week 13: a season of container-gardening improvs

SOMETIMES this gardening stuff all goes just slightly off, and you’re dancing, but you can’t catch the beat. I’ve felt like this just-slipped-by spring was a rumba but I’ve been doing the (uh-oh!) polka, especially around the matter of container gardening.

My normal container plan is this: pansies and violas in big low bowls for 6 or so weeks, from early April through Memorial Day or so. (That’s an example from a past year, below; the bigger of two bowls in the foreground, of which I have several, is 36 inches in diameter.) Then I compost the pansies and replace them with warm-season stuff, true annuals or tropical things, for the duration.

patio garden of Margaret Roach

Sometimes the raccoons (or skunks, or both) have other plants for my pansies and violas, as below in another past year. This year it basically snowed through pansy season here, so I never dared buy any—my first year in decades going viola-less. Just before my May 5 Open Day I panicked and thought: Get something for those empty bowls!

Large pot of pansies uprooted by skunksOn an impulse I grabbed a flat of quart perennials of an unknown-to-me variegated Euphorbia, E. x martinii ‘Ascot Rainbow,’ and some spiky Phormium to use as centerpieces.  Below, left to right, the plants the day I stuffed them in the pot around May 1, and today. (Again: remember the 3-foot-wide scale of this pot.)

I intended to move the euphorbias into permanent places in the garden by now (they are hardy to Zone 5B, my zone, if provided very good drainage especially in winter). But guess what? They still look good enough, and I have no Plan B plants on hand, so I haven’t. Now it’s sort of a dare to see how long they will hold.

My friend Adam Wheeler of Broken Arrow Nursery says I can even cut back the flowers (actually brachts) and they will push up fresh ones, and meantime the variegated foliage beneath, a blend of yellow and green and pink, will do service as a place-holder. Important note: Some people are allergic to the latex sap of euphorbias; wear gloves, and never touch them without washing carefully afterward, and never touch your eyes or face when working around them.

Idea: Had I planned it, and had my wits about me, I’d have grabbed a few pots of some complementary groundcover (a sedum like ‘Angelina,’ maybe, or a wine-colored Alternanthera, or even just golden Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’), to cover the soil surface and spill over the edges. But again: I was doing the polka, out of synch to the music. Oops!

For elsewhere during the empty-pot emergency, I invested in a few young Japanese maples (above left and right) and a variegated red-twig dogwood or two with a nice mounded shape called Cornus sericea ‘Bailhailo’ (commonly sold as Ivory Halo, center of above photo collage).

The young trees and shrubs will spend winter in my unheated barn, out of the wind and ice, like my older, bigger Japanese maples do (remember)?  They’ll move up to gradually bigger pots over the next few years (or go in the ground), with a little root-pruning each time they move to say “stay smallish” to them, like bonsai growers tell their mniatures. The dogwood would be fine outside here if the pot was weatherproof and big enough to insulate its roots well. I have some woody plants that have been in pots like this for as long as 10 years–a good investment compared to throwaway annuals, right?


Among these various improvisations, the houseplants get the blue ribbon for service and valor.  Despite being stuck in the hot, dry house with the furnace running nearly to June—weeks longer than typical—they are valiantly rebounding and form a nice picture outside the kitchen door, beside the two big container water gardens in clay troughs (photo, top of page). The trough gardens work like this—the easiest, most reliable container gardens of all–and I’m grateful to them for making at least one corner of the place seem in tune.

Any pot improvs, successes or failure to report? (And what tune do you find yourself dancing to as we welcome summer?)

      1. margaret says:

        The one just in front of and also behind the trough with silvery maple-shaped leaves is indeed ‘Pegasus.’ Thanks Phyllis.

        1. Mary B. says:

          AKA ‘Gryphon.’ I think Proven Winners branded that one as ‘Pegasus.’ Great begonia, grows all summer long, nice silvery leaves. Easy to bring back inside for the winter too.

          1. margaret says:

            So exhausting all this “branding” of plants, isn’t it, Mary B.? Head-spinning!

  1. Hello Margaret,
    As I see that you love Begonias, as I do, I have a Begonia question.
    Among mine is a B. ‘Good and Plenty’, purchased at Mohonk Mountain House some years ago. The one on display there was full and compact (despite it being an “Angel-Wing type). Though I’ve had mine for maybe ten years, it seems to lose a leaf for every new leaf (or two) that grows, making the houseplant perfectionist that I am, unhappy at its leggy appearance. I can’t figure out why its leaf attachments seem so tenuous; why perfectly healthy-looking leaves just drop off for no apparent reason. Any ideas?

  2. Jean says:

    I planted quite a few Ascot Rainbow Euphorbia plants last year in my Northwest NJ garden last year and they did so well through the growing season. I cut back the flowers and they continued to bloom up until frost. I interspersed them among Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae which are spreading like wildfire but are not producing flowers. Unfortunately, the Ascot Rainbows did not come back this year much to my disappointment, not sure what went wrong. I wish you better luck as they provided such pretty swirls of color.

