Creating a lush garden escape on your patio

Story and Photos by Jennifer Williams

An elaborate lush landscape in our backyards is typically thought of as large palms, Canna, Hibiscus, along with a swimming pool and some additional water features. Not everyone has the space for such an elaborate setup, but even a small patio can be your own slice of the tropics with a little planning. 

While it may not be ideal to keep your outdoor table set at all times as we often do indoors, having it set up prior to entertaining will bring an extra level of warmth and invite your guests to fully immerse themselves in your home version of a tropical paradise.

Look at your existing space for areas to put in small planting beds. For larger patio areas, these beds will soften hard edges and allow shrubs and small trees to provide year-round interest and living backgrounds for showier plants. Creating a border planting for a larger home will create a more closed “room” that will not compete for attention with the existing landscape.

When creating your patio garden, choosing a variety of plants can be overwhelming. Before you bring home a truck full of plants to create this look, arrange your selections in groups at the garden center to see if they work together.

Planting Containers
The choices for containers can be overwhelming for even the most adventurous gardener. Container choices can include wooden, ceramic, metal, plastic, etc., choices. Meanwhile the list of plants that can be successfully grown in containers is growing by the minute with the increase of dwarf and container varieties. When choosing containers and the plants to go in them, ask yourself these questions to start:

• What do you want to be your color focus: flowers, foliage, or containers?

• Do you want the space to be relaxing, energizing, formal, tropical, whimsical, etc.?

• Finally, but most importantly, what conditions do you have to work with? Full sun, shade, north facing, radiant heat from hardscape elements, water accessibility, etc. 

This corner planting, while not very bold, is full of lush textures and colors, softening the corner of the fence. The textiles of the chair cushions accentuate the delicate flowers.
When space allows, a combination of in-ground planting beds and container arrangements can create the feel of a secret garden right on your own patio.

Arrangement of Plants
When determining how to place your plantings, consider the plants’ mature size, requirements, and perennial vs. annual plants. There are two different approaches to creating a lush patio garden. One way to achieve this look is to use large containers with plantings of multiple species. You can also group a variety of smaller containers that will be more manageable to move around as needed. No matter which you choose, the primary things to consider are drainage, ability to move the container, and any special maintenance needs.

If space and budget allow, a small, self-contained water feature can add great ambiance to a patio garden and entertaining space.
Whether you prefer traditional ferns, vines, or something unconventional like this ric rac cactus (Epiphyllum anguliger), a hanging basket is great for your patio space.

Here are two different options to create a patio garden space that is lush and functional. Both plans can be implemented in a short amount of time or spaced out over time.

House One: This patio has a clean slate with no in-ground planting beds. The house is neutral beige with natural wood fencing. Flagstone colors are neutral grays and browns. Clients want a lively space for entertaining with bright colors and year-round interest.

Plan: Based on the neutral backdrop and color palette of the existing hardscape materials, and the desire to warm up the space for entertaining I would approach the plan as follows: 

I would utilize primarily foliage plant material in a variety of chartreuse and medium green tones. Adding color with various flowering plants will create excitement and movement throughout the space. Keeping containers more neutral, but in a variety of materials will complete the plantings. A natural wood table and chairs, accented with a colorful tablescape, chair cushions, and umbrellas will finish off this lively outdoor entertaining space. Plants such as Hosta, cast-iron plant (Aspidistra elatior) and Ligustrum will give year-round foliage interest. Fantastic plant choices for this plan include climbing vines like Clematis and Mandevilla that provide a wonderful flower show but also have sturdy foliage that will stay lush in the heat of summer. 

In contrast, if using colorful containers, white-flowering plants can add interest without outshining their containers. Great choices for these include the vining plants mentioned as well as Angelonia, Salvia, or Impatiens. 

House Two: This home has the advantage of inground planting beds, which allow the homeowners to utilize existing evergreen shrubs and mature crapemyrtles (Lagerstroemia) to serve as the backdrop for their patio escape. They would like to have a calm environment since they use this space mostly for quiet mornings. 

Plan: With an existing backdrop of white-flowering azaleas and mature crapemyrtles, I would bring the following elements into this patio space:

Choosing a simple color palette of blue and white, with small accents of yellow, will soften the existing hardscapes. Plant materials will provide the focus for the homeowners, and a variety of foliage shapes, sizes and textures will keep the eye moving and create a quiet oasis for enjoyment. Containers and textiles will provide small spots of sunny yellow. Great plant choices include: Caladium, Geranium, Impatiens, Angelonia, holly ferns (Cyrtomium falcatum), elephant ears (Colocasia, Alocasia), Clematis, and Passiflora.

With so many choices in leaf colors and sizes, coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides) are great patio plants paired with a variety of options, such as this chartreuse variety planted with Impatiens, Hosta, and cast iron plants.
A great trick to make the most of your patio space is to grow your garden up as far as possible. Utilizing vining plants such as clematis and sturdy trellises will cover harsh brick or fence with a lush blanket of foliage and flowers.


Patio Garden Maintenance Tips:

For groupings of plants, try to keep annuals that need to be changed out seasonally toward the front of containers.

If your existing landscape includes an irrigation system, contact your local contractor to see about putting in a drip system for your pots.

Perennials, shrubs, and containerized trees will need to be closely monitored after initial planting to ensure there is enough space for the root system. If you begin to see roots emerge from the drainage holes, you may need to perform a light root pruning to keep the system healthy and inside the container. When pruning roots, remember to prune top foliage slightly to reduce stress on the plant.

Tender container plants can be moved into garages or sheds for the winter for protection, or if interior space allows some plants can be grown from cuttings over the winter then placed outside in warmer temperatures for use the next year.

For taller plants, ensure the container is heavy enough to balance the size of your plants, especially if your patio is prone to gusts of high winds.

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