Late summer planters

Do you remember that feeling of accomplishment you had back in May when you designed and planted your early summer containers? And do you also remember the feeling of exhilaration when they began filling out and looking beautifully lush in June?

Well, August is another thing entirely. After a few extended summer holidays or long weekends at the cottage, late summer can put planters in a sorry state. Lack of water, little or no fertilizer, scorching heat and lack of attention has turned our flamboyant June planters into our miserable August embarrassments.

They can be saved and I’m going to tell you how and for future reference, how to avoid this scenario entirely next year. Failing that, I’ll teach you how to replace them with spectacular new ones that will thrive from now to frost.

First, when is a container planting worth saving? Let’s say, for example, that your planter has some lobelia that has turned brown, some fan flower (Scaevola aemula) with a bit of dead foliage but also some new growth and flowers, and a hibiscus that has stopped flowering and is looking tatty.

Ditch the lobelia and vow to only plant it next year in a larger container. Next, tidy up the fan flower by removing the dead bits and dead-head all the spent flowers on the hibiscus. The hibiscus may no longer be flowering because it’s not receiving enough light or because it needs nourishment. If it’s in a smallish pot, consider removing it (allowing for a fairly large root ball) and transplanting it into a larger pot with fresh potting soil that has been amended with some slow release fertilizer. By the way, slow release fertilizer usually only has a life span of about three months, so if you planted in mid-May, time’s up by mid-August.

Now that the hibiscus is in a larger pot, you can supplement the display by transplanting that valiant fan flower and adding more bushy and trailing plants. These plants are both sun-lovers, so make sure you choose plants that will thrive along with them in the sun and heat.

If what you have is not worth saving (it’s either all dead or beyond rejuvenating), then start from scratch. The trick to planting in late summer is:

• Stay away from plants that will succumb to early frosts (like succulent-stemmed begonia and impatiens, for example) unless your planters are in a well protected spot;

• Concentrate on spectacular or colourful foliage plants (like ornamental grasses, papyrus, canna or even ivies and ferns and;

• Incorporate perennials and shrubs into the mix. If you choose perennials and shrubs, use an organic fertilizer rather than one with a high nutrient ratio.

Let’s face it, your sources of plant material are more limited but many nurseries are embracing late season displays, with grasses, ornamental cabbage and many late-flowering shrubs and roses. Although flowering annuals are hard to find this time of year, foliage plants abound, such as Coleus, Plectranthus, Helichrysum, Artemisia and others.

If you want to ensure your planters thrive from May through September, then the bigger the container, the better. Looking around at yours, do you notice that the plants in the smaller pots are looking a bit feeble (dare I say, crispy?) while the plants in the larger ones still look pretty fresh? A single skipped watering spells death to plants in a small pot while larger pots provide a longer watering grace period.

Next, when you’re creating your mix back in May, incorporate plants that will be reaching their prime in late summer. Hydrangea, ‘Black Lace’ elderberry, snakeroot, turtlehead, asters, even border phlox will provide a hit of interest in late August and September, both in containers and your garden. Some annuals do not fizzle by the end of summer but provide guaranteed blooms for months: for example, seek out angel wing or ‘Bonfire’ begonias or ‘Gartenmeister Bonstedt’ fuchsia if your planters are in a shadier location. Other plants should be used for their foliage strength: don’t shy away from perennials to perform this function, like Heucheras and hostas.

So embrace those late season planters – the winter’s coming and colour will soon be in short supply.

Connect with Ailsa Francis |afrancis@ottawacitizen.com