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Best Foliage Plants for Containers

By: Kristin Beane Sullivan
Every container needs a couple of foliage plants. You can't beat the long-lasting impact and easy care! Here are 11 of the best foliage plants for containers.

Foliage container with Hakonechloa and coleus: ‘Aureola’ hakonechloa and  ‘Marrakesh’ coleus make a stunning foliage combination in containers.

Love those leaves!

Plants can’t survive without leaves — they manufacture food. But leaves don’t have to be simply utilitarian; they can be star performers, too. All in all, great foliage can keep your garden interesting and colorful much longer than almost any flower. In truth, they are the workhorses of a container combo. (In truth, of any garden combo... just check out the gorgeous options in this beautiful book, Fine Foliage: Elegant Plant Combinations for Garden and Container.) Which foliage plants will work best in your containers?

A neutral green foliage, like Boston fern, can weave a diverse bunch of flower colors and shapes together into one stunning container. Or choose a plant with vivid leaves, such as a coleus, and make it the centerpiece of a combo with pale pastel or white flowers. Maybe your color scheme didn’t come out the way you expected and clashes with the container. A cascade of foliage can disguise the pot so it doesn’t show as much. Better yet, just embrace foliage and try a container with leaves only. Make it interesting by mixing up the textures and colors. You’ll never miss the flowers!

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Best foliage plants for containers

Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata)

Sometimes all you need is some bright green foliage to perk up a container. Look no further than Boston fern. The arching fronds provide unique texture to a combo and sway in the breeze to add movement, too. Keep the soil moist, and if you live in a dry climate, mist the leaves. This tender perennial doesn’t grow quickly, so choose a specimen that’s the right size for the container when you plant — it won’t get much bigger.

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as annual) Blooms NA Light Part to full shade Size 8 to 24 in. tall, 12 to 36 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 10 to 12

Coleus (Plectranthus hybrids)

Big and bold, like Kong™ Rose in the photo above, or small and demure, there’s a coleus for any position in any container. Colors range from green, yellow and red to deep brown and vibrant orange, as well as many combinations. The range of sizes and colors makes it one of the most versatile foliage plants for containers. It’s a fast grower, reaching 6 to 36 in. tall, so start with small plants. Keep the soil moist and pinch out the flowers to keep the plant compact and growing lots of leafy side branches.

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as an annual) Blooms Insignificant blue or white flowers all summer and fall Light Full sun to full shade Size 6 to 48 in. tall, 10 to 30 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 10 to 11

Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia)

Creeping Jenny is an easy-to-grow perennial — whatever the rest of your plants in the container like, it’ll be happy. The bright gold foliage of ‘Aurea’ spilling over the edge is a great way to soften the lip of a pot. This is a fast spreader, so you can start with a small plant and by midsummer you’ll have a lush cascade of gold. Plant it at the edge of the pot and stand back. But keep shears handy and snip stems if they grow too long.

Type Perennial Blooms Yellow flowers in summer Light Full sun to full shade Size 3 to 6 in. tall, 12 to 18 in. wide Hardiness Cold-hardy in USDA zones 3 to 9

Croton (Codiaeum variegatum pictum)

The Jackson Pollock of houseplants, croton offers outdoor containers splashy foliage in green, red, yellow, orange and black. Leaves range in shape from large almond shapes to curly or strappy and thin. Choose tall plants to stand out above the others in the container. Try popular varieties such as ‘Petra’, above, ‘Andrew’, which has narrow green leaves with creamy white accents, speckled green-and-yellow ‘Eleanor Roosevelt’, and ‘Mammy’ whose red, green and yellow leaves twist and turn.

Crotons need bright light to make their colors pop. In cold-winter regions, bring croton indoors before frost and set it in a high-light area to overwinter.

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as annual) Blooms NA Light Part to full shade Size 1 to 4 ft. tall, 1 to 3 ft. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 10 to 12

Persian shield (Strobilanthes dyeriana)

Iridescent purple leaves make a great contrast or backdrop for plants with bright-colored flowers. Persian shield also has pale blue blossoms in late summer or fall — you can leave them or pinch them off. This tender perennial can grow quite large, but with a bit of pruning you can keep it as short as 1 ft. It’s adaptable, but the foliage color is best in part shade. Don’t let the soil get too dry or it’ll drop leaves. And it can be overwintered indoors as a houseplant.

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as annual) Blooms Pale blue in late summer Light Full sun to part shade Size 18 to 36 in. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 9 to 11

Sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas)

Cascades of burgundy, brown, gold or variegated leaves make this tender perennial popular. Illusion™ Emerald Lace is a cultivar with deeply cut leaves. Also look for the Sweet Caroline series, with a compact habit that’s great in containers. Occasionally snip the tips of the stems back a couple of inches to keep this vine under control. Give it full sun to part shade for the best leaf color. It grows quickly, so you can start with a small plant and reap big rewards in no time.

