When designing summer, autumn, or winter containers be sure to follow the thrillers, fillers, and spillers rule for maximum effect. The “thriller” is the center, tallest plant. The spillers go around the perimeter of the pot; choose ones that sprawl “spill” over the edges. The fillers go in between the thrillers and the spillers to fill in the bare spots.
Annuals or Perennials?
Most people choose annuals over perennials for their summer containers. That’s because annuals bloom all summer until frost kills them off. Perennials, on the other hand, bloom for two weeks on average, if you’re lucky. You can use a combination of both for your thrillers, fillers, and spillers. For example, perennial ornamental grasses make an awesome, inexpensive (dig a clump up from your garden) “thriller” (center) for containers.
Sun or Shade?
When designing your container, be sure to take its intended location into consideration. Some plants (both annuals and perennials) like full sun, others full shade, with others somewhere in between. Don’t try to combine these different requirements in the same container. If you do, some will thrive, and others will fizzle.
You can probably tell from these pictures that coleus and hibiscus are my favourite annuals for shade and sun containers respectively….
Containers of annuals can be fertilized weekly right up until frost. This practice will keep the annuals looking cheerful as long as possible. Perennials need less fertilizer, especially those in garden beds when monthly is ideal up until August (in zone 4/5).
Deadheading and Pinching
Deadheading, or removing spent blossoms, helps to keep your containers looking nice all season. For annuals and perennials with flowers on stalks, remove the stalk right back to the first set of leaves after the flower has passed its peak. This practice often encourages repeat blooming. Others just need the faded flowers picked off.
Pinching the center of annuals and perennials encourages them to get bushier instead of leggy.
While annuals will be affected by frost, most perennials will not. Some annuals tolerate a light frost, others not so much. Of course, the first frost date varies across the globe, sometimes year to year within the same area.
In other words, frost is unpredictable.
Perennials can overwinter in your containers if you choose plants two zones hardier than what is normally hardy in your area. Otherwise, you can stick them in the ground to overwinter, to use again the following spring.
You can extend the season on both ends by heeding frost warnings in your weather forecast. In the spring I tend to start my containers early to ensure I get the annuals I want. If a frost warning is issued, I move the containers into my garage, off the (cold) cement floor, for the night in question. The same technique can be used in the fall when a sporadic early frost is in the forecast.
Once frost has set in for several days, you are fighting a lost cause. It’s then time to switch your concentration to fall or winter containers. Use the same thrillers, fillers, and spillers technique to create unique designs…
We have a large space on our cottage property that acts as a buffer zone between the road (a major highway in those parts) and the cottage. A 2-foot strip of vegetation along the road is cut by the township each year. Adjacent to that the land begins to slope downward for an approximate width of five feet before it levels off. A row of cedar hedges was planted approximately 40 feet from the road many years ago, but the area between the bottom of the slope and the cedars is rarely maintained, left to grow wild. I have always felt this whole area was wasted space. What does a gardener do with wasted space? Turns it into a garden of course, in this case, a cottage wildflower garden.
The first season (2018) we planted several evergreen trees (pine, balsam, and spruce) at the bottom of the slope. Next season we planted more, spaced throughout the flat area to create (eventually) a forest of evergreen trees as a visual and noise barrier between the road and the cottage.
I then whippersnipped the flat area around the evergreens, avoiding all of the frogs (there were tons), then sprinkled seeds (pink and white coneflowers, Queen Anne’s lace, black-eyed Susans, pink and red beebalm to name a few) along the slope and flat strip close to the road. These plants are not exactly wildflowers, more hardy, and tall perennials, but I mixed all the seeds in one large bag as I was collecting them to achieve a wildflower look.
Next Season (2020) Update
The first set of evergreens we planted have grown even though gypsy moths have persistently tried to hamper their survival.
The most recent set are coming along well too; they love the full sun and lots of space to put down roots, literally…
After a few arguments with hubby over what grass to cut (he likes the manicured city lawn look, I prefer a more natural look here) we compromised with some of each. To mark my territory of where I want the cottage wildflower garden, I trampled down the grass to create a “line” he was not to cross with the lawnmower. You can barely see it on the right side of this picture, but he saw it and that’s what counts.
The area is not very garden-friendly, sloped with sandy soil enhanced (not) with salt and bits of gravel from the road.
Unfortunately, many of the seeds I spread over the past few seasons migrated to the designated lawn area at the bottom of the slope. The soil is very sandy in this neck of the woods, so removing the errant plants and transplanting them to wildflower ridge was easy.
