This tough summer planting includes Coleus, Verbena, Lantana, Dichondra and Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost.’ It can take heat and sun and continue looking good through until fall. These are all tender perennials and can overwinter in the garage, or some may make it through winter outdoors in this large pot.
You may know that many of the bright little plants sold at nurseries each spring as ‘annuals’ actually are perennials. An annual grows from a seed, blooms, sets seed and dies all between last frost of winter and first frost of autumn. Only the seeds will last from one season to the next.
Perennials will live from year to year given the right degree of protection from winter’s chill. Hardy perennials can over winter in pot or in the ground out of doors, with minimal protection. Tender perennials need to come inside to live, whether they overwinter in the living room, garage, basement or cold frame. We are on the cusp of Zone 8, here in Williamsburg, and some winters prove a bit warmer or colder than the norm. That means that some of those tender ‘annual’ perennials I’ve left outside in pots, baskets or borders may just delight me by returning the following spring.
It is a contest of patience. Most don’t rush to show themselves. And keeping faith that survivors will return is a good reason to procrastinate on re-working our pots and baskets until early June.
Here we are near the end of the first week of June and I am still in the midst of transplanting Caladiums and planting out the few new plants I bought in mid-May. Our cooler than usual spring dictated that the Caladiums tough it out in the garage several weeks longer than usual. They’ve grown lank and leggy, but still hold promise.
Caladium ‘Pink Beauty’ shares a pot with a Japanese painted fern. The Caladium just made its way to its summer pot this week.
I dig and dry our Caladium tubers each November and store them in bags over winter in a spare room, then start them again by late March. By May, they are showing new leaves and are ready to move back outside once again. Only this year, it was too cool until just a couple of weeks ago.
By waiting so late, I’ve allowed time for Pelargoniums and Verbena, Tradescantia, Dichondra, Lantana, ferns and mints to show themselves alive and growing. In many cases last year’s arrangements are returning for another season of growth.
But not all return. At some point, one must clear out the leggy Violas and cut back the fading Dianthus, and carefully remove any faded remains of last year’s plants to give this summer’s plants time to establish and fill in before the season heats up too much.
For me, it’s like working a grand and complicated puzzle. It helps to not over-think it, too, or else end up frustrated and frozen into indecision. After all, mixing things up year to year and trying new plants and new combinations keeps things fresh.
I have my favorites. Caladiums and Begonias fall near the top of my list of all time favorite summer plants for long lasting color. Give them what they require and they will live on season after season. Begonias must overwinter in the house or garage, unless they are one of the hardy varieties. They might look a little rough by late May, but by late June they are covering themselves with brilliant new leaves and by late July the Begonias will be full of blooms again. It is very easy to root Begonia stems to create entirely new plants and spread them around. Overwinter as potted plants or as cuttings.
Tradescantia returns reliably in our hanging baskets. It roots easily from a stem cutting and may be started in a new spot mid-season from a cutting.
Other favorites include Coleus, another tender perennial, which can overwinter in the garage and starts easily from cuttings. One can also buy a single new plant and take as many cuttings as one wants for additional plants. Root them in a glass of water, or simply stick them in a pot where you want them to grow and keep them well-watered while they root.
Both ‘annual’ Verbena and Lantana return for us. These are both excellent choices to stand up to our hot, muggy summers, too. They can tough it out in hanging baskets or pots when the soil gets dry, and will wait for me to remember to bring them some water, if it doesn’t rain. They attract hummingbirds, butterflies and lots of other little pollinators for endless entertainment.
Tradescantia looks tropical, but once well established, it will return year after year. It is related to our native spiderwort. You have to wait for it, however, as you might not see it until late May. It has little pink flowers, but I grow it for its gorgeous purple leaves and strong constitution. Full sun, dry soil and long summer days don’t bother it, and deer will leave it strictly alone. I plant Tradescantia and Lantana in the large pot outside of the Botanical garden’s gate, knowing they are safe from hungry deer.
This tough Verbena is starting its third year in its basket. Pineapple mint, Lantana and a scented geranium have also returned here this spring.
Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’ is grown as a perennial ground cover further south. I love it in pots and baskets because it grows into long, shimmering ‘curtains’ of foliage that get better as summer wears on. Frost knocks back the foliage, but if one is patient and waits, it will often return from its roots by late May. Dichondra roots easily from stems and is simple to divide from the nursery pot into smaller clumps, or simply layer to spread it around the outer edge of a hanging basket. It is a wonderful bonus when it returns for another year.
Another plant I wait for each year is scented Pelargonium. It is always a bonus when one survives and returns with fresh leaves in May. I wonder sometimes whether I give up waiting too soon, and dig out plants that might eventually sprout. When in doubt, it is easy enough to pot up the roots and wait to see.
Drenching pots of overwintered perennials with organic fertilizer, such as Neptune’s Harvest, when watering them helps them come into growth, especially if their survival is iffy during a difficult spring.
Tender Pelargoniums can be grown indoors over winter and cuttings root easily, if you have a special variety and don’t want to take a chance on leaving them out of doors all winter.
There are a few hardy perennials I grow in pots year to year as well. Heuchera, coral bells, will often keep color and leaves throughout our winter, but wakes up and produces new leaves and flower stalks by mid-spring. These grow larger and better each year, and may live in a large pot indefinitely.
I prefer to grow Hostas in pots, too. They will grow larger when planted out in a bed, but then their roots are vulnerable to voles. Hostas can be knocked out of a pot and divided easily in spring, spread around, and will add color and texture wherever you need them in part to deep shade.
Heuchera will easily fill a pot. It may be divided in early spring to spread a favorite variety around. This is a fairly new variety called ‘Midnight Rose.’
Deciduous ferns will also live on in pots year after year. Japanese painted ferns and lady ferns, Athyriums, are my favorites for this treatment. Pair them with Violas over winter to fill the pot, and then drop in a Caladium or two in spring to add interest through the summer. Watching for the first fiddleheads to appear is a sure sign of spring.
All of these plants have proven good investments in this climate. They give many months of beauty, and generally return year after year. They thrive in our conditions and most stand up to the wildlife. (A spritz of deer repellent on the Hostas and Heucheras is helpful to avoid unpleasant surprises, however.)
Our garden centers are filled with enough choices to make one dizzy. It is tempting to load one’s cart with one or two of everything and hope for the best. While it is always interesting to try new plants, I am contented to plant what works. I have had one too many lush baskets bake by late July, pathetic little petunia stems desiccated and dying. Now, I reach for these hardy companions that will go the distance through a Virginia summer.
And given a little patience, I can extend their lives year to year.
Pelargonium, a rose scented geranium that made it through winter and returned in April, is now larger than the new ones I picked up at the nursery in May.
Woodland Gnome 2020
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Many thanks to the wonderful ‘Six on Saturday’ meme sponsored by The Propagator