The garden centers are putting out their trays of blooming annuals, many of which will find their way into planters and containers of all sizes and shapes. They’ll be hung on porches, set out on decks and placed by doorways. It is hard to resist all that color and frilly form. Fortunately for us we don’t have to resist because those familiar annuals, impatiens, petunias, begonias and geraniums are inexpensive and put on a good and cheerful show all summer long.
And yet our container plantings can give us drama and surprise as well as cheer. “The Encyclopedia of Container Plants: More than 500 Outstanding Choices for Gardeners” by Ray Rogers with gorgeous photographs by Rob Cardillo (Timber Press $34.95) show us how we can add perennials, shrubs, edibles, bulbs and tropicals to the annuals we love to make some creative arrangements.
The book begins with an Introduction that lays out all the basic principles of care for any container plant, the types of soil or soilless medium, the container, light, heat, water, fertilization, pruning, supports and troubles. Container plantings are not immune from disease or pest. Rogers then goes on to explain how to understand all the elements of the encyclopedia entries which are arranged alphabetically, no matter if he is talking about dramatic Alocasia (elephant’s ear) or the humble lettuce.
Finally he gets down to the topic of design. He does not pretend to give a primer, but he does remind the reader that there are differing ways of looking at color, line, form and texture. He waits until the individual plant listings to touch on the design attributes of each and give some suggestions for combinations or how to handle the plant in a single pot.
Each encyclopedia entry begins1 with basic information about all aspects of the plant and concludes with more of his own opinions about the various cultivars or what he considers special attributes, like the baby plants that are borne on the sculptural fronds of Asplenium, the bird’s-nest fern.
Rogers has a lot of experience to back up his opinions and suggestions. He spent years working at the Morris Arboretum in Pennsylvania and with the American Horticultural Society. He has won over a hundred top awards for his plant displays.
I confess that I often forget that what I consider ‘houseplants’ like Diffenbachia or gold dust plant can be put to good use in outdoor containers, either alone, or in combination with other plants. Those striking types of foliage can be an important design element.
One of the most important pieces of advice Rogers, and I, would give to the gardener putting together a multi-plant container is to consider the needs of each plant for light and moisture and make sure they are all compatible.
If putting a lot of plants in a single pot sounds difficult, but you like the idea of a mixed planting, Rogers suggests a grouping of pots with different flowers or foliage types. Such a grouping does not require pots of the same design. Different sizes and types can be attractive together.
While Rogers does talk about how important the container itself can be, the striking and clear photographs by Cardillo show that he does not think fancy or unusual containers are vital to the success of a planting. Many of the containers are plain terracotta, and classic glazed pots are not hard to find at garden centers like the Shelburne Farm and Garden.
Rogers style is chatty and he presents plantings in so many styles it is bound to be useful to any gardener, novice or experienced, one who prefers traditional arrangements or one who wants to be more experimental.
I was disappointed that there was no list of sources for some of the more unusual plants, but decided that visiting the websites of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs (www.brentandbeckysbulbs.com), Logee’s Greenhouses (www.logees.com) and Stokes Tropicals (www.stokestropicals.plants.com) will give you a good start on locating plants you cannot find at local garden centers. But do begin your search locally because more and more unusual annuals are showing up at modest prices right in our own neighborhood.
Between the Rows May 14, 2011