Now that I’ve trained my husband to cut the grass properly around it, (or I cut it myself) my wildflower ridge is currently chock full of daisies, black-eyed susans, malva, white and pink achilea, Queen Anne’s lace, viper’s bugloss, and milkweed. My cottage wildflower garden is coming to life!
The milkweed attracts monarch butterflies. They lay eggs on the leaves which hatch into caterpillars (you can see 2 in the picture below) which in turn morph into more monarch butterflies.
Queen Anne’s Lace
Queen Anne’s lace is dominating right now; I may have to selectively remove some of it next season if it takes over the other wildflowers.
I love the white lacey flower heads that ruffle in the breeze. The bees do as well. Queen Anne’s lace was my mom’s favourite wildflower, so they are obviously now one of my favourites as well as a sentimental touch in this garden.
I also have a patch of Queen Anne’s lace closer to the cottage interspersed with black-eyed susans, my mother-in-law’s favourite. I love this random patch as it reminds me that both of these wonderful women are always nearby. In spirit only, unfortunately.
Globe Thistles or Echinops
Thriving within wildflower ridge are the vibrant blue globe thistles, AKA echinops, that I planted from seeds last fall.
Slower to thrive in wildflower ridge are the wild chicory plugs I pulled from the roadside on a trek back to the city. It’s a good thing I picked them when I did, this weekend they have all been cropped off.
A member of the daisy family, the pretty cornflower blue blossoms of wild chicory are quite common along the roadsides here in Eastern Ontario.
The chicory roots were only recently transplanted in my wildflower ridge though, so I may have to exercise some patience with them.
Not so Wild Cultivars
Mingling nicely with the wildflowers indigenous to this area (those mentioned above as well as daisies, vipers bugloss, milkweed, pink thistles, and achillea) are some not-so-wild, cultivars. These all love full sun conditions and are hardy to zone 3. Coneflowers, malva/mallow, yellow daisies, monarda, and even the recognizable leaves of a hollyhock have sprouted from the seeds I collected and sewn over the past few seasons…
I’ve used a combination of seeds collected in the fall and root plugs borrowed from the roadside. For obvious reasons, the root plugs offer quicker rewards, although require more maintenance in the form of supplying them with water. This south-facing strip of property bakes in the sun, the hose doesn’t teach that far and water from the lake is a chore.
To keep our local bees and butterflies content and thriving, it is important to choose native wildflowers (ones that you see growing naturally in your area) for your gardens.
This year I have purple asters, white and pink achillea, and more traditional daisies blooming in addition to the varieties listed last season. The wild chicory did not fare so well, I will have to try it again. Unfortunately, some of the perennials (coneflowers and monarda) that looked so great last season did not return this year. I am discovering that the seeds work better than trying to transplant divided plants from my home gardens. This could be a result of the incredibly sandy soil here or the full sun location. Or a combination of both challenges.
I will keep trying though. Recently I added joe pye weed, and purple creeping bellflower plugs (yes, I’m aware they are invasive, but I like them in this spot), as well as cosmos, zinnia, poppy, flax, and blanket flower seeds from the butterfly garden I created at my local hospice. This process is slow, will have to wait until next spring to see the results of the latest additions.
I am hoping the bees and butterflies like my cottage wildflower gardens as much as I do! Shortly after I captured a picture of this yellow butterfly feasting on asters, a fat bumblebee buzzed in, shooing the butterfly to the next blossom.
Cottage Wildflower Garden at the Water’s Edge
The next spot I plan to transform is the shadier slope at the water’s edge. Stay tuned for more details on that project!
This is a much shadier site, so will require some research to find suitable new occupants.
Please let me know if you can think of any other plants I can add to either site. I prefer natural looking (no city slickers allowed) perennials.
I literally did a double take when I saw this absolutely gorgeous large cluster of Joe Pye Weed while driving home from a client’s garden. I pulled a U turn and went back to take a picture…
I have never seen such a beautiful display of Joe Pye Weed. Joe Pye weed, also called Eutrochium, is a perennial related to sunflowers. It is a late bloomer, perfect as a tall accent in your late summer and fall gardens. It is also available in a dwarf form, but cannot imagine a shorter version creating the same impact. Grown in full sun it needs moist soil, but it prefers part sun to part shade conditions where it will tolerate less moisture. I have some growing in part shade in my garden, but mine is not nearly as striking, so will try some in a sunnier spot too. Joe Pye Weed is hardy to zone 5, which means protection from cold north winds in my Kanata Ontario gardens.
Pick up a Joe Pye Weed perennial from the garden center nearest you to add some late colour to your gardens. It also propagates easily from seed, so if you know of anyone that has some, ask them to share some seeds. Just sprinkle the seeds where you would like the plant to grow, water well and wait until next season.