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Container Combinations

This container with a bright leaved Dracaena in the center has white impatiens and a red 'Dragon King' begonia trailing over the edge.

Choosing plants to grow together in containers is to choosing combinations for in ground landscaping as choosing friends in general is to choosing your few best friends for long summer vacation in a crowded car.

Plants growing in the same pot must have the same sun/shade needs and also the same water needs. For instance, most herbs like full sun in the winter and some afternoon shade in the summer, so you could mix almost any of them on that account. But basil, chives, mint, and watercress like moist conditions. They'd get along fine. So would lavender or rosemary with aloe and lantana or thyme since they all prefer drought conditions.

Most plants will grow in containers but some will do better than others. Sometimes a single plant in a container makes a strong and simple accent, but combinations make for more interest and color. Especially if containers are your garden. If you have only a balcony or patio or small space, combinations let you grow more and different plants.

Use dwarf plants if you can, but in many cases the plants dwarf themselves in direct ratio to the size of the container.

To make attractive containers, your plant choices should have blooms that last for a long time. Annuals are often best for this, but you can also use long blooming perennials such as pentas or salvia or small shrubs or trees.

Plants with foliage that is attractive over long periods either between blooms or instead of blooms are very satisfactory. Crotons, ti plants, snowbush, and Persian shield fall into this category. In my Florida Gardener's Book of Lists are lists of small palms, other trees, and rose varieties that do well in containers.

Who would think to put gingers in a container with an angel wing begonia? This Zingiber 'Midnight' is available from Singing Springs Nursery in North Carolina. The variegated ginger is available at most nurseries. These plants need shade and will eventually outgrow the pot and become larger plants in the ground.

These are plants with roots that don't mind crowding. Make notes when you see attractive containers and you'll soon have a your own lists. Some plants like nasturtiums bloom sooner in pots than in the ground because they are crowded, and one fruit grower had the same kind of fruit in the ground and in a large container, and the later bore fruit first. These benefits are in addition to the look and feel of lovely abundance that a full container presents.

If you have a very strong and full central plant, such as a palm, you may just want to surround it with plants that cascade over the sides. See the list in the Seasonal Advice section. In most cases, it is best to have a tall spiky plant, one or more low trailing plants, and one medium plant for a focal point.

Color scheme is also more important in a container. And you will have to trim and deadhead as needed and refurbish the containers when they no longer look so good. Sometimes you can simply pull out the plant that looks bad and replace it with a new one. But at least once a year in most cases you will need to pull the whole thing apart and start over.

Containers dry out more quickly and need more frequent watering than in ground plants. This is especially true of hanging baskets. During the late spring and summer, check them every day. You can use a water retaining gel in the soil mix, something like Soil Moist. Ask for it or something like it at any garden store. These little particles swell up with water and hold great enough amounts to let container plants thrive without stress and sometimes to let you water a little less often. Be sure the gel is down in the soil and not on top where it will do no good.

This water garden at McKee Botanical Gardens has iris and cyperus growing tall and a water lily blooming on the surface.

In larger containers especially, you will want to use a light soil mix, one that has a high percentage of peat, perlite, vermiculite, or other organic material, both to hold more water and to make it easier to move the container when necessary. You also can put packing peanuts in the bottom of a large pot to make it lighter and to save on soil.

You can have a water garden in a container such as a half whiskey barrel or a pot of that size. My water lily hasn't bloomed yet, but the Louisiana iris blooms every spring and provides tall spiky foliage the rest of the year. A 'Black Magic' Colocasia has large colorful foliage all year long in the middle ground. I also let some water lettuce grow on the surface and scoop off the extra fairly often as mulch. Two goldfish have been living there happily for well over a year.

There are dwarf water lilies and even a dwarf lotus for small water gardens. Other water plants that provide the high points include horsetail, cardinal flower, pickerel weed, and narrowleaf cattail.

Above Left: Another container for shade has the year-round colorful foliage of a calathea in the center and rex begonias below. This one should last a long time.

Below Left: This square container has an interesting square form with two kinds of coleus, a Chinese evergreen, and Limelight licorice plant. This one also will do best in shade.

For a list of plants that will do well in container combinations,
see the Seasonal Advice section.