Best plants for summer containers


Best plants for summer containersThis morning, I was outside watering the containers on the deck and those next to the potager and greenhouse. We had very hot temperatures in Oklahoma last week. One day we topped out at 108° and another, 110°F. We are now back down to the normal mid to low-90s, but Oklahoma’s extreme summer weather proved which were the best plants for summer containers.

Containers on the back deck surrounding the chairs. I think if I had to live again in an apartment, I would be ok if I had a place for lots of containers.
Containers on the back deck surrounding the chairs. I think if I had to live again in an apartment, I would be ok if I had a place for lots of containers. Behind the chair is Pennisetum purpureum ‘Princess Caroline’ and next to it is P. purpureum ‘Fireworks.’ I love the way grasses sway in the breeze no matter how hot things get.

Drip irrigation works

Here’s my rundown, but before we start, note that my containers are–for the most part–on drip irrigation. I did plant a couple of large containers in late spring that I water with a hand sprayer. Also, on the hottest days, I watered twice a day. You can either set up your drip irrigation kit on a timer for twice a day or spray them the second time yourself. You simply cannot miss a day and keep your containers thriving. Miss two, and most plants will die in such extreme heat.

Who could blame them?

After temperatures moderate, feed your plants with a granular or liquid organic fertilizer. There are several brands on the market. Heavily watered plants in containers will need a boost of nutrients.

I wrote about how to install a drip irrigation system for containers in my book, The 20-30 Something Garden Guide: A No-Fuss, Down and Dirty, Gardening 101 for Anyone Who Wants to Grow Stuff. Click the link if you’d like to buy the book and learn more.

[Click on the galleries to see the photos enlarged. Many of the plant names are listed in the captions.]

Bullet-proof plants

When planning your containers, my first suggestion would be to incorporate at least one or more bullet-proof plants like those in the gallery, above. This way, you’re assured of having some success. If something else in the pot dies, simply replace it.

Repeat after me, plants die. It’s okay.

I’m very surprised scented geraniums and some of the other zonal geraniums–botanically all pelargoniums–have performed really well in containers this year. You may remember from my Instagram posts like this one of ‘Angel’s Perfume‘ and another video introducing scented geraniums that I invested in six or seven scented geraniums in the dead of winter. I’m happy to say that all of my lovely scented geraniums from Colonial Creek Farm are alive and happy. They aren’t blooming much, if at all because it’s too hot for anything to bloom, but they will once temperatures lower into the 80s. I’m especially excited about the blue/silver foliage of the nutmeg-scented one although it doesn’t smell like nutmeg to me. Scent is really so personal.

A unique pelargonium

I bought P. ‘New Path’ from Bustani Plant Farm, and it is still blooming its fool head off in spite of the heat. Steve Owens, the owner of Bustani, put me in touch with Dr. Ernest DeMarie, who created ‘New Path,’ when he was a graduate student working toward his doctorate at Cornell University. As DeMarie wrote in his blog, A Not So Simple Garden, ‘New Path’ is unusual because it is “a tetraploid with a zonal pelargonium called ‘Rio’ as one parent, and a tetraploid hybrid I made at Cornell via tissue culture from a white zonal pelargonium and P. aridum as the other parent.” This parentage explains the different type of leaves you find on ‘New Path.’ Again, from DeMarie’s blog, “It [P. aridum] is a small plant with deeply divided leaves, small yellow flowers, and red tuberous roots. So somewhere in ‘New Path’ lurk genes for yellow color and finely divided foliage.”

Pelargonium 'New Path' has also been a surprise. It has very thick leaves that have held up to the heat. Note, it does get some shade from the two larger containers surrounding it. I bought mine at Bustani Plant Farm this spring.
Pelargonium ‘New Path’ has also been a surprise. It has very thick leaves that have held up to the heat. Note, it does get some shade from the two larger containers surrounding it. I bought mine at Bustani Plant Farm this spring.

I think it’s simply beautiful. You just never know what you’ll find on the Collectors Corner bench at Bustani! I’ll be overwintering this beauty in the greenhouse come fall.

Probably my favorite container of the year is this one next to the greenhouse. It is filled with Supertunia Vista Parade, Angel Face Steel Blue angelonia, Superbells Doublette Love Swept, Diamond Mountain Euphorbia and Supertunia Vista Bubblegum which were all test plants.
Probably my favorite container of the year is this one next to the greenhouse. It is filled with Supertunia Vista Parade, Angel Face Steel Blue angelonia, Superbells Doublette Love Swept, Diamond Mountain Euphorbia and Supertunia Vista Bubblegum which were all test plants.

