At the heart of my considerations for this container display was my desire to create a composition of beautiful yet tough plants that would delight their owners for a long time without being too fussy or difficult to replicate. They would need to tolerate exposure to drying winds, intense sun, month-long temperatures in the upper nineties or low hundreds and occasional light frost, periodic neglect (and no watering), and a lot of competition for space, both above the soil level as well as for the roots. And they would have to like living in my hypertufa troughs (see my previous post), at least for the next 2 or even 4 seasons, to be “sustainable” (at least as far as a container-existence is concerned).
I already had a few suitable plants: Leucadendron discolor, Aeonium Sunburst, Firecracker Broom, Crown of Thorns, String of Pearls… These are all drought tolerant shrubs, perennials and succulents whose adaptation to prolonged container life on my deck in Ramona I had been admiring for a couple of years. I only needed to find complementary plants that would offset or enhance their qualities and allow me to juxtapose textures, forms and colors.
Although my intended “pièce de résistance”, the Leucadendron discolor, had clearly proved that it can survive a container-existence (mine is now some 6 ft tall and 3 years old) it was too big for my trough. I chose instead a close relative, the Pincushion Yellow Bird, Leucospermum cordifolia ‘Yellow Bird’ that drew lots of admiring comments at the fair. This beautiful South African shrub is related to Proteas and reminds me of the flowers of thistles – without the bristles. Sunset gives the growing zones as 15-17, H1 and 21-24. It grows to 4 ft tall and wide and can take several degrees of frost; the side buds will produce flowers even if the main flower buds freeze.
The nodding Pincushion is the best species for cut flowers with blossom clusters that are about 4 inches across, borne at the branch tips. The bloom peaks in late winter or early spring and can last for 6 months but can start earlier in mild winters. It is supposedly difficult to grow because it needs perfect drainage, protection from drying winds but good air circulation. It requires full sun, regular water only in the beginning until establishment (several months to a year depending on planting season) when it needs water only every 2 to 4 weeks. Selections of this plant in other colors include ‘Flame Spike’ (salmon red) and ‘Red’ (orange red).
Because of the Yellow Bird’s gawky and gangly form I decided to place a “counter weight” next to it, and the appropriate one had to be the Sunburst Aeonium. This succulent grows leaf rosettes at the branch tips that reach a foot across, to form plants that can be about 2 ft across and of about the same height. The fleshy leaves have a delightful variegation that makes the plant very attractive. It blooms after several years only and will then die, but the new “pups” or side shoots will replace the mother plant. With age, these plants become leggy but you can keep them bushy and encourage branching by cutting back branches several inches below rosettes. These cuttings can then be used for easy propagation: let them dry for a couple of days, then set in sandy soil kept barely moist until new grow emerges.
With its low watering requirements and equal sun tolerance it will make a good companion to the Yellow Bird.
Now, on the side of the Protea, I needed something softer, preferably in a complementary color, and draping over the edge of the container. For this I chose Setcreasea pallida (Tradescantia pallida ‘Purpurea’) or Purple Heart (also called Purple Queen): This creeping plant has only moderate water requirements, is tolerant of some frost that might kill the tops but recovery is fast in warm weather. It will reach 1 to 1 ½ ft height and about 1 ft wide, and needs to be pinched back after bloom. The stems tend to flop which makes a good container plant if combined with an upright ‘partner’. (In parts of this county it can be unattractive in winter, but it seems well worth the try.)
In the rear container one you can see the red and purple companions: Crown of Thorns, Coral Fountain (also called Firecracker Broom), Geranium ‘Vancouver Sentenniel’ and Statice. The Firecracker Broom, also aptly called Coral Fountain, is a good container plant: Here it keeps a much neater and smaller form than in the ground where it can reach to 5 ft high and wide; if the green, almost leafless stems of my container get too long they are easily shortened without loosing the graceful drooping form. On my deck in Ramona it has continuously produced a profusion of bright red, narrowly tubular flowers since last year that attract hummingbirds. This shrub needs regular but small applications of fertilizer to keep blooming. It tolerates partial shade or bright indirect light and needs only moderate to regular watering.
Next to it, producing an attractive contrast with its sturdy, upright form I planted Crown of Thorns Euphorbia milii. It, too, hasn’t stopped flowering since I planted it in the previous container about 2 years ago. It doesn’t seem to mind that I uprooted it from its previous home… It’s a bit thorny but can be handled easily with leather gloves that will protect your hands also from the milky sap that can cause skin rashes and is toxic if ingested.
It also requires excellent drainage and has very low water demands. It grows 1 to 4 ft high and about 1 ½ ft wide which makes it an excellent upright narrow accent in a container. Many varieties and hybrids of this one exist in colors of yellow, pink and orange. In windy or frost-prone area it is best grown against a sheltered wall. Salt tolerance makes it ideal for seaside plantings! It tolerates partial shade or full sun, and as indoor plant it needs bright light.
All these plants are set into a fast-draining succulent soil mix. The two troughs, displayed at the fair back to back, are now back at my house and adorn my front door and my deck. I doubt that I will need to keep an eye on them for the last days of “winter” and a possible frost. And for next winter I’ll keep an old bed sheet handy in case a strong frost is in the forecast. From now on my main concern will be not to overwater, and to not forget to feed the plants occasionally, and to keep the ants from raising a colony of aphids on them.
And if you need sources and would like to share your own container-stories with me, please let me know!