Perennials in Containers

One of my first garden passions was designing and planting containers ... and that morphed into planting perennial gardens. Containers are a wonderful way to experiment with numerous plant options while adding punches of color to your landscape for a seasonal greeting. I love container gardening -- but it can be expensive when you use annual plants to try to fill a 22" pot to welcome friends and families to your front door!

To spare my gardening budget, I began to think about designing my containers as a continual plant source for my developing perennial garden beds. By using a mix of perennials with annuals when creating a container "recipe," I have been able to cook up a mix that keeps gardens simmering and growing through the seasons. For example, in the gardens I've designed, you'll find thriving transplants of small evergreens, climbing vines and perennials that have made the move from containers to garden beds over the years.

The concept make perfect sense now, as the long summer days come to an end and we look to our landscapes to bring new seasonal fall color. Beyond selecting some of the great annuals from the Plant Club (like ornamental cabbages & kales, mums, peppers, celosias, and pansies) consider using evergreens and perennials as your thrillers, fillers and spillers! (This three-part expression refers to the components of a garden container - with a larger plant serving as the centerpiece or "thriller," a number of smaller plants surrounding it as "fillers," and then others around the perimeter and spilling over as "spillers.")

For example:

  • use a Dwarf Alberta Spruce or grasses as your thriller,
  • heucheras and asters as your fillers,
  • and mix in annual pansies for your spillers

Then as the fall season starts to end, and it's time to change it up for the winter season, transfer those fall perennials in the ground before it freezes. They are not guaranteed to survive, but they have a good chance to make it if watered through the first frost, and mulched. They will most likely come back next spring to fill space -- saving you money that can be spent on other plants! Alternatively, invest in smaller evergreen plants now that can tide you over as your thrillers or fillers for your fall, winter, spring and even summer containers. As they start to outgrow your pot, eventually they can become an evergreen planted in your garden beds.

Think twice, as you break down your summer pots. Take another look before you toss your costly plant material in the compost pile.

For example, maybe you have a few perennials past their bloom time, just waiting for a new home. I included foxglove in my containers this spring, and recently found a place for them in one of my garden beds. They served my containers well, and now I'll have the chance to continue to enjoy them in my perennial garden. They were a source of great enjoyment -- and an excellent investment!

Below are some of Robyn's suggestions for perennial alternatives to annuals for containers ... which could then be transferred to garden beds for continued enjoyment.

Perennial Thrillers

Common Name Latin Name
Feather Reed GrassCalamagrostis
Big Blue StemAndropogon
Fountain GrassPennisetum
Dwarf Alberta SprucePicea glauca
Globe ArborvitaeThuja occidentalis
Green Velvet BoxwoodBuxus 'Green Velvet'
Japanese Falsecypress   Chamecyparis

Perennial Fillers

Common Name Latin Name
Japanese Forest Grass  Hakonechloa
Coral BellsHeuchera
Prairie DropseedSporobolus

Perennial Spillers

Common Name Latin Name
Evergold SedgeCarex
Japanese Forest Grass  Hakonechloa
Spotted DeadnettleLamium

Annual Thrillers

Common Name
Dinosaur Kale or Big Cabbages
Ornamental Millet

Annual Fillers

Common Name
Ornamental Peppers
Spilanthes 'Peek a Boo'

Annual Spillers

Common Name
Silver Falls Dichondra
Licorice Plant

Robyn Lindblad is one of our Plant Club garden coaches. A certified horticulturist, she is passionate about helping homeowners bring seasonal color to their gardens and yards. Robyn shares some inspiration to help adjust your garden from the summer to the fall season with ease, and within a budget. Want her help planning your garden? Consider a gardening coach consult with The Best of All Seasons to bring you the joy of gardening throughout the year.

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Field-Grown vs. Greenhouse-Grown Plants

Plants which are well-adapted to our local climate are most often field-grown (outside). Field-grown plants are generally cheaper and have the advantage of already somewhat acclimated to our cold winters, but that means they’re not artificially far along in the spring and tend to bloom at the normal time in our area.

Spring annuals and tender perennials are typically grown in Greenhouses so they can be ready and luxurious exactly when customers want them. Some perennials are also “forced” into early bloom in greenhouses. In May, there can be a very big difference between field-grown and greenhouse-grown plants of the same type. The latter typically look good right away (so they’re a great choice where that’s important), but we typically pay a premium for it.

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