Container contradictions

Janice Wells
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It’s funny how you can be gardening for years and not see that some of your old ideas really don’t apply anymore.

In the case of planting perennials, shrubs and trees in planters, I was advised many years ago that this wasn’t a good idea in our climate because the roots would not be as protected as if they were in the ground and said plant probably wouldn’t make it through the winter.

I always sort of took this as gospel, until I planted a cedar that I didn’t want in the garden, in a big pot, not caring if it died — and it didn’t die. Then I planted a dwarf Korean lilac that I had no room for in the garden, in a pot, and it not only didn’t die, it blooms beautifully.

But old habits die hard, and when Daughter No. 2 with a long, built-in stone planter, I didn’t have enough sense to advise her to plant evergreens in it. My brain just wasn’t wired to evergreens in planters.

On my advice she wraps her boxwood topiary with insulation around the barrel planters. Last year she did put in a few perennials in the stone planter to see how they survived the winter, but I’m already looking ahead to the spring with visions of dwarf conifers dancing in my head.

For one thing, it takes a lot of annuals to fill a planter that must be at least 10 feet long, and she has a number of other planters, bought to provide colour around the wedding site two years ago. This past summer, some of them didn’t even get planted at all, plus she was given a lovely bench with built in planter boxes on either end that hasn’t found its destiny yet.

The thing I’ve realized, now that I’ve started noticing, is that not only do container shrubs and trees do just fine in planters, but the planter often acts to keep the growth down in sort of an enforced bonsai effect; if the roots are confined to a small space, the tree or shrub will often remain proportionately sized.

I’m pretty sure that the cedar I still have stuck in a pot by the corner of the verandah, and the one planted in the ground on the other end of the veranda, were obtained at the same time and were the same size. The one with room to grow has grown, the other one is still small. So, you don’t necessarily have to find dwarf species for your planters. I don’t know how it would work with an enormous tree; don’t think I’d try it, but anything with a medium or smallish habit could be worth a try.

Not all evergreen shrubs are conifers. Holly, boxwood, some cotoneasters and euonymous keep their leaves all year round. English and Baltic ivy is evergreen and so is periwinkle.

I have two huge mounds of glossy evergreen candytuft in the back that would be lovely cascading over the side of a planter. Last summer I peered under them to figure out how to give Daughter some and put some out front, but there was no obvious way to divide them, and the Internet gives me no help except to confirm that they are “difficult to divide.” Plus, in my case, I suspect the dry stone wall they’re right behind won’t put up with too much disturbance.

Sometimes its best just to buy new ones, but whether I successfully divide the candytuft (Iberis) or not, I am looking forward to creating some containers with evergreens next year, not just to facilitate Christmas decorating, but for year round interest — and, of course, you can always add a few annuals for colour in the summer.

Janice Wells lives in St. John’s. Her latest book, “Newfoundland and Labrador Book of Musts,” was published October 2010 by MacIntyre Purcell Publishing Inc. You can reach her at

Note to readers: please do not send thumbnail-size photographs, as they are too small to publish.

Organizations: MacIntyre Purcell Publishing

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