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as annual) Blooms NA Light Full sun to part shade Size 4 to 12 in. tall, 18 to 72 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 8 to 11

Caladium (Caladium hybrids)

Large leaves, 6 to 18 in. long, in red, pink, green or white, such as those of ‘Candidum’, make caladium a great focal point or supporting player in part sun to shade. The blooms aren’t showy and can be snipped off. These leaves grow from a tuber that can be started indoors. Being tropical, caladium will not tolerate cold temperatures: Wait until the same time you’d plant tomatoes before you put one outside. Throughout the growing season, keep the soil moist or the leaves may wither.

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as annual) Blooms NA Light Part to full shade Size 1 to 2 ft. tall and wide Hardiness Cold-hardy in USDA zones 9 to 11

Coral bells (Heuchera hybrids)

You may think of this as a perennial you grow in your garden. But you’ll find ones with colorful leaves in shades of burgundy, green or gold. With all that color, and at 6 to 18 in. tall, this plant is a great foliage plant for containers. All cultivars will flower, but some blooms aren’t showy, so snip them off if you like. Since this is not a fast-growing plant, for a container combo you may want to start with a large specimen.

Type Perennial Blooms Wands of red, pink, white or green flowers in late spring Light Full sun to part shade Size 6 to 24 in. tall, 10 to 36 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 9

Hakonechloa (Hakonechloa macra)

Cascades of chartreuse foliage, like those of ‘Aureola’, are terrific at the edge of a container. This grass can grow 12 to 24 in. tall and wide, but the fine texture keeps it from overpowering a combo. This graceful perennial grass tolerates shade to full sun, but the brightest leaf color will be in part shade. It can be slow-growing, so in a container it’s a good idea to start with a large specimen.

Type Perennial Blooms Yellow-green flowers in late summer Light Full sun to full shade Size 12 to 24 in. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 5 to 9

Ornamental kale (Brassica oleracea)

The colors of this tender perennial usually intensify with cold temperatures. Basic leaf color is blue-green, but it can be tinted with shades of red and purple, even white. And the leaves may be deeply cut or very ruffled like ‘Emperor Rose’. As you plant in a container, tip the rosette so the stem leans on the edge of the pot. That’s the best way to show off the colorful leaves.

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as annual) Blooms Yellow in summer, but usually only appear in second year Light Full sun Size 8 to 18 in. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 7 to 11

Rex begonia (Begonia rex)

A silver-leafed rex begonia like ‘Rum Painkiller’ is a great choice for perking up a shady corner. While most cultivars have other colors, such as red, mixed into their leaves, it’s the silver that makes them stars. Keep these tender perennials out of direct sunlight or the leaves will scorch.Moist, but not wet, soil is ideal. And feed them with a water-soluble organic fertilizer at half strength every two weeks.

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as annual) Blooms Not showy Light Part to full shade Size 8 to 12 in. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 10 to 11

Boston fern (Nephrolepis exaltata)

Sometimes all you need is some bright green foliage to perk up a container. Look no further than Boston fern. The arching fronds provide unique texture to a combo and sway in the breeze to add movement, too. Keep the soil moist, and if you live in a dry climate, mist the leaves. This tender perennial doesn’t grow quickly, so choose a specimen that’s the right size for the container when you plant — it won’t get much bigger.

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as annual) Blooms NA Light Part to full shade Size 8 to 24 in. tall, 12 to 36 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 10 to 12

Caladium (Caladium hybrids)

Large leaves, 6 to 18 in. long, in red, pink, green or white, such as those of ‘Candidum’, make caladium a great focal point or supporting player in part sun to shade. The blooms aren’t showy and can be snipped off. These leaves grow from a tuber that can be started indoors. Being tropical, caladium will not tolerate cold temperatures: Wait until the same time you’d plant tomatoes before you put one outside. Throughout the growing season, keep the soil moist or the leaves may wither.

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as annual) Blooms NA Light Part to full shade Size 1 to 2 ft. tall and wide Hardiness Cold-hardy in USDA zones 9 to 11

Coleus (Plectranthus hybrids)

Big and bold, like Kong™ Rose in the photo above, or small and demure, there’s a coleus for any position in any container. Colors range from green, yellow and red to deep brown and vibrant orange, as well as many combinations. The range of sizes and colors makes it one of the most versatile foliage plants for containers. It’s a fast grower, reaching 6 to 36 in. tall, so start with small plants. Keep the soil moist and pinch out the flowers to keep the plant compact and growing lots of leafy side branches.

