It’s been a late spring here in England and I know that many of you across Europe and Northern US are in a similar situation. My tulips are only just finishing a wonderfully long blooming season and leaving me without much seasonal colour in my pots and containers. I don’t replant all of the tulip pots for summer because my deciduous shrubs in pots: acers, berberis, prunus are now in full leaf. Heucheras are looking their best and lavenders are showing buds. However I do want an injection of summer colour and each year I rely upon a few favourites.
As I often say foliage comes first. Summer bedding subjects with wonderful leaves deliver colour and interest regardless of the weather. This was certainly true here in England last summer where we endured months of dull, wet weather and many summer flowers just failed to perform. My foliage zonal pelargoniums still looked fabulous right through October; their flowers are secondary because the foliage colour comes from the leaves.
The variegated zonal pelargoniums are my personal favourites because I get colour from the minute they are planted until they eventually succumb to frost. Their richly marked foliage offers a tapestry of warm shades of flame, red, orange, chocolate and gold. These are great hues to team up with the warmth of terracotta or to pick up on with a rich red or deep green glazed pot. They also work well with caramel coloured salt glazed containers. If I had to choose one it would be the deep rust and lime-leaved ‘Vancouver Centennial’ with fringed orange flowers. The richly variegated ‘Mrs Pollock’ is also lovely. If you are filling a large pot over 45cm (18ins) in diameter I suggest three plants is ample to deliver a real pot full of impact.
I often use variegated pelargoniums with brick red or deep blue Nemesia aromatica. This is a lovely summer container plant with heavily fragrant tiny snapdragon-like blooms crowded on short trailing or upright stems. They flower for ages and have a lovely habit; so much lighter and more delicate than many other summer bedding subjects.
Nemesia ‘Angelart Orange’ is a particularly eye catching plant I have used for the first time this year. It is the most wonderful pop-art shade of orange that looks fabulous with butterfly lavenders and heucheras. So far it has proved to be wonderfully weather resistant and self-cleaning. This means it sheds any faded flowers gracefully. I love a pot I have planted with this nemesia, purple sage, trailing blue violas and the lovely Lavandula ‘Purple Emperor’. This started out as a rather ‘60s retro scheme but against warm terracotta it seems rather deliciously Mediterranean: reminiscent of bougainvillea and lantana.
Of course heucheras perennials so they can move on from your summer containers to your winter display and with regular feeding and a periodic tidy up can last for years. The lovely Heuchera ‘Peach Flambe’ is particularly good with shining caramel-orange leaves often with a tinge of purple on the reverse. I like it with the shining daisy-like osteospermums which often come in those lovely iridescent pink and gold shades.
The Regal pelargoniums are desirable for their pleated leaves and larger velvety blooms. Unfortunately many of the older types are shy to flower outdoors and loathe cold, wet winter weather. Smaller leaved hardier varieties are increasing in popularity and make strikingly sophisticated container plants. The Candy and Angel series offer a variety of jewel like colours and will appeal to anyone that loves the vintage look of plants such as auriculas and laced polyanthus. They look particularly good in those faux-lead, fibre-clay containers. My only word of advice is to make sure you use plenty of drainage in these – they hold quite a lot of compost and can become rather waterlogged if we end up with a wet summer. For those gardening in warmer drier climes they should excel.
If you want your pots or containers to have a practical use, as well as looking lovely, consider using herbs in some of those summer patio pots. Rosemary, thyme, sage, lavender and marjoram all make deliciously aromatic subjects that can liven up the table as well as the patio. These work well with the fabulous scented geraniums (pelargoniums). These are extremely drought tolerant and cope with a bit of neglect – especially useful if you are away for the odd weekend. I like to use pots of the scented geraniums on the patio where we sit. You can use them to flavour ice cream and cakes but I just like to stroke the foliage and enjoy the fragrance.
I love scented plants in the summer garden and heliotrope is one of my favourites. The dark green furrowed velvety leaves are the perfect setting for the heads of deep blue heavily fragrant flowers. Helotropium is shrub so if you grow it in a pot on its own you may be able to keep it going over winter in a cool greenhouse or conservatory. It has a wonderfully old-fashioned look about it so choose a traditional terracotta pot.
One of the great disadvantages of containers is that they need watering. That means you have to worry about them daily and consider care when you are away on holiday. You can reduce maintenance by using loam- based compost. Use fewer and larger containers. This means more compost, so your pots are less likely to dry out quickly; also helps if you group pots together. This not only makes watering easier but also helps them to shade one another so they stay cooler and lose less water.
So go ahead and add some creative summer colour to your garden. Whether you choose soft pastels or wild hot colours just remember to keep it simple and sophisticated. When it comes to planting containers less is usually so much more!