Perennial Container Plants - Thrillers, Fillers and Spillers
Container gardening plants are a great way to spruce up spots where you can't build a garden bed. Container garden plants look great on stairs, along sidewalks and walls, attached to fences, and on decks, patios, and porches. Read on to learn how to what plants are best in containers.
Read More About Container Plants
What is the best type of container to plant in? -- Whatever looks good to you…a cobalt blue glazed terracotta pot or a tin pail…its all good! The container is less important than the soil, choice of plants, and watering schedule. Just remember that the smaller the container, the more often it will need to be watered. Container volume (and by extension, container water holding capacity) is proportional to the cube of the container radius. In other words, a container that is twice as wide and tall as another can hold approximately 8 times more water, so the watering intervals can be longer. All containers should have a drainage hole in the bottom.
What is the best type of soil to use in a container? -- It is important to remember that plants in containers are under some stress because the root volume is usually much smaller than in the ground, the soil temperature fluctuates much more widely than in the ground and so does the water level. Thus, the best type of soil for container garden plants is a specially designed container mix that holds lots of water but is still loose and fluffy. This is even true for containers with desert plants, albeit to a lesser degree since they generally prefer a fast draining potting mix. With this in mind, remember that your containers will need frequent watering during summer. Large containers can go a couple of days between watering, but smaller containers may need daily or even twice daily drinks.
So, what are the best plants for containers? -- We are glad you asked! Plant Delights Nursery has a huge on-line catalog of the best container garden perennials. So what is the best type of perennial for a container garden? Any kind ... American native plants or exotic plants; ferns, bulbs, ornamental grasses, conifers or flowering perennials; evergreen or deciduous; shade loving plants or sun plants; spring perennials, summer perennials, autumn perennials, or winter perennials. Whatever you desire. Below is a list of suggested container gardening plants, but let's first consider some general rules …
First, when grouping plants into one container, select the best perennial plants with similar growing requirements. Secondly, if you are putting a single specimen plant into the container select plants for their whole appearance…not just the flowers. Leaves and stems are also important. Finally, use combinations of plants in your container garden that complement each other and the surrounding environment. When combining plants in a container garden it is standard procedure to mix plants from the following categories : Thrillers, Fillers and Spillers.
When you are ready to plants for your container garden, we hope our on-line mail order list of the best perennial plants for containers will be helpful.
Since 1988, Plant Delights Nursery has been the choice of serious gardeners and plant collectors looking for the best and rarest perennial plants. We are pleased to have received the Perennial Plant Association Retail Award in 2011, the American Horticulture Society Commercial Award in 2002, and to have been selected as one of the Best Mail Order Plant Nurseries - Garden Design Magazine 2010. Welcome to our family of plant lovers!
We originally got our plant from Georgia plantsman, Ozzie Johnson, but evidently it had been passed around for years by Gulf Coast plantsmen. For us, Calylophus 'Texas Sun' makes a 4'+ wide patch of wiry stems, clothed in pencil lead-thin green leaves. The patch is sporadically covered with bright yellow sundrop-like flowers all summer, making it one of the longest flowering perennials we grow. Although we received this as Calylophus drummondii, dueling plant keys in numerous Texas floras have left us thinking it must be a natural hybrid, hence the cultivar name. Pot Size: 3.5" (24 fl. oz/709.77 ml)