    1. Sue says:

      I’ve never been able to get E. ‘Ascot Rainbow’ to winter over in my CT zone 6a garden. However ‘Bonfire’ planted in the same conditions returned twice as large as last season.

      1. margaret says:

        I am not confident, either, Sue — but my friend from Broken Arrow says it’s all about the fast drainage of the soil in winter — no wet feet. Makes sense to me, so I will try a “high and dry” spot when they are done with pot service. I always did well with Bonfire, too, BTW.

  3. Mary Beth says:

    Hi Margaret
    I’m just curious about the trough garden. What is the green floating plant growing in it and what do you do to prevent mosquitoes?

  4. Kathy M says:

    Thanks for the confirmation of Pegasus for the Begonia variety. I have loved that one for years in a tropical plant grouping on my deck in late summer but find it hard to find. It is very heat tolerant and grows quickly into a statement plant. Seems with our climate changes we have different growing conditions.Even here in North Carolina our pansies rotted in the cold wet weather with week long freezing temps. Now in June we are having 90’s and extreme humidity but no rain. I guess we have to adapt or throw in the trowel!

  5. Ellen Kirby says:

    Love your ideas. Just a note: I find the euphorbia quite invasive in my garden. It is beautiful, but you have to watch out for it; also I was deadheading it one time and mistakenly rubbed my eyes. The stinging was so persistent I called poison control then the next day went to the eye doctor to get it resolved (just stand in the shower and let the water pour over your eyes for awhile). So, like any euphobia, the sap can be poisoniuos. Keeping it in a pot would be smart.

    1. margaret says:

      Thanks, Ellen — usually when I mention spurges I give the skin-irritation warning and I will add that in. Sorry for the oversight.

  6. Joanne C Toft says:

    My pot failure this year was pansies. I started them under lights in late Dec., re potted them in early March. Due to snow and cold didn’t get them into outdoor pots until early May where they kinda bloomed and now are limping along. Time to get rid of them. Next year I buy nice large flowering pansies from the nursery. No more coaching them along for months just to have them look sad on the front steps. (This is year two of growing pansies from seed – just not worth it time or energy wise.)

  7. Marie says:

    Fabulous improvs! My summer tune is deciding whether to move WITH my potted plants when we find a new NYC apartment (I have done this twice, it’s work) or whether to have a plant adoption party, well lubricated by botanical cocktails.

  8. Sue says:

    I’ve had a Palibin lilac in a big plastic pot on a raised deck for over 10 years. Zone 5 Ohio. I leave it there yearround. It always blooms and also has nice fall color. The small leaves just blow away when they drop. Definitely my best container success.

  9. Kristen says:

    Do you water the shrubs and trees in the barn during the winter? I tried to over-winter some shrubs in my potting shed last year but they didn’t make it.

    1. margaret says:

      Good question, Kristen. I do not; they are dormant (anything deciduous is leafless). I check the soil staring in late winter and may water in February or March, but don’t want them to wake up too soon. To overwinter in pots, things must be a zone or so hardier than your actual zone — because they are above-ground and not enjoying the greater insulation of the soil. The pots must be big (again, for root insulation), not tiny. They must go into fall and winter well-watered and not dried out. Evergreen things are much harder to overwinter this way than deciduous ones — they also need light, since they have leaves.

  10. Craig says:

    Your idea of pansies in bowls inspired me to invest in a 36” low pot to be placed around the garden as the seasons change. I had deep purple violets first and now as they fade, I have sweet potato vine on 2 sides of the lime green variety with a few leaves edged in burgundy. I have yet to plant more summer season annuals, but buying small perennials to be planted in the ground later sounds even better.

  11. Flowerchild says:

    Here in Northeast Massachusetts we had a long, cold April. Early in the month I planted yellow violas, red blotch pansies, white candytuft and Obsidian heuchera in pots. Together they made a cheery combination on my front porch and I loved mixing the annuals and perennials. I have since moved the candytuft to the garden and replaced it with white sweet alyssum. The violas and pansies have been cut back to come again later in the season, while the dark burgundy heuchera continues to shine on. Later in the summer, the violas and pansies will be blooming again along with the sweet alyssum, extending the show until frost.

  12. MaryZ says:

    I bought a Pegasus for the first time last year. It grew big and gorgeous in a pot under my east-facing covered front porch, and I brought it inside in October, maybe? Stayed beautiful through the winter in a west-facing window, but ultimately became top heavy and in desperation, I chopped it to about five inches stalks and took it outside (west-facing covered back porch). It’s sprouting leaves, but I wonder if that was the right thing to do and how to avoid the problem in the future. Or do I just need a bigger pot? It’s a super begonia–my first indoor/outdoor–and I love it. And may want more begonias (funny how that happens). I’m in Baltimore, zone 7b. Thanks!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Mary, I can’t see what exactly is happening so it’s hard to say. It does sound like a bigger pot might have helped with the top-heavy aspect as a start, and a clay one (with some weight to it versus plastic maybe). If you want to send a photo it’s awaytogarden at gmail dot com.

