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Green Thoughts: Top picks for container gardening

Why bother with potted plants if you have a proper garden? After all, container plants are labour-intensive, need frequent watering, and will eventually get root-bound and need repotting. True, true and true again. But what if you live in a condominium with a cramped balcony, or rent a shophouse with only a concrete parking space at the front of the property? Why not put plants in pots and create a mini-garden. Hey presto… Lots of Thais do.

By Patrick Campbell

Sunday 13 March 2022, 02:00PM

MAIN: Chuan chom is a familiar sight both in nurseries and outside Thai homes. Photo: Vengolis. TOP RIGHT: Bougainvillea can grow in a pot. Photo: Karen. BOTTOM RIGHT: The crown of thorns is a popular choice in Thailand for its red, button-sized flowers. Photo: Alok Prasad

MAIN: Chuan chom is a familiar sight both in nurseries and outside Thai homes. Photo: Vengolis. TOP RIGHT: Bougainvillea can grow in a pot. Photo: Karen. BOTTOM RIGHT: The crown of thorns is a popular choice in Thailand for its red, button-sized flowers. Photo: Alok Prasad

Although I do have flower beds, I still enjoy having potted plants around the place. For a start, they are a moveable feast, and, both for their benefit and ours, can be relocated at will. Mine are ranged at intervals on the sai lang (sandwash) areas around the pool where they soften the angular outlines and provide constant colour; placed strategically in shadier areas of the house by the carport, they add a verdant touch to all that concrete.

But “verdant” is not always the right word. For Thais love bright colours and most of their container displays ‒ especially those in direct sunshine ‒ are ablaze with reds, pinks, whites and yellows. Why? Because flowering shrubs generally flourish in sunny conditions. And there is one shrub that they covet above all others: the crown of thorns. For good reason. This plant ‒ a native of Madagascar of all places, where it thrives in arid, rocky habitats ‒ adapts better to life in a pot than any other. Moreover, euphorbia milii will endure everything Phuket can throw at it, blooms all year long, and is not fussy about soil conditions.

Most pot plants wilt after a day or two in strong sun. Not this one. Detractors can argue that the crown of thorn’s milky sap is toxic, that it produces its leaves only sparingly, and that its woody stems are so spiny as to be positively dangerous. Indeed, planted as a hedge, it will, in time, form a dense burglar-proof barrier. But it is such a colourful, uncomplicated shrub. And there is one miniature version which I especially covet, on account of its tiny, button-sized red flowers, constant flowering and neat, evergreen foliage. Look out for it. It is a treasure.

Another shrub associated primarily with pots and planters is the desert rose (adenium obesum). Very slow-growing and consequently expensive to buy, the chuan chom, to provide its Thai moniker, is nonetheless a familiar sight both in nurseries and outside Thai homes, with its swollen, succulent grey stems and deep pink and white, trumpet-shaped blooms. There are also brilliant red varieties now, both with and without a white throat. Like the crown of thorns, it flowers year long and, as befits a plant from arid Arabian regions, will resist drought ‒ if less stoically than the euphorbia. 

The adenium’s origins make it heat tolerant, but, as a member of the oleander family, light watering and feeding through the dry season will promote leaf growth and prolong flowering. Deprived of water for extended periods, it will lose most of its leaves. And rotate the plant every week to ensure a neatly symmetrical shape. If it gets leggy, you can prune it. Both these plants are readily propagated from cuttings. Just allow them to dry out for at least a day so the milky latex has formed a hard seal, before inserting them in sandy loam.

Sinea Phuket

Talking of dry soil, there are other drought survivors, for example, most succulents and cacti, and so-called air plants such as orchids ‒ all worth a whole article to themselves ‒ and of course, the bougainvillea. Some Phuketians grow fueng faa exclusively in containers where, provided it inhabits a large enough pot, it will live up to its showy name of bougainvillea spectabilis. Indeed, in the dry season, spectacular bougainvilleas upstage everything in Phuket’s gardens and nurseries. Witness the huge and venerable specimens which have several varieties grafted onto one root-stock, and which sport four or five colours. They may be worth several thousand baht. Moreover, they can be clipped and shaped without getting distressed – thus providing fine examples of the topiarist’s craft. As with euphorbias and adeniums, do not overwater: the result will be an excess of foliage at the expense of flowers. 

One more sun-loving plant that accepts restricted life in a pot is the solenostemon, more usually known as coleus. Apart from the fact that this soft, brittle- stemmed shrub is a sun-lover, it has nothing in common with the aforementioned woody plants. As a member of the nettle family, it has characteristic but brilliantly coloured foliage. The spikes of purplish flowers are relatively insignificant, but the bi-coloured, patterned leaves are spectacular ‒ red , bronze, yellow and emerald green are common hues. Coleus will not tolerate xeric conditions or extreme temperatures. Indeed it will droop if the potting mix gets too hot or too dry. It’s just letting you know…

The trick, as always with tropical gardening, is horses for courses. These shrubs and succulents are not only sun lovers , but have the added advantage, essential for all potted plants, of having relatively compact root structures and some tolerance both to indifferent and dry soil. So don’t try bamboo in a container.

Dr Patrick Campbell can be contacted at his home Camelot, located at 59/84 Soi Saiyuan 13; Rawai; Phuket 83130. Tel:66 076613227 (landline), 0655012326 or 0857827551 (mobile). His book “The Tropic Gardener”, an indispensable guide to plants and their cultivation in Thailand, is available from Seng Ho bookshop in Phuket Town or Delish in Rawai, or arrange a copy to be delivered by emailing him at drpaccampbell@gmail.com.

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