Available 5-30-2013 Carex oshimensis 'Everillo' is the magnificent follow-up to Carex 'Everest' from Ireland's Pat Fitzgerald. The solid golden foliage of Carex 'Everillo' makes an incredible 1' tall x 2' wide elegantly weeping evergreen clump of bright golden foliage to energy-efficiently lighten the woodland garden. A morning sun location helps hold the brightest color, which fades to chartreuse in more shade. Carex 'Everillo' is great among hostas and ferns, but it's also fantastic in mixed color bowl container plantings. Carex 'Everillo' was awarded a bronze medal during the 2010 Plantarium in Boskoop, Holland. I think Carex 'Everillo' is one of the most exciting shade plants of the last decade, and as such I've already planted dozens in my own garden. Pot Size: 3.5" (24 fl. oz/709.77 ml)
We have long valued the Mediterranean Centranthus ruber 'Coccineus' as a great garden perennial, but have somehow failed to offer it in a while, so we're remedying the situation. For us, Jupiter's beard emerges in spring with glaucous green foliage adorning the base of the 3' tall flowering spikes that end with terminal clusters of tiny reddish-pink fragrant flowers. Peak flowering for us is May in NC, but Centranthus ruber continues producing flower spikes through the remainder of the summer when it is a magnet for butterflies. As with all Mediterranean plants, good drainage is a key to success, along with soils that tend toward a neutral pH. Jupiter's beard seems to enjoy being divided every few years to keep them vigorous. Centranthus also makes a great cut flower, so plant plenty to have enough for arrangements. Pot Size: 3.5" (24 fl. oz/709.77 ml)
(aka: Notholaena eckloniana) One of the most exciting plants that we saw on our 2005 expedition to South Africa was a desert sun fern, Cheilanthes eckloniana. Although we have only dropped to 9 degrees F since we have had it in the garden, it has remained evergreen so far. The steely, blue-green, deer-resistant fronds emerge from the hairy tan croziers to form a 1' tall x 20" wide rock garden-sized clump. These spore-grown offerings are from plants growing along the road to Naude's Neck Pass around 8,000' elevation. Cheilanthes eckloniana is named after the 1800's Danish plant collector, Christian Ecklon. Pot Size: 3.5" (24 fl. oz/709.77 ml)
(aka: Clematis 'Cleminov 51') Clematis 'Sapphire Indigo' is an amazing new clematis hybrid from French plant breeder, Laurence Arene-Querard (say that three times fast), whose goal was to cross bush clematis with large flowering vining clematis. Clematis 'Sapphire Indigo' has been amazing in our trials, flowering consistently from late spring to early fall with 4" recurved petal, dark purple flowers. Clematis 'Sapphire Indigo' is a cross of the non-vining Clematis x diversifolia (C. integrifolia x C. viticella) 'Olgae' and the vining Clematis 'The President'. Clematis 'Sapphire Indigo' is a well-behaved mingler with other perennials, but when left alone, forms an 18" tall x 3' wide mound of 2' long arching stems. We're making the illegally used trademark the cultivar name, since Cleminov 51 isn't a real word, and trademark law obviously went unread. Pot Size: 3.5" (24 fl. oz/709.77 ml)
We are very pleased to offer the Federally endangered Clematis socialis, which was first discovered in 1980 and is currently known from only six sites in northeast Alabama and northwest Georgia. Clematis socialis is a rhizomatous sprawling perennial instead of a vine. Clematis socialis is incredibly easy to grow in the garden, forming a large 4-5' wide mass of wiry stems in just a few years. In the wild, Clematis socialis occurs in very moist alluvial woodland clearings, although we have found it to be extraordinarily drought tolerant in the garden. The stems are adorned with thick linear alternate leaves along with the light lavender bell-shaped flowers from April through August. Clematis socialis is an exceptional garden plant that should be more widely grown, but due to poorly thought out regulations, we can not ship these outside of North Carolina. Pot Size: 3.5" (24 fl. oz/709.77 ml)
Abutilon 'Canary Bird' is a marvelous hummingbird plant that has survived 6 degrees F in our garden. This hibiscus relative has maple-like foliage on a compact 6' tall x 3' wide plant. For us, Abutilon 'Canary Bird' starts flowering in early summer with large, dangling, 3" wide, canary yellow, bell-like flowers and continues until the first frost. For those in more northerly zones, Abutilon 'Canary Bird' makes a great centerpiece for a container planting. Good winter drainage is key for maximum cold tolerance in the ground. Pot Size: 3.5" (24 fl. oz/709.77 ml)
