Container Plants that Beat the Heat

container plants

There are a number of tough waterwise characters that thrive in containers and love being out in the midday sun. Summer can take its toll on container plants and having continually to replace ones that succumb to the heat every year is tiresome and expensive.

There are, however, some hardy perennials that grow easily and enjoy our summers. They all have good structure with most producing showy blooms at different times of the year. They require minimum care and are not plagued by pests and disease.


Although Bougainvilleas are mainly used to form dense, impenetrable hedges or to cover pergolas, there are a few compact ramblers and even ground cover types that create explosions of colour in large containers. These plants demand full sun.


Echeverias have become very popular container and garden plants, possibly owing to their very structured appearance, water-wise qualities and low maintenance. There are many hybrids available on the market and once the collecting bug has bitten you, you will want them all! Echeverias tolerate light shade as well as full sun. Plants in small containers must, however, be watered regularly. Try Echeveria Agavoides.


The dwarf Aloe ‘Hedgehog’ only grows to about 40cm high, but it looks great in any sized container. ‘Hedgehog’ is a hybrid of indigenous Aloe species, bred by a local plant breeder. The grey-green leaves are thorny, narrow and arranged in a tight rosette causing them to form a compact, but spiky, ball. It grows fast and forms numerous offsets (plantlets) resulting in a thick clump. During autumn and winter numerous flower spikes with nectar-rich tubular coral-orange flowers appear.

Cotyledon Orbiculata (Pig’s Ear)

Leaf-colour and shape varies tremendously with the very worthwhile indigenous Cotyledon Orbiculata. Amongst the different forms and varieties, you will find luscious emerald-green to grey specimens often with a red line around the margins of the large, fleshy leaves.

The white-leaved form with its pale margins is very desirable as a garden ground cover, or for containers. The growth habit is so structural and pretty that one doesn’t necessarily need the clusters of bell-like flowers they produce in winter and, in some cases, a second flowering in summer. The colour of the flowers may vary greatly, ranging from yellow to orange and pink to red.


Agave hails mainly from Mexico and tropical America. Their genus is diverse when it comes to shape, foliage, colour and texture, but these tough plants all have rosettes of thick, heavy leaves. Some, like Agave Attenuata and Agave Geminiflora, are popular accent plants and have become common inhabitants of garden containers. But there are other desirables too.


Sedums range from annuals, creeping herbs and ground covers, to shrubs. It is a large genus which has one very important common characteristic – the water-storing capabilities of its leaves. Most Sedums thrive in pots.

Hot Tips

  • Attractive containers holding one specimen plant, or a good combination of complementary plants, make strong focal points and should be displayed to their best advantage:
  • Group more than one pot of the same design together.
  • Pots in pairs or rows, planted up with the same plants, make a dramatic impact.
  • Ordinary terracotta clay pots, 30cm x 27cm, look great if placed along steps or on the ledge of a wall, fountain or raised water feature. They are also big enough to allow lush growth for succulents like Echeverias or small Aloes.
  • You can plant a small, compact plant with a shallow root system – like a dwarf Aloe – in tall, narrow pots. To save on potting soil, place a few rocks in the bottom of the pot, add a layer of broken polystyrene pieces, other packaging material or empty plastic bottles and only fill the top half with potting soil.

Planting Basics

  • Make sure all containers have wide-open drainage holes or you can lose plants as a result of rotting in water-logged soil.
  • Clean all used pots with a disinfectant to prevent the transfer of root diseases to new specimens.
  • Never use ordinary garden soil. Buy good quality potting soil for non-succulent plants like bougainvilleas and a commercial succulent medium for aloes and other succulents. Add some bone meal to the potting soil to encourage strong root systems.
  • Remember that the soil for container plants will gradually be leached of minerals and nutrients and even the toughest plants need to be fed occasionally. Mulching all containers with a fresh layer of compost and feeding the plants regularly in summer with a water-soluble fertiliser can do no harm.

Source: Gardening with Succulents, by Prof. Gideon Smith, Struik Publishers, 2005. ISBN 1 77007 082 6.

The Gardener