enough for the plants you choose and allow extra room for growth.

A ‘filler’ is one or more plants that will fill in around the larger ‘thriller’ plant. These can have complimentary or contrasting colors and textures depending on what you want to achieve or your personal preferences. They can be blooming plants or even just plants with great texture to their foliage.

A ‘spiller’ is a plant that will spill over the sides of a container to soften the edges of the pot and extend the color palette or look that you are trying to achieve.

Laura started with some plants that have a tropical theme. Some of these are tropical in nature and others just have a tropical look to them. The first plant was a ‘thriller’. It was a Tropicana ‘Black Canna’. The black and burgundy leaves offset the deep red flowers that form in the mid-summer and last all the way into fall. It may need some protection in the colder climates, but can do well in a larger pot, as it can get six feet tall by the end of the season. Another ‘thriller’ plant was a dwarf papyrus called ‘Prince Tut’. It has strong green stalks with puffs of fine foliage at the tips. The fine foliage is a nice contrast to the broad leaves of the canna. Next we moved to a couple ‘filler’ plants. Cuphea ‘Firecracker’ was on the table and it is also called a bat faced cuphea because the flowers look like little bats, with its deep red and purple flowers. It is a hummingbird magnet and blooms continuously all summer long. Another filler plant is the Marguerite Sweet Potato Vine. This one not only fills in space in your container, but also is a ‘spiller’, as it will also spill over the sides of the container. Some other plants that fill and spill are a Supercal ‘Premium Bordeaux’, a cross between a calibrachoa and a petunia, and a regular calibrachoa. The blooms on the Supercal are about three times the size of the calibrachoa and a deep burgundy, while the calibrachoa’s smaller blooms had more color variations.

We also talked about textures and how they can create an interesting look for your containers. Mixing large, solid leaves with those that have a finer, lacy texture can make your planter even more beautiful.

We followed-up with planting instructions. Dig a hole as deep as your plants (not deeper), and twice as wide. Amend the soil with a good garden compost and starter fertilizer (E.B.Stone Sure Start is a good one) and add an all-purpose, slow release fertilizer like Clean Water Grow. This is a great fertilizer that is made locally and reclaimed from waste water. We did a story on it a few years ago on the TV show. It is a cool product. Once your container is planted you will want to supplement it with a liquid fertilizer about every 10 days to two weeks to keep those blooms coming! Laura uses Fox Farm Organic Liquid Plant Food ‘Big Bloom’. Other tips include using a quality potting soil and not just soil from your garden. Using a good potting soil reduces the risks of transferring pests and diseases from our garden to your container. Also, don’t forget to check the moisture of your pots and containers regularly. If they dry out too much you may need to soak the container deeply to recover your plants. The soaking will help to expand the dried out root ball. If the pot is really dry, the root ball shrinks and the water will drain around the root ball and out the bottom without watering the plants.

Laura then showed us a couple more combinations that we can consider. Her next example had a mixed theme consisting of drought-tolerant plants that Ryan noticed were great pollinator plants, too! The first plant was Rockin Salvia ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ with large blue blooms that are a hummingbird magnet. They get about 40 inches high so it becomes your thriller. The next layer down is the Helichrysum icicle. The lacy, silver foliage is a nice contrast color to the salvia and it will brighten up your container as well. If you are looking for blooms to go with that great foliage, check out the other filler, lantana. This plant loves the heat and will pop with pom-poms of bright, two-toned flowers of orange and yellow. The spiller for this container was a trailing portulaca (purslane) ‘Pizzaz Yellow’. The thick leaves hold in the water which makes it perfect for a drought tolerant planter. It goes well with the other spiller Scaevola, or Fan Flower.

The next group was a partial shade combination. She started with a Cordyline with its tall grassy structured leaves. The variety was ‘Cha cha’ with color streaks of coral, peach, lime and pink in the leaves. The pink worked well with a coleus ‘French Quarter’, whose leaves had pinks, burgundy and lime colors in the leaves. The next plant layer included a begonia, ‘Mistral Yellow’. This one is semi-trailing, meaning that it starts to grow upright and then falls into a trailing vine. The yellow flowers have a peach color on the back of the blooms, once again tying everything together. A true spiller was our final plant for this combination. The Diascia ‘Piccadilly Apple Blossom’ has dainty white/pink flowers that will also help soften the edge of the pot you use. These bright colors were great for a partial shade container to help it look great in the dark areas of the garden.

Laura also likes cut flowers so she had a container that was just for cut flowers. In this container she had two different types of ‘dried looking’ flowers. The Xerochysum, or Straw Flower, opens into a dried stiff bloom and is great for long-lasting bouquets and arrangements. She also included a Statice flower (also called Sea Lavenders) which has an upright structure and tinier bloom. In addition, she planted Purple Fountain Grass. It has seed heads that look like bunny tails and can create a softness and motion when used in arrangements.

The final combinations were all centered around a perennial ‘thriller’ or focal point. Then she picked colorful annuals to plant around the base of those taller plants. These annuals can be changed out according to the season to freshen up your pots and containers. For a shadier area she picked a tall Yew. This one was the Gold Plum Yew, with bright gold, new growth. It was a tall columnar plant which she recommends for containers so you have room for other plants underneath. Another tall perennial was a Holly, Ilex crenata ‘Ruby Colonade’. The dark red foliage is shiny and turns burgundy over time. The understory (lower level) plants were not only beautiful in color, they also had various fragrances! Laura called them her ‘scratch and sniff’ plants. The first was Santolina ‘Lemon Fizz’. The bright, lime green, lacy foliage is topped by tiny little balls of color and it has a camphor smell to it. She had a scented Geranium on the table as well. These are not your regular type geranium, but generally have a smaller leaf and finer, small blooms. This one was compact and had tiny flowers. It also has a minty smell to the foliage, but you can find different varieties with different smells and textures too. A tall plant that has fragrant foliage was next. It was a Lemon Gem marigold. It has a fine foliage with tiny, single, bright orange blooms. The foliage has a citrusy smell that was pretty strong. We finished with some thymes. The Silver Posie has a taller structure (around a foot tall or less) and a variegated foliage and a small lavender flower. The small ‘Lime’ variety is a deep rich green with white flowers. Thymes will return year after year and are a great pollinator plant for bees.

These were just a few combinations for pots and containers that you can find at Portland Nursery and a lot of your local independent garden centers. If you are looking for more great helpful hints and container combination suggestions, check out the Portland Nursery resources page for some wonderful brochures that you can download and print out, or you can stop by either location in the Portland, Oregon metro area.

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