Abutilon 'Fool's Gold' is an upright abutilon, clothed with 2" wide, fuzzy green leaves and adorned from early summer until fall with 2.5" wide, hanging, orange (RHS 24B) lantern-like flowers, each highlighted with dark orange veins...a hummingbird delight. This 4' tall x 2.5' wide flowering maple has proven to be reliable in our climate since 2004, but is also a great summer container specimen plant. Pot Size: 3.5" (24 fl. oz/709.77 ml)
Thanks to Luen Miller of Monterrey Bay Nursery for sharing his splendid 2005 introduction...a hybrid of Abutilon megapotamicum. The 3-4' tall mass of stems is adorned with pointed green leaves and, from early June until fall, with hundreds of dangling bell-shaped flowers. The flowers are clear orange, highlighted by red bloodshot eye-like veins. Each flower is held tight by a dark burgundy calyx (the thing the flower sits in). Abutilon 'Orange Hot Lava' has been a standout in both our summer flowering and winter hardiness trials. Nine out of 10 hummingbirds agree, Abutilon 'Orange Hot Lava' is a top choice! Pot Size: 3.5" (24 fl. oz/709.77 ml)
This marvelous native of Cuba ("Coober" to us Southerners) has long been prized for containers and hanging baskets, but no one ever tried it for winter hardiness. Imagine our surprise when in the mid '80s it survived 0 degrees F. Since then, Acalypha pendula has been one of our favorite summer flowering perennials. The 8" tall x 2' wide clumps of small, fuzzy green leaves are adorned all summer with 5-7" long, trailing, fuzzy red cattails. If you can't afford to buy a red cattail plant, stir a can of red paint with your cat's tail for the same effect, but watch the claws. If you're in the North, Acalypha pendula is still great for hanging baskets and summer containers...simply delightful! Pot Size: 3.5" (24 fl. oz/709.77 ml)
Although some taxonomists have lumped Acanthus hungaricus into Acanthus balcanicus, we feel that there is a horticultural difference. Picture a tropical-looking, dark green, glossy, thick-leaf fern forming an 18" tall x 30" wide deer-resistant perennial and you've got an acanthus. Acanthus balcanicus v. hungaricus is topped in early spring with a 3' tall spike composed of purple, pink and white tricolor turtleheads...very unique! Plant this where you want it to stay. While it is easy to move, small root pieces that are left behind keep on giving and giving and giving... Pot Size: 3.5" (24 fl. oz/709.77 ml)
This charming little bear's breech suffers from a major identity crisis. Some "experts" consider Acanthus caroli-alexandri a form of Acanthus hungaricus, while others propose a possible hybrid between Acanthus spinosus and Acanthus hirsutus. Don't you just love those taxonomists? Regardless of its identity, Acanthus caroli-alexandri is unique among acanthus with its finely cut, black-green, deer-resistant foliage, making a small 18" tall x 2' wide rosette. In late spring, the clumps are topped with compact 3' tall spikes with the typical hooded, white-and-purple, spiny flowers...outstanding for texture and structure in the small garden. Pot Size: 3.5" (24 fl. oz/709.77 ml)
This delightfully saucy acanthus has paraded in the trade for years as Acanthus spinosus, but is nothing like that species...i.e., it's missing the spines. It appears perfectly intermediate between Acanthus hungaricus and Acanthus spinosus and is probably a hybrid, hence we have assigned a cultivar name commemorating its widespread culture in Holland under the wrong name. The 1' tall x 2' wide mass of deeply incised, black-green, deer-resistant leaves makes a wonderful clump topped in late spring with 2' tall spikes of white flowers hidden by spiny purple hoods. Sunny, slightly acid to alkaline conditions are best and be aware that unlike vasectomies, cutting the translocation system (roots) causes more babies. Pot Size: 3.5" (24 fl. oz/709.77 ml)
In 2011, while Israeli nurseryman Moti Kopilovitch was visiting and discussing our acanthus selections, I explained that most Acanthus mollis we tried did not survive our hot, humid summers. Moti was kind enough to share seed of a form that thrives in Israel's hot, zone 10-11 climate and we are thrilled to share the plants with you. We planted several of this Acanthus mollis in the ground to watch, so we'll all grow them for the first time together. Acanthus mollis makes a 2' tall x 3' wide clump of broad, glossy-green, deeply indented leaves that goes into a midsummer lull but kicks into high gear with the return of cooler nights. The clumps are topped with 4' tall spikes of spiny purple and white flowers. Acanthus is propagated from root cuttings, so if you dig around a mature acanthus, you will create cuttings. Pot Size: 3.5" (24 fl. oz/709.77 ml)
