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Container Gardening: Pots Galore!: Colorful Tropical Containers

Brugmansia sanguinea; photo Courtesy of Flickr cc/Superfantastic
Brugmansia sanguinea; photo courtesy of Flickr cc/Superfantastic

Every year, many gardeners plant containers full of fuchsias, coleus, fancy-leaved geraniums or non-stop begonias for a shady corner of their porch. Since all of these are tropical or sub-tropical plants, you may have been gardening tropically before you were even aware of it. This guide is designed to give you some new ideas and to push the envelope on your gardening repertoire. It is actually quite easy.

Tropical style container gardening can be as simple as pulling your prized houseplants outside to enjoy the summer breezes. Remember to wait until the weather is warm and then let your plants acclimate slowly. Put them in a shady spot first; the leaves may scorch in full sun.

Sometimes a single plant in a container makes an exquisite display. A large fern or a yucca will fill a pot. Bold, large-leaved, foliage plants are particularly effective as are plants with colorful foliage or unusual flowers, such as sweet-scented angel's trumpets (Brugmansia). They can hold their own and offer an architectural element to any display.

One simple way of jazzing up your deck is to cluster containers together. Containers in groups of three or more create visually pleasing displays. Your plants will also be happy because you are creating a small micro-climate with higher humidity levels.

Another simple trick is to use decorative pots. (Remember that all containers will need good drainage to keep plants healthy.) Garden furniture and containers painted in lively tropical colors such as turquoise, pale yellow, peach and bright red are wonderful ways to decorate your deck, patio or garden.

In the tropical shade garden, angel wings (Caladium) and coleus (Solenostemon) complement ferns and provide an alternative to hostas (Hosta) for the northern gardener. Angel wings do best with plenty of moisture and frequent feeding. Coleus comes in a stunning array of colors and shapes these days. They are easy to propagate from cuttings and, as long as they do not dry out completely, they are a no-nonsense garden annual in the Northeast region.

Solenostemon 'Florida Gold'; photo by Ivo Vermeulen
Solenostemon 'Florida Gold' does well in the tropical shade garden; photo by Ivo Vermeulen

The sunny tropical garden is a textural paradise. Spiky plants such as yuccas (Yucca) and cabbage-palm (Cordyline) add a nice accent to any display. The colorful foliage of the copper leaf plant (Acalypha) and croton (Codiaeum) offer bright alternatives to coleus. Similar to coleus, the copper leaf plant thrives in both sun and part-shade.The flowering maple (Abutilon) takes the place of fuchsia (Fuchsia) in a sun-filled situation.

Cannas (Canna) and bananas (Musa) are popular broad-leaved foliage plants for the tropical garden. They do well in containers and are even happier as part of a display in your perennial border. Both of these plants are great for catching light in the garden. Foliage ranges from green to burgundy. Some cultivars have a translucent quality when they catch the light. They can either be grown as annuals or over-wintered indoors. Once the frost cuts back the cannas, the rhizomes can be dug up and stored in slightly damp peat moss for the following year. Banana should be potted up and stored in a dark, cool area (below 55 degrees). They go dormant but should not dry out completely (check once a month to see if they need water). Move them back outside when it warms up or transition them slowly on an enclosed porch or greenhouse in spring.

Vines are an important part of any tropical display. Many of them are fast-growing and can be grown successfully as annuals. Others should be over-wintered in a sunny location in the home and moved outside in late spring. To care for your vines, patiently winding them around a tripod or vertical structure will give a fuller display and prevent them from climbing straight up to the top of the structure.

The black-eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia), morning glories (Ipomoea), cup and saucer vine (Cobaea), Spanish flag (Mina) and hyacinth bean (Lablab) are all fast-growing annuals. Start them indoors from seed, 3 to 6 weeks before the last frost date. Grow in 4 inch pots with an 18 inch bamboo stake to provide initial support. Do not start them too early, otherwise you will end up with a tangled mess.

The passion flower (Passiflora) can be brought inside over the winter and will flower if placed by a sunny window. The mandevilla vine (Mandevilla) can either be brought indoors with the passion flower or it can be cut down to its base. You will be left with a pot full of tubers that require the same care for winter dormancy as bananas.

Photo of Passiflora x kewensis (passionflower) by Ivo Vermeulen
Passionflower (Passiflora) can be brought into the house to flower over the winter; photo by Ivo Vermeulen

Tropical plants will only start to grow once the season has warmed up. Many of them love hot roots and can be kept out in the blazing sun. These plants are ideal for containers. Some are drought tolerant, but most of them should be given adequate moisture to keep them at their best.

Many of the annuals that we use for tropical containers benefit from either pinching or trimming back. Pinching produces a fuller plant. To pinch a plant, just snap off the tip with either scissors or your thumbnail above the leaf node (the place where the leaves attach to a stem). Some examples of plants to pinch: coleus (Solenostemon), Joseph's coat (Alternanthera), salvias (Salvia), dahlias (Dahlia) and the cigar plant (Cuphea).

Good container maintenance is important to keep a healthy display.

  • Always use potting soil with good drainage (any standard mix will do).
  • Do not over-crowd your plants; give them space to grow.
  • Trim plants back when they get too large so they do not take over the space.
  • Do not mix moisture-loving plants with drought tolerant ones; they make bad companions.
  • Find a good watering routine that suits the requirements of your plants. Do not supersaturate the container or let it dry out completely.
  • Remember that most potting soils contain fertilizer. Supplement that with additional fertilizer starting in mid-summer. Some fast-growing plants such as passionflower (Passiflora), mandevilla (Mandevilla) and angel's trumpet (Brugmansia) may need to be fertilized every other week.
Morning glories (Ipomoea) are fast growing;photo of  Ipomoea tricolor 'Heavenly Blue' by Ivo Vermeulen
Morning glories (Ipomoea) are fast growing; photo of Ipomoea tricolor 'Heavenly Blue' by Ivo Vermeulen

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