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as an annual) Blooms Insignificant blue or white flowers all summer and fall Light Full sun to full shade Size 6 to 48 in. tall, 10 to 30 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 10 to 11

Coral bells (Heuchera hybrids)

You may think of this as a perennial you grow in your garden. But you’ll find ones with colorful leaves in shades of burgundy, green or gold. With all that color, and at 6 to 18 in. tall, this plant is a great foliage plant for containers. All cultivars will flower, but some blooms aren’t showy, so snip them off if you like. Since this is not a fast-growing plant, for a container combo you may want to start with a large specimen.

Type Perennial Blooms Wands of red, pink, white or green flowers in late spring Light Full sun to part shade Size 6 to 24 in. tall, 10 to 36 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 3 to 9

Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia)

Creeping Jenny is an easy-to-grow perennial — whatever the rest of your plants in the container like, it’ll be happy. The bright gold foliage of ‘Aurea’ spilling over the edge is a great way to soften the lip of a pot. This is a fast spreader, so you can start with a small plant and by midsummer you’ll have a lush cascade of gold. Plant it at the edge of the pot and stand back. But keep shears handy and snip stems if they grow too long.

Type Perennial Blooms Yellow flowers in summer Light Full sun to full shade Size 3 to 6 in. tall, 12 to 18 in. wide Hardiness Cold-hardy in USDA zones 3 to 9

Hakonechloa (Hakonechloa macra)

Cascades of chartreuse foliage, like those of ‘Aureola’, are terrific at the edge of a container. This grass can grow 12 to 24 in. tall and wide, but the fine texture keeps it from overpowering a combo. This graceful perennial grass tolerates shade to full sun, but the brightest leaf color will be in part shade. It can be slow-growing, so in a container it’s a good idea to start with a large specimen.

Type Perennial Blooms Yellow-green flowers in late summer Light Full sun to full shade Size 12 to 24 in. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 5 to 9

Croton (Codiaeum variegatum pictum)

The Jackson Pollock of houseplants, croton offers outdoor containers splashy foliage in green, red, yellow, orange and black. Leaves range in shape from large almond shapes to curly or strappy and thin. Choose tall plants to stand out above the others in the container. Try popular varieties such as ‘Petra’, above, ‘Andrew’, which has narrow green leaves with creamy white accents, speckled green-and-yellow ‘Eleanor Roosevelt’, and ‘Mammy’ whose red, green and yellow leaves twist and turn.

Crotons need bright light to make their colors pop. In cold-winter regions, bring croton indoors before frost and set it in a high-light area to overwinter.

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as annual) Blooms NA Light Part to full shade Size 1 to 4 ft. tall, 1 to 3 ft. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 10 to 12

Ornamental kale (Brassica oleracea)

The colors of this tender perennial usually intensify with cold temperatures. Basic leaf color is blue-green, but it can be tinted with shades of red and purple, even white. And the leaves may be deeply cut or very ruffled like ‘Emperor Rose’. As you plant in a container, tip the rosette so the stem leans on the edge of the pot. That’s the best way to show off the colorful leaves.

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as annual) Blooms Yellow in summer, but usually only appear in second year Light Full sun Size 8 to 18 in. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 7 to 11

Persian shield (Strobilanthes dyeriana)

Iridescent purple leaves make a great contrast or backdrop for plants with bright-colored flowers. Persian shield also has pale blue blossoms in late summer or fall — you can leave them or pinch them off. This tender perennial can grow quite large, but with a bit of pruning you can keep it as short as 1 ft. It’s adaptable, but the foliage color is best in part shade. Don’t let the soil get too dry or it’ll drop leaves. And it can be overwintered indoors as a houseplant.

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as annual) Blooms Pale blue in late summer Light Full sun to part shade Size 18 to 36 in. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 9 to 11

Rex begonia (Begonia rex)

A silver-leafed rex begonia like ‘Rum Painkiller’ is a great choice for perking up a shady corner. While most cultivars have other colors, such as red, mixed into their leaves, it’s the silver that makes them stars. Keep these tender perennials out of direct sunlight or the leaves will scorch.Moist, but not wet, soil is ideal. And feed them with a water-soluble organic fertilizer at half strength every two weeks.

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as annual) Blooms Not showy Light Part to full shade Size 8 to 12 in. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 10 to 11

Sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batatas)

Cascades of burgundy, brown, gold or variegated leaves make this tender perennial popular. Illusion™ Emerald Lace is a cultivar with deeply cut leaves. Also look for the Sweet Caroline series, with a compact habit that’s great in containers. Occasionally snip the tips of the stems back a couple of inches to keep this vine under control. Give it full sun to part shade for the best leaf color. It grows quickly, so you can start with a small plant and reap big rewards in no time.

Type Tender perennial (usually grown as annual) Blooms NA Light Full sun to part shade Size 4 to 12 in. tall, 18 to 72 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 8 to 11

Published: May 7, 2020
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