Tom Hewitt is a garden writer and consultant from West Palm Beach. He can be reached at

This article applies to:



The Big Changeover
by Tom Hewitt       #Containers   #Summer   #Winter

Containers are always at their peak during the cooler months.

There’s nothing like taking care of someone else’s property to keep you on your toes. Especially when it involves a gazillion containers that must look good at all times. Trouble is, the difference between winter and summer in south Florida is like night and day, and making a smooth transition from one to the other is not an easy task.

I’ve always said that summer unofficially starts around May 1 in south Florida. By then, most winter annuals have begun their downward spiral and it’s time to replace them with those that can handle the impending heat and humidity. But a lot depends on nighttime temperatures, the right location, and other factors. Also, not all of my favorites peter out at the same time, and some even perform well year-round.

At this particular residence, all the containers stay in place and only their contents are changed. Much of the filler material not only serves as a unifying element, but also keeps disruption to a minimum. It is much easier, for example, to let gold moss sedum (S. acre) fill a pot and simply remove some from the center to add a new plant.

Sedum is great filler for smaller pots. • Crown-of-thorns combines well with other succulents. • Madagascar periwinkle is available in dwarf and trailing varieties.

One of my favorites for summer is crown-of-thorns (Euphorbia milii), which I stick in the middle of sedum. I start cuttings in 4-inch pots in late winter so that they can establish roots by the time I need them. I just love their salmon blooms against the chartreuse foliage of creeping sedum. When they get too big, I just pull them out and start over.

I also use a lot of baby sunrose (Aptenia cordifolia) as year-round filler. I find it hard to use too much of it, especially the variegated variety with pale-green leaves edged in cream. If it becomes a bit much, I just add one or two all-green baby sunrose to balance things out. Chartreuse sweetpotato vine (Ipomoea batatas ‘Marguerite’) is another of my favorites for light shade.

In many of my larger containers, I bury potted 1-gallon plants in the center, changing them out from season to season. But the sweetpotato vine, sedum, or whatever other filler I use stays in place. This system also allows me to switch out annuals in shady containers if they’re not receiving enough light to bloom.


‘Marguerite’ sweetpotato vine stays in place, but its centerpiece changes with the seasons.

In smaller terra-cotta containers, I usually just plop in a 1-gallon pot of ornamental moss rose (Portulaca grandiflora). Keeping succulents in their own pots allows better drainage and eliminates transplant shock. It also makes things easier to change out.

I also have my summer stalwarts. Madagascar periwinkle (Catharanthus roseus) is now available in dwarf and trailing varieties. I have one pot that has been blooming nonstop for over a year now. Dwarf Pentas are a given, as well as small Zinnia, Dahlberg daisies (Thymophylla tenuiloba), and short summer snapdragons (Angelonia spp.)  Some even resow right in their containers.

You can’t beat Kalanchoe for winter color and they contrast beautifully with sedums, baby sunrose, and other succulents. I don’t bother starting them from cuttings, however, as they never resemble the showy specimens found in garden centers.

Moss rose comes in many varieties, including this double-flowering one. • Pentas and summer snapdragons love the summer heat. • Succulents take over during the summer months.

I always tuck nasturtium (Tropaeolum spp.) seeds into containers that are in full sun. Lobelia is also one of my favorites. For shady combos, I use Begonia ‘pink and ‘Mona Lavender’ Swedish ivy (Plectranthus ‘Plepalila’).

The sooner you get your summer annuals in, the better. I’ve found that if they’re planted in April, while temperatures are still moderate, they’ll perform better in the long run. Not so for winter annuals, however. Sowing seed or plugging in plants too soon makes them susceptible to damping off or rotting. I wait until late October to start seed and early November to plug in plants.

Though I make sure to apply a generous amount of balanced, slow-release fertilizer at planting time, I also augment this with weekly applications of liquid bloom-boosting fertilizer at half-strength. Plants are usually fertilized to death when you get them, and will stop blooming if not given their usual “fix.” You need to wean them off excessive fertilizing before timed-release pellets kick in.

Another good rule (especially during the summer) is letting things wilt in the midday sun. If they’re still wilted when you wake up, that means they truly do need watering. Most annuals will fade by mid-afternoon until they acclimate. Automatically watering every time they wilt is a recipe for disaster.


A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 23 Number 6.
Photography courtesy of Tom Hewitt.


Posted: 11/29/18   RSS | Print


Share this story on:
Facebook       Twitter            

Other People Are Reading