This Year’s Summer Containers for Sun

This has been a pretty good summer, if not a great one, for our flowering containers in the sunny front garden. I feel like we’ve developed a style and a palette of plants we can keep going back to. At the same time, there are always lessons to learn – particularly those taught by stretches of very hot, dry weather.


First off, I have definitely come to believe that just one type of plant (or 2-3 at most) in an individual container can be better than lots of species. Like many people, I was taught that containers should be packed with a mix of “thrillers, fillers, and spillers”. That may make sense if you’ve got one big container, but not if you’re working with a whole bunch of pots.

With over a dozen containers out front, I think it’s better to have the pots working together as an ensemble, which means fewer types of plants per pot.


Some pots can get by with only a single “filler” plant, like these  ‘Red Marietta’ Marigolds (Tagetes patula). Hey, do NOT look down your nose at my Marigolds. No plant snobbery allowed!


Or these ‘Profusion Orange’ Zinnias (Zinnia elegans), though frankly their performance was kind of disappointing this year.


Only a few containers get eye-catching ‘thrillers’ like Salvia ‘Mystic Spires’ and ‘Rhea’.

I found containers with vertical plants to be challenging to keep underplanted with low-growing companions. This is important for a look of fullness, but also to prevent the containers from drying out, especially since I pretty much refuse to water every day.


Initially everything was underplanted with Sweet Alyssum (Lobelia maritima).  Which was great, as long as it lasted – I love that fragrance! However, they tended to fry once we got to mid-summer.


Casting about for replacements, I tried a variety of annual Lobelia (Lobelia erinus) called ‘Techno Heat Upright Blue’, which you can see in the upper left in the picture above. It’s supposed to tolerate lots of hot sun. Despite the name, it fried in early August.

Oh, also in the photo above: Starflower (Pentas lanceolata), which is another plant that can fill in a container very nicely all by itself.  It’s now one of my favorites. Flowers its head off, attracts hummingbirds, and tolerates a bit of dryness.


I found that Euphorbia hybrids ‘Diamond Frost’ and ‘Crystal White’ (to the left in the photo above) serve nicely for underplanting. I think I prefer ‘Crystal White’. Neither one of them will wither in the face of strong sun. Portulaca can also work pretty well.


Here’s a look at the Starflower and Salvia on the right side of front door landing. (The white flowers belong to shrub rose ‘Cassie’).

And here’s what we’ve got on the left side.


A lot of the same plants, except for the Zinnia ‘Cut and Come Again’. Next year I think I’ll go back to ‘Zahara’ or ‘Magellan’.


At the top on this side is Cigar Plant, the Cuphea hybrid ‘Vermillionaire’.


Hummingbirds love this plant.

You might have noticed that there isn’t a lot of space for people between the rows of containers, which goes against all the best advice. Too bad, I say. People who don’t like sharing space with plants probably shouldn’t be visiting us, anyway.


Oh, yes, another lesson I learned this summer: it’s really important to place your containers where you can see that they need watering.

Have you learned any lessons about flowering containers in sun this summer?

36 Comments on “This Year’s Summer Containers for Sun”

  1. Glad you asked. I did learn about a couple of plants this summer. I learned that Argyranthemum frutescens ‘Golden Butterfly’ which is a pretty little yellow daisy flower that gets about 18″-36″ tall and blooms it’s head off all summer in a pot on my mostly shaded patio does awful in a pot out in all afternoon sun. I love this little yellow bloomer and thought it would show up nice in the out back garden. Not so. I did find that Angelwing Begonia ‘Dragon Red’ loved the hot sun treatment. I was surprised about that. I thought I might be pulling that out of the pot after it fried but it has taken over the pot. And another disappointment was Black eyed susan vine that I thought might bloom up a storm out there, well it just grew like a weed without many blooms. So my pots out there weren’t much to talk about.I do like the shots of red I see out there but my pots will definitely get different treatment next year.
    Like you I don’t give a hoot what people think of my garden. Some comments like ‘its too big’ , its too full’, its too much work’ (like they should care). If they don’t like it don’t come around.
    I haven’t put salvia into a pot. I am always amazed how well it does in the ground in my garden. Love those blues.

  2. All interesting and informative. The marigolds are so cheerful. I have a go at pot/planters but am not usually very .successful. Except — my planter of flat leaf parsley has seven swallowtail caterpillars feasting! Hope they make it.

  3. I am a huge fan of planting the same type of flower in one pot. With the amount of sun my yard gets, it’s begonias. Not my favorites but they are bright and sturdy and last the entire summer. That’s got to count for something. As for marigolds….bring them on and damn the snobs!

  4. I think your containers are doing fab considering it is August. I have a love hate relationship with them. Seriously I have been know to get rid of them all and then end up getting more once amnesia has set in. We are hibernating at the moment just waiting for Autumn.

  5. My Profusion zinnias did well this year in pots. I’m experimenting with growing some perennials in pots – crocosmia and penstemon (with sweet alyssum as “fill”); they will overwinter in the garage. I also grow herbs in pots: parsley, sage, no rosemary, thyme. Unless it rains, I water pots everyday.

  6. I agree that pots are better filled with one plant and I’m inspired by your Marigolds as they are good plants for our dry conditions. Your garden looks SO green, colourful and lush … and sadly such a contrast to our dry landscape here with no rain for months. I can’t imagine not watering every second day.

  7. Let’s see, first and foremost, I plant Marigolds every single year and love them from May through September. 🙂 My flats of Alyssum all fried in the heat this year, first time that has happened. I lost my Lobelia as well. My Geraniums, Petunias, and Begonias did well. My Impatiens and Fuscia are still hardly any bigger than when I put them in the containers. We have had excessive heat, massive amounts of humidity, and rain, rain, rain. I have several containers with perennials, and they did fine. 🙂

  8. Modern cultivars of cigar plant look different from how I remember it. I still do not understand the allure, especially there where you have so much more to choose from for color. Yours happens to look much better than ours do. I think people like them here because they do not mind the aridity as long as they get watered.

  9. Thank you for the beautiful, informative and entertaining post! I too love your Marigolds, few things say “happy summers of childhood” like the Tagetes (and Calendula).
    Million Bells are my favourites for containers, but this summer was so hot and dry that they didn’t do as well as usually.
    Happy gardening!

  10. Hello Jason, those pots all assembled together look like another whole border. I like to keep the pots as large as I can so they’re hold more water volume for when it gets hot. I tend t have a mix of perennials in pots with the gaps filled by annuals. I’m definitely not looking down my nose at your marigolds considering I have several marigold pots of my own on the patio!

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