I spent years lusting after the breathtaking variegated Acanthus 'Tasmanian Angel', so finally, not only do we have it, but we have enough to share. This unusual selection of the European Acanthus mollis comes via a gardener in Tasmania. The bold-textured, dark green leaves with deeply scalloped edges are highlighted by an irregular border that emerges creamy gold, then changes to white as the leaves mature. The older leaves eventually lose most of the coloration. When the 3' wide deer-resistant clumps mature, they are topped with 5' tall spikes of true pink flowers...simply stunning! Acanthus 'Tasmanian Angel' must have some sun to survive...also a rich, moist soil is preferred. Bear's breech is an evergreen perennial at the southern end of its range. Pot Size: 3.5" (24 fl. oz/709.77 ml)
Acanthus 'Morning Candle' is a new free-flowering selection from Holland's Dirk de Winter of New Generation Plants, that is reportedly a hybrid of Acanthus spinosus and Acanthus mollis. Unfortunately, most growers wouldn't know true Acanthus spinosus if it stuck 'em in the rear. We think this is more likely an Acanthus hungaricus x Acanthus mollis hybrid. For us, the 3' wide clump of deeply-scalloped green leaves has performed extremely well despite several weeks above 100 degrees F. The compact deer-resistant clumps are topped, starting in early May (NC), with 4'+ tall flower spikes of purple and white hooded flowers...very nice! We've found Acanthus 'Morning Candle' to still be free-flowering, despite all the new EU austerity measures. Pot Size: 3.5" (24 fl. oz/709.77 ml)
We feel this import by Oregon's Chet Tompkins from a gardener in China is the finest acanthus on the market. Acanthus 'Summer Beauty' is a hybrid (probably Acanthus mollis x Acanthus spinosus) that grows well in our hot summers where Acanthus mollis fails miserably. The 4-6' wide clump of giant, glossy, dark green foliage is much more cutleaf than Acanthus mollis. In summer, the tropical-looking, deer-resistant clumps are topped with 6' tall spikes of white flowers surrounded by wonderful purple calyces...absolutely superb, and soon to be an industry standard! Pot Size: 3.5" (24 fl. oz/709.77 ml)
Anthea yarrow is a 1993 introduction...a discovery by the late Alan Bloom of England, who found it growing in a patch of Achillea 'Moonshine'. Achillea 'Anblo', marketed under the equally strange name 'Anthea', is a noticeable improvement over most of the yarrows we have tried...it actually survives here without trying to take over the garden. The basal rosette of cutleaf silvery foliage is topped in late spring with very erect 30" stalks, holding nice flower clusters of light butter yellow. This is a great addition to the softer colored parts of the border. Pot Size: 3.5" (24 fl. oz/709.77 ml)
We've tried many yarrows through the years and most have struggled through our hot humid summers, with the exception of Achillea 'Strawberry Seduction'. This Achillea millefolium hybrid (possibly with Achillea clypeolata) was selected in 2001 by Holland's Michiel Zwaan, who bred it from the Achillea Summer Pastels seed series. Achillea 'Strawberry Seduction' is a long-flowering selection that begins flowering in June with strong 2' tall well-branched stems, topped with clusters of colorfast red flowers, highlighted with small yellow centers. I've experienced strawberry reductions before, but admit that I find the imagery of a strawberry seduction...berry interesting. Pot Size: 3.5" (24 fl. oz/709.77 ml)
We have trialed a number of achimenes for winter hardiness and are always thrilled when we find another cultivar to add to our list. Achimenes 'Harry Williams' was a delightful surprise when it returned in great shape after a winter low of 8 degrees F. Emerging in June, the fuzzy green foliage adorns short stems, topped in summer with beautiful pansy-shaped flowers that emerge crimson red then morph to crimson violet, both with a contrasting yellow throat. Pot Size: 3.5" (24 fl. oz/709.77 ml)