Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
May, 2004
Regional Report

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Our native alpine lewisias have been hybridized, creating a range of brilliant pastel colors best seen closeup in a stone planter.

A Different Perspective

Mention container gardening and most people immediately think of pots overflowing with petunias, geraniums, and other assorted annuals. Container gardening, however, can be approached from a totally different angle. For many years, rock gardeners have been growing alpine plants in stone or hypertufa troughs. This type of container gardening has been rapidly going mainstream as more and more people are learning to make hypertufa pots. Alpines are still ideal candidates, but dwarf and miniature shrubs as well as succulents and more conventional perennials, herbs, and bulbs can be included in this type of container planting.

Containers of hardy plants are ideally suited for small backyards and for gardeners who are less able to care for a large area of traditional plantings. A grouping of hardy plants in containers makes a stunning addition to a terrace or patio area. Containers also can be used to fill in gaps in beds and borders. Containers planted as miniature, self-contained landscapes -- an art form in itself -- provide a particular charm.

Containers to Consider
The original sinks and troughs were hand-hewn stone. As these are expensive and hard to come by, hypertufa pots have become widely accepted and used. Don't overlook more conventional materials, such as terra cotta and fiberglass pots and wooden half barrels. Chimney pots, hollowed-out logs, and sections of drainpipe are other alternatives. As with any form of container gardening, drainage and portability must be considered.

Plant Selection
Dwarf shrubs and conifers: For this type of container planting, you'll want to mainly concentrate on naturally dwarf or slow-growing plants. These provide the structure, substance, and framework of a mixed planting. Dwarf shrubs and conifers are becoming more widely available locally, and there are also excellent mail-order specialist sources.

Grasses and sedges: Grass and grass-like plants, such as the sedges, give linear form to a planting as well as texture. Blue fescue (Festuca glauca) forms a short, silvery blue tuft and is widely available. Lilyturf, both Ophiopogon and Liriope species and cultivars, are another option. Dwarf iris also could be considered for a similar effect.

Perennials: Herbaceous perennials, including alpines and succulents, provide the bulk of the hardy plant material for containers. There is every possible type of growth habit and form. Some good choices are hellebores, primroses, brunnera, ajuga, dwarf bleeding hearts, heuchera, sedums, sempervivums, saxifrage, hardy geraniums, violas, creeping phlox, creeping veronicas, cistus, lewisia, pulmonaria, campanula, columbines, silene, and dianthus.

Bulbs: Miniature narcissus, tulips, crocus, scilla, muscari, and iris are all ideally suited for bringing early spring color to a hardy container planting. A pot solely planted to bulbs is another possibility. Hardy cyclamens offer fall color.

Herbs: The lower-growing, hardy herbs are most often considered for this type of container. There are a wealth of thyme cultivars available, as well as sages, savory, oregano, tarragon, and chives.

Caring for Hardy Container Plantings
The soil medium should be chosen depending on the type of plants selected. For most of the common hardy plants, any widely available, well-drained, soilless mix will be fine. More esoteric plants need more esoteric soil.

As with any container planting, watering is a very important aspect of maintenance. The good news is that, in general, this type of planting needs less water than a container of fast-growing annuals. Give yourself time and closely observe plants to learn the signals that it's time to water.

Chose a fertilizer low in nitrogen, as you want slow and steady -- rather than lush -- growth. An annual application of organic fertilizer or a slow-release product will usually suffice.

Overwintering is probably the greatest challenge. In areas with minimal snowfall, it's advisable to either move containers into a sheltered place, such as an unheated garage, or surround containers with bales of hay or straw.

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