    2. Jacquelyn H-M says:

      In addition to Margaret’s suggestions (larger pot, heavier pot) you could also root the cuttings and have a new plant. Begonias root easily in a vase of water, or by inserting stems in moist potting soil (rooting hormone not needed). Sometimes, you get better plants by starting them over from cuttings. Also, when cutting back, be sure to leave several nodes on the stems, and cut just above a node.

  13. I am doing something like you, in that I put a pair of small Hosta ‘Golden Tiara’ on the deck and a pair of big ones (H. Abiqua Drinking Gourd’) by the front door. Then I put a couple of my new trees or shrubs in pots until early Autumn when I plant them. The Tiara Hostas get composted as one constantly needs to divide them, but the big Hostas get shoved into a bare spot and dug out again in spring. I like a few pots but am not good at putting together a mix of plants in a container the way I am in the garden proper.

  14. Patricia Locker-Bennett says:

    Margaret, your water pots & begonia area continue to be one of my favourite parts of your garden. You inspired me to create my own little water pot with floating plants (Salvinia minima) complete with a concrete frog as we have an urban garden which is sadly lacking of frogs. Water depth allows you to see only his head. I also have a pansy bowl every year with bright orange pansies by the front step but I love euphorbia and your bowl is brilliant! I often plant new perennials in pots and pop them in the ground before freeze up so they will survive another season where they go back in a pot for another couple of years.
    Your posts continue to inspire this Canadian zone 3 gal.

  15. HI Margaret! Well, my garden helper accidentally dug up my poor surviving Astiliboides. #6
    of my tries to grow this plant! Can you believe that I have three 20″ 6″deep containers with Creeping Jenny!!!! that awful weed. They look super charming with a nice sharp green color and I keep them clipped to the edge of the pot.. Nice next to hostas and elephant ears in the shaded patio. Gardening is not easy in Maryland eastern shore. Very hot or very cold.
    I will come to visit you again someday! Best from Anne

  16. Alice Schrade says:

    Yesterday I found in my window box ( deck railing) sitting in the lettuce and carrots, a small 1″ FROG . I am on the second floor ..I took a picture of him/her with
    my cell phone. I know you know about frogs. what do you suppose he is? My neighbor took it down to her garden where I think he’ll be really happier.
    Alice Schrade

  17. Alana Steib says:

    I just read Alice’s comment. I’ll send you a photo of the tree frog that I found in a pot of lingering pansies, on a stone bench, on the house side of the large blue stone patio. How on earth he/she got there is beyond me. I almost ‘squished’ it while dead-heading the pansies! Stay alert, fellow gardeners!

  18. Alana Steib says:

    Forgive me. I should have also said that when I saw that frog (or a similar one?) several days before, and scooped it up to try and re-locate it to a wooded patch, the darned thing leapt out of my fingers and jumped several feet! Sure surprised me, as all of the frogs that I see in our yard and around our pond leap maybe a foot, a foot and a half, max.

  19. On my property Lysimachia nummularia (the gold form) was introduced before I bought the place in hanging baskets. Either the contents were tossed down a bank by the brook, or pieces broke from it and rooted. At some point it reverted to its green colour. And eliminated the diversity of plants along the shore. I have no native plants except those I have patiently and painstakingly restored. It is all alien plants. The moneywort was spread with help from the mower; which introduced it throughout the lawn. It has dominated the brook banks and now associated forest understory. I spent a good part of a hot day yesterday pulling that and Eurasian buttercup along the brook, removing less than one percent of the plants and knowing that the moneywort (creeping Jenny) does not come readily up with the roots. Great way to spend a holiday, eh? It is an exercise in futility, but I can’t stop fighting it, because every year there are fewer ferns, sedge, aster, and raspberry. The last place I lived also lost a lot of its understory and lawn to the pure mat formation of this plant. It may be small, but is a serious threat given the sheer number of planters sold containing this deceptively cute creepy-crawly. Nursery people love it because it reproduces quickly meaning more profit. I say this with such sadness because I used to love nothing more than shopping at nurseries…better than Christmas. Now I have yellow oxalis from nursery stock, and have traced the spread of invasive species like fire ants up the East Coast in them, so am trying to go only with seed production. I rarely succumb to buying potted stock any more, and carefully bare root anything that I do buy, burning the soil (I live in a rural area so can still do that). There needs to be more regulation to protect native plant areas for the greater good of other native species. I never found a frog, or a bug in those areas. Nothing but the few remaining raspberries drowning in that stuff.

  20. Kelly Kynion says:

    Every spring, I buy a beautiful, healthy, no-pesticides dahlia, and put it in a large urn with two or three other plants, to set at the entry to my walkway. And every year, around now, the dahlia starts to look sickly, and I either suffer with it, or throw it out. Somehow the plant is weakened and then attacked by tiny bugs.
    Next year, no dahlia. I give up! I am a lazy gardener when it comes to the potted plants. I always want to care for things organically so I could use some easy suggestions.

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