Thriller, filler, spiller formula

I try to follow the “thriller, filler, spiller” formula of planting, first written about by Steve Silk in Fine Gardening magazine, with one tall plant in the center, something shorter in the middle and something to trail down the sides of the container. The photo, above, shows a version of this formula. With the two shades of pink Supertunias, Vista® Bubblegum®, and Vista® Paradise  (2019 release), and the Diamond Mountain™ euphorbia (2019 release), I think this is my favorite container this year. The Angel Face Steel Blue angelonia (2019 release) blooms slowed down in the extreme heat, but it will recover and bloom more as temperatures moderate. The bloom stalks weren’t standing up the way I wanted so I added this tuteur to hold them upright. I like using tuteurs and obelisks to reign in floppy plants. I also deadheaded the angelonia to encourage more bloom spikes later. An upside-down lamp shade would also work as would a peony support pushed into the potting soil, but in this case, I wanted the height of the tuteur.

Below is a closeup of the same container. It deserves two pictures. Proven Winners sent me these trial plants. I think, if I remember correctly, the company wanted us to combine the already outstanding Supertunia Vista® Bubblegum with 2019 introductions in interesting ways. Well, my plant shipment came at the busiest time of the year so I simply put a bunch of them together in one container. I think it turned out very nice. Very nice indeed.

Closeup of Supertunia Vista Bubblegum, Diamond Mountain Euphorbia and Supertunia Vista Paradise.
Closeup of Supertunia Vista Bubblegum, Diamond Mountain Euphorbia and Supertunia Vista Paradise.

Even though I like the standard TFS formula, I find that a mid-sized plant like Helichrysum italicum, curry plant, with a ring of lime green duranta, makes a pretty bold statement. This container is also a favorite this year. I placed it between larger containers with taller plantings to fill in around it. I just deadheaded the coleus in the pot at the left so it doesn’t look its best now.

By grouping containers together in pleasing ways, you can use the TFS formula on a larger and more interesting scale.

Tall plants that perform well in my containers are purple fountain grasses like Pennisetum purpureum ‘Princess Caroline’ which takes a very large container and its smaller cousin, ‘Fireworks.’ You can also use plain purple fountain grass, but I like ‘Fireworks’ better. It does lose its pink stripe in the middle of summer but regains it again in fall.

Rugosa roses also make a tall statement in the garden. After they grow larger, they compete with anything else in the pot. Why Rugosa roses? Because they are extremely hardy. I can leave my ‘Therese Bugnet’ out on the deck in a glazed pot all winter. Rugosa roses also smell good.

Cyperus papyrus ‘King Tut’ Egyptian papyrus is another great plant for a container centerpiece in full sun. In fact, most grasses do really well as do large coleus. I just trimmed all of my coleus back by half so they don’t look that great today. ‘Big Red Judy’ also sometimes called ‘Big Red’ is a wonderful large coleus that could be the centerpiece of any pot.

In the photo below, I’d hoped ‘Large Marge’ coleus would grow larger than the Lotus jacobaeus, black lotus plant in this container. I should have read the tag. Marge isn’t that large The black lotus has a see-through quality, but Marge looks rather smothered. Both plants are extremely drought tolerant, and the black lotus bloomed only a week ago. The blooms are so exotic they give me a thrill.

I know, I know, but really, they do.

Lotus jacobaeus, black lotua with 'Large Marge' coleus and Superbells Tropical Sunrise calibrochoa.
Lotus jacobaeus, black lotus, with ‘Large Marge’ coleus and Superbells Tropical Sunrise calibrochoa.

When thinking about heat and drought tolerance, look for plants with silvery foliage. I really hate dusty miller, but my friends in Tulsa convinced me broad-leaved dusty miller was a much prettier plant. They were right. Thanks, Beth and Teresa! I’m enjoying how heat tolerant it is and how great it looks against P.  purpurea ‘Princess Caroline.’ It’s also great in bouquets and is often used in the florist industry. Dichondra argentea ‘Silver Falls’ is another a good choice as are the newer varieties of Evolvulus Blue My Mind® and Helichrysum petiolare Lemon Licorice. The latter two spill out of containers and weave through other plants in very pleasing ways.

With that, I think I’ve covered what worked well this year in containers. Remember, bullet-proof plants are the centerpiece of any successful heat wave container. What are some of your favorites this year?



  1. Maria Meyer says:

    Dee your pots are so calming! My four year old asparagus fern has little precious white flowers on it! I have never seen them and it was so exciting!!

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Hi Maria! Thank you! Some asparagus plants are female and get those little flowers. You’ll probably soon see green berries that later turn red. Cool huh?

