DES MOINES, IOWA — The siren call of new plant varieties exerts a stronger pull each year, and gardeners, lured by the promise of spectacular gardens, rush to obtain the newest and most colorful plants. For many of us, it's a constant challenge to find room for these newcomers in beds already bursting with stalwart favorites. Instead of coveting space in our neighbors' yards, we can take comfort in knowing that many of these plants will thrive in containers.
In fact, an increasing number of Americans are turning to containers for use on urban windowsills and stoops, on decks and suburban patios, and as a moveable feast in the garden. Surveys by the Garden Writers Association say that about 75 percent of gardening households use containers. One of the latest trends is planting containers that delight the eye while offering side benefits such as fragrance, attracting beneficial insects, or even providing food.
Some of the noteworthy trends for the 2006 growing season include:
Bicolor flowers and plants, especially those with yellow highlights, enliven the growing space, catching the eyes of passersby and making them stop for a second look. A garden favorite throughout the country, zinnias add pizazz with their vivid color outdoors and as cut flowers indoors. It's no wonder that Zinnia Zowie! Yellow Flame is a 2006 All-America winner with its prominent center cone surrounded by scarlet petals that flame yellow at the edges of the 3- to 5-inch blossoms.
Standing 2- to 3-feet tall, it blooms from late spring to frost with vibrant color that heats up the garden even on a rainy summer day. Drought resistance adds to its container appeal. An excellent cut flower, it lasts two weeks indoors (change the water and snip off a quarter-inch of the stem daily). If for no other reason, include this zinnia for the beautiful butterflies it attracts.
For south-of-the-border appeal, try a container of Zowie! Yellow Flame with some ferny Cilantro Delfino (also a 2006 All-America winner) with its tasty leaves, flowers, and seeds that add kick to Mexican and Southwestern dishes.
Coreopsis Autumn Blush is one of those great perennials that blooms like an annual throughout the entire growing season. Adding to its appeal are the butterfly-attracting flowers that change color with the seasons.
In the cool of spring, the two-inch-wide, red-eyed, golden-orange blossoms blush a dark red. In summer, the petals change to peachy yellow. As the refreshing cool of autumn begins, the blooms revert to a red blush. It grows about 26 inches high and 32 inches wide, with a lovely mounding form that gracefully spills over the edge of a container. It's hardy in USDA Climate Zones 4 to 9. Consider pairing it with Houttuynia cordata Chameleon (chameleon plant), which is well-contained in a pot and will grow downward, and a central spike or three of Millet Purple Majesty for a striking display.
Nothing beats the heady scent of roses on a summer day. If you have plenty of sun and the other conditions in which these plants thrive, I have the rose for you: Julia Child. Considering that the famed chef herself chose the flower before she passed away last year, it's no surprise that her namesake has a spicy aroma with licorice overtones.
The flower is an All-America Rose Selection, which, when grown in my garden last year, was known only by a number. From the first bloom, I was totally enchanted: a floribunda with clusters of English-style, many-petaled, buttery yellow, three-inch flowers that kept going after the first frost here in Iowa. Even after a week of rain, the blossoms glowed.
The fragrance was so wonderful I had to taste it, and was thrilled that it tasted like it smelled. I couldn't wait to get cooking (roses, when grown organically, are among the best of the edible flowers). It makes a great sorbet and tasty shortbread. I was excited when they announced the name of this extraordinary rose. Julia Child was a great influence on me; now her namesake is growing three feet tall and three feet wide, perfect in a handsomely painted barrel with a couple of anise hyssop plants (with licorice-flavored leaves and lavender flower spikes) and underplanted with a mesclun greens mix and pansies - an instant salad with tasty edible flowers. The rose is hardy in Zones 4 to 9.
Flamboyant and dramatic, tropical plants have been welcome additions to northern gardens for a number of years - cannas, elephant ears, coleuses, and more. The hottest "discovery," according to Sally Ferguson of Netherlands Flower Bulb Information Center, is Pineapple lily Eucomis bicolor. Broad, strappy, green leaves form the base for a 12- to 18-inch spire of greenish white flowers edged in purple, topped by a pineapple-like tuft of leaves. You've never seen anything like it, nor have your friends and neighbors, so be sure to site the plants where everyone can enjoy their long-lasting summer flowers. You can easily overwinter this tender bulb (hardy in Zones 7 to 11) by bringing the container into a cool (not freezing) garage or basement and letting it dry out for the winter. For a truly extravagant display, pot the pineapple lilies to surround a dwarf banana. And if you are fortunate to live in warmer climes, you can leave the pot out all winter; you'll have an incredible container, and get to eat bananas too.
Over the years, I've grown more than a few plants that are not considered "container plants." I love all clematis, yet one of my biggest mistakes was trying to contain sweet autumn clematis, which overgrew its pot and eventually ran up the porch to the second-floor balcony.
Now a selection of clematis has been bred for containers: The Raymond Evison Patio Clematis Collection. Three plants made their debut last year and three more were added this spring. Now I can enjoy spectacular, full-size, four-inch blooms on plants that grow only three- to four-feet tall and are hardy to Zone 4. Eye-popping Bourbon, which is reminiscent of an old-fashioned favorite, has purple petals broadly edged deep red with prominent pale yellow stamens at the center.
Other varieties in the collection range from pale pink to deep red. Just imagine a potted clematis as a centerpiece on the table for a midsummer's night supper!