Sun-sations: 10 Sun-Loving Potted Plant Picks

Zinnias, petunias, marigolds, chrysanthemums — these are the plants often seen in sunny potted plantings during the warm months of the year, but is that all there is? Certainly not! Many more sun-loving plants are available for imaginative gardeners to mix and match in containers that go beyond ordinary and into the realm of creative. In fact, here are 10 tantalizing suggestions to consider for the coming growing season:

Coleus. In the botanical sense, nothing says “Floozy!” like the new generation of coleus cultivars. Their fancy foliage is a persistent pleasure for the eyes through the entire growing season with colors that range widely from lively lime-greens to ridiculous reds to bold blacks.

Purple Basil. One more dandy that flaunts its foliage well into the fall, this deep purple pretty can keep a potted creation from slumbering in a sea of green leaves during the summer months. ‘Purple Ruffles’ is one of the fancier cultivars to try. As an added bonus, this herb is an excellent addition for culinary creations ranging from marinades to pestos to herb vinegars.

Golden Creeping Jenny. This low-growing, brightly colored lovely will form a mat over the top of a pot and then spill down the sides. It will not only help soften the lines of the pot’s rim, but also will act as a ground cover to provide shade for the soil in the container, which will help prevent moisture loss. Consider it living, lovely mulch, if you will.

Mint. Another short, spreading plant that can help deflect the worst of the sun’s rays from potted soil. A container is really an ideal place for this aromatic, edible herb because it is an aggressive grower in planting beds. This leads to the wise adage that, in the garden, the best mint is contain-mint.

Purple Fountain Grass. A distinctive beauty that grows 3 to 4 feet tall, providing not only vertical interest for a large container garden, but a mysterious, deep purple tone to break up the ordinary greens of typical plants. The cultivar ‘Rubrum’ is the current queen of the foliage night for many gardeners.

Heliotrope. A perennial that is often grown as an annual in our region, it sports pretty (and persistent) purple flowers that have the pleasant scent of cherry pie. The problem is that this plant only grows to about a foot in height, so getting down on all fours is about the only way to really enjoy its fine fragrance — unless you are smart enough to put it in a pot that will raise these sweet-smelling blooms closer to the nose.

Ornamental Peppers. These peppers are excellent additions for gardeners who want constant color and interest in a contained creation. In addition to long-lasting fruit, many new cultivars have attractive foliage that ranges from variegated hues to solid dark purple, such as shown off by the currently popular ‘Black Pearl’.

Sunflowers. Dispel images of a 10-foot plant falling out of a pot. There is a new generation of sunflowers with names like ‘Solar Babies’, ‘Sunspot’, ‘Double Dandy’ and ‘Sunny Smile’ that mature only to 2 feet or less in height. Unusual? Yes. Irresistible for a potted planting? Certainly.

Ornamental Sweet Potato. This eye-catcher burst onto the horticultural scene several years ago in shades of screaming chartreuse and dark, dusky purple, but now cool copper and red-tinted shades can even be found. A rambling vine, this pretty will easily spill out and over to accentuate the sides of a container. “Sweet Caroline” is a series to seek. It was developed at N.C. State and contains several attractive cultivars in many different colors as well as shapes.

Okra. Yes, okra — this cousin of hibiscus and hollyhock displays similar eye-catching flowers, not to mention appealing (as well as edible) seed pods. One recent introduction in particular, “Little Lucy’, should be of interest to container gardeners. It is not only restrained in height — 2 feet tall — but its leaves and pods are dipped deep in a burgundy hue. Very pretty!

L.A. Jackson is the former editor of Carolina Gardener magazine. If you would like to ask him a question about your garden, go to his website at:

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