  2. Thanks for the tips, Dee. We don’t get 100s very often, but we’ve had some extended periods of 90s and very high humidity this summer. The Fuchsias didn’t like it–even in the shade. But I love them too much to give up on them. Some of the other potted plants, however, were very happy with the heat. I’ve wanted to try Asparagus Fern for a while now–good to know it performs well in pots. I’m loving the Supertunia Vista Bubblegums, too–they’re even doing well in dappled shade for me. Your pots with the tuteurs are fabulous!

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Thanks Beth. It’s good to hear what does well in your part of the world too. I can’t say enough nice things about the Supertunia Vistas. They all do well for me. I can’t grow fuschias, but oh, if I could, I’d have many. I would. I loved tuteurs in pots this year. They add so much to everything.

  3. bittster says:

    Love it, and they look great in spite of the heat which makes it even better. The look of all kinds of heat-stressed and dying annual is definitely not a look I enjoy seeing! You’re lucky to have ‘New Path’, I love the leaves.
    Cannova cannas have been doing great in my bigger pots, and I love a couple of pots of succulents around since they’re absolutely no work. I wish I could find a foxtail fern though, I lost it a few years ago…

    1. Dee Nash says:

      I’ve never grown Cannova cannas. Hmm, I’ll have to look them up. I always find the foxtail ferns at a couple of different places in town, but I’m going to try to overwinter these in the greenhouse. It’s always good to start with a few big plants in spring.

  4. I like using millet, canna lily, and Mexican sage as thrillers in big pots. And I have a very large (20″ tall) strawberry pot I used in the shade this year with orange impatiens in the pockets and a coleus with huge orange/green leaves in the center opening. Quite pleasing! All your pots are looking so good. I need to use more grasses in pots, I like that look. Oh, also in a large pot gomphocarpus physocarpus “Dino egg” milkweed, pruned to be bushy, has been quite fun (can hardly wait for seedpods)! I use sweet alyssum a lot as a spiller because 75% of my pots are in part shade. I love plectranthus in pots, too. Sorry I got so long winded here, lol. Pots are just so fun!

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Ginny, how early does Mexican sage bloom for you in pots? Here, it’s late August and September when it blooms in ground. I’ve never thought about adding it to pots, but of course, it would be splendid. I grew the dark millet a couple of years in containers and really liked it. I also like tall cannas and bananas in pots. I so enjoyed your comment and observations. Thank you for the longer comment. Good to hear what works elsewhere.

      1. The Mexican sage is not blooming yet, I anticipate late bloom, but that’s good. A real trooper I forgot to mention is the Bossa Nova begonia. The red has been the best/hardiest/most floriferous. Coral, yellow, and blush, tried for the first time this year, just don’t compare. Next year? All reds!

        1. Dee Nash says:

          Hey Ginny, I also grew the red, coral and peach Bossa Nova begonias. Yes, hands down, the red is da bomb! The other colors not so much. I put mine in talavera containers. All that color!

  5. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Your pots always look so good Dee. I bet the drip factor plays a big part in it. I too like those supertunias. Anything I don’t have to deadhead makes me happy. I have more shade than you do I believe. I can’t beat angel wing begonias in any color for their steadfast blooming and they tolerate a little bit of neglect. We haven’t had 100 degree YET but many 90degree days so far. UGH… I hope you and everyone else survives the horrid temps in your area. Sounds scary to me. Do take care.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Hey Lisa, we can also grow angel wing begonias in shady containers here. They are wonderful plants. Yes, the drip irrigation is a large part of my success. Also, staging pots so that the plants which like a bit of shade get it from larger containers. Ugh on your high temperatures. I wonder if you got all of that rain others did out your way?

  6. Pam Slocum says:

    I’ve been growing supertunia bubblegum for several years now and love them. You mentioned ‘supertunia vista’. Are these any different? I guess anything can be improved on even though I though supertunias were perfect.

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Hi Pam, the full name for Supertunia Bubblegum is Supertunia Vista® Bubblegum® The Vista in the name basically means trailing or spreading. So, if you see a Vista petunia, it’s one of the spreading type in Proven Winners stable of plants. These are improved selections over the old. They’re just spreaders. However, some of the plants I listed are definitely new introductions for 2019. Hope this helps!

  7. Carol says:

    Your container plantings look great, Dee. I am going to be looking for both Pelargonium ‘New Path’ and Supertunia Vista® Bubblegum next spring. I am green with envy!

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Carol, you should be able to find Supertunia Vista® Bubblegum® pretty easily. It’s one of the best selling plants in the nation. As for ‘New Path’ I think it’s hard to find, but I’ll try to get you a plant next year if Steve has any.

  8. Sonia says:

    I love your selections! Such beautiful combinations and containers. Will definitely have add them to my list for next year!

    1. Dee Nash says:

      Thanks Sonia! I hope my winners help.

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