Perennials in mixed containers
Using perennial plants in mixed containers is certainly not a new concept. Retailers have been showcasing hardy plants in this way for years. What is new, however, is the integration of non-hardy plants along with traditionally winter-hardy ones. We now see tropical plants such as palms, cannas and Phormium used with perennials like hosta, Salvia and Lysimachia. Integrating colourful Heuchera with pansies, mums and kale can create a stunning fall display. We also see the incorporation of woody shrubs into perennial combinations and perennials mixed with annuals to extend colour and textural elements.
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One of the most exciting new trends for the porch and patio are ornamental edibles. There is extensive new breeding being done to develop small-fruit producing plants that are right at home in a container. One of the top consumer marketing and product development companies on the leading edge of this trend is Star Roses and Plants™ with their Bushel and Berry™ brand. They currently offer seven varieties of blackberry, blueberry and raspberry varieties specifically designed for patio use. All these plants are winter hardy to USDA zone 4 or 5 and can be planted in the garden, yet I suspect that most will be enjoyed for the season and replaced the next spring with new plants. Even if not planted in-ground, the hardier of these varieties will certainly overwinter in mild coastal climates right in the container. The marketing speaks specifically to the convenience of pick-your-own right on the patio, and the inclusion of recipes in their marketing materials demonstrate the great function this convenience provides.
Other examples of this trend include ever-bearing strawberries. Although not new to the patio, beautiful flowering varieties such as ‘Tristan’ or ‘Gasana’ elegantly blend the ornamental with the edible. Their flowers are much larger and more colourful than traditional strawberries, and their fruit remains close to the container on short runners. Novelty varieties such as ‘Hulaberry®’ are frequently sold in hanging baskets that include a male pollinator with several female fruit-bearing plants, eliminating the consumer’s need to understand how strawberries are produced and simply enjoy the fruit.
One of my favourite categories of perennial plants are herbs. We often neglect this entire class when thinking of perennials, yet many herbs are useful hardy plants. Some of my favourites are listed in Table 1. With herbs, function is the primary ingredient consumers are looking for, and it is exciting to see the myriad of creative ways growers and retailers are employing to showcase this functionality. Some of the most innovative designs are coming from our colleagues in Europe. A visit to the IPM show in Essen, Germany last year provided a tremendous variety of useful ideas including themed containers such as a cocktail collection, BBQ collection and Italian collection to name a few.
Beyond their more obvious functional value, herbs bring aesthetic interest as well. I have seen herbs such as thyme, sage and rosemary used to accentuate beautiful mixed containers of perennials. These tough herbs are very frost-tolerant and can provide container beauty and culinary usefulness well past frost dates. Many herbs are slow-growing and can provide season-long container interest and flavourful harvest. Of course, not all herbs are frost- and freeze-tolerant. Plants like basil and cilantro may not survive cold temperatures, but they are so important in many cooking styles that they should be incorporated where possible.
There’s more to come
The examples above are just a hint of the creative possibilities that hardy and perennial plants represent, and imaginative growers and retailers are embracing these trends with great success. Hardy garden plants are finding their place in many unique and novel uses that bring consumer satisfaction and excitement.