P. Allen Smith: Container Gardens

I’m only answering one question this month, but it’s a hot topic: designing container gardens to withstand a typical Arkansas summer.

Photography by Jane Colclasure and Mark Fonville


Have you braved the garden centers yet? Things began to get hectic in early March, and now shoppers are hitting the nurseries full tilt before summer arrives in earnest, and by earnest, I mean hot. I’ve already “zhuzhed” the gardens with summer flowering annuals. My next project is potting plant combinations, which brings me to this month’s Q&A topic: containers.

QUESTION: I’d like to place several planted containers around the entrance of my house, but it gets very hot there in the afternoon. Are there any tricks when it comes to growing plants in pots in hot conditions?

ANSWER: Clustering several containers together will make a striking focal point to the entrance of your home. Here are a few tips that should help.

When the sun is the most intense, you may want to move plants into some shade for a little relief. If it is practical to do so, pulling containers out of the sun for a few hours can help restore the plants’ vigor. Many plants that require full sun are actually very happy in partial sun or dappled shade when the light is intense. Placing large, heavy containers on wheeled platforms will help you move them easily.

Plants in container gardens need checking every day because the soil dries out quickly, and they need more water than in-ground plantings. Just stick your finger into the soil; if the top few inches are dry, it’s time to water.

If daily watering doesn’t fit into your schedule or you would like to conserve water usage, select drought-tolerant plants and consider a drip irrigation system on a water timer. There are kits that let you water several containers on the same hose connection. Also, look for plants that are native to your area. Native plants will be adapted to your growing conditions and stand a better chance of survival.

Finally, you’ll probably need to fertilize your plants more often than those growing in the ground. Each time you water, you wash out nutrients from the soil, so feed your plants accordingly.Some plants perform better than others in hot, dry environments. Here’s a list of some you might want to consider.

‘Century Plant ’ (Agave americana)
This is a bold plant that is exceptional as a focal point because of the large, fleshy leaves. Perennial in zones 7b – 10; needs good drainage, full sun.

‘Strawflower, Paper Daisy’ (Bracteantha bracteata)
These little daisy-like blooms will bring super-saturated color to your container gardens. Colors include white, pink, yellow, orange and bronze-red; annual, full sun.

‘Ornamental Grasses’
There’s a wide selection of grasses that are suitable for container gardens. Though they are graceful in appearance, grasses are quite resilient, low-maintenance plants. It’s surprising how many sizes, colors and variations are available.

This plant loves hot weather. In fact, it doesn’t really start blooming until the heat of summer. The blooms are quite colorful, and butterflies love them. Perennial zones 7 – 11; treat as an annual in cooler climates, full sun.

Lavender, thyme, sage and rosemary all thrive in hot, dry environments. They don’t require much maintenance, and you can harvest them for use indoors.

‘Plumbago’ (Plumbago auriculata)
This tropical shrub sports a bright, baby blue flower, which is well complemented by bright green foliage. I often recommend this plant for poolside containers. Perennial zones 8 – 10; treat as an annual in cooler climates, full sun to partial shade.

Echeveria, aloes and sedums have made a resurgence in popularity. The funky shapes and colors make for a fun container garden. They are very easy to grow in hot, dry environments.



This urn will be a dramatic display up until the first late-autumn freeze. To make the combo especially suited to our climate, replace the old-fashioned impatiens with SunPatiens® impatiens, which are more disease resistant and heat-tolerant.

Not every place in Arkansas is sunny, hot and dry. How about a container design for those of you who garden with shade?

This is one container that won’t sit in the background, demure and unnoticed. It is so tall and dramatic that one urn is all you need to make an unforgettable accent for your home’s entrance. This plant combination does best in full to partial shade.

  • —urn (32 inches tall by 24 inches deep with 12-inch diameter)
  • one 2-gallon ‘Kimberly Queen’ fern
  • one 8-inch pot pink caladium
  • one 1-quart pot coral or pink impatiens
  • one 1-quart sedge
  • potting soil

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