I’ve long been a sucker for plants with showy foliage, often falling for their pretty leaves without careful consideration of their sometimes less-than-attractive habits. I don’t much mind plants that produce lots of seedlings; if they’re truly gorgeous, having to snip off the spent flowers or weed out excess offspring seems a fair trade.
Plants that sneak around by creeping roots or stems are another matter. They look all cute and innocent for the first year or two; then suddenly, they’re popping up everywhere and generally making a nuisance of themselves. If I suspect or know for sure that a plant is likely to be a creeper, I’ve learned to trial it in a pot first.
If you try this yourself, keep in mind that creeping plants can be very persistent in their quest to get into the ground and spread far and wide. I strongly suggest setting potted spreaders on a saucer, directly on a solid surface (such as a concrete slab), or on an elevated surface (such as a deck or steps), so the roots can’t sneak out of the drainage holes. Also watch out for creeping stems that trail over the sides of the pot, because they too may take root if they touch the soil. Keeping the pot on a hard surface helps here as well; using a hanging basket, window box, or raised planter is another option.
Here are three out-of-the-ordinary creeping variegates that I’ve had good luck with as container plants over the years.
Variegated Water Celery (Oenanthe javanica ‘Flamingo’)
I remember this plant being briefly popular back in the ’90s; then it almost disappeared from the trade for a while — perhaps because it terrified gardeners with its propensity to spread when let loose in good garden soil. By luck, I first tried it in a window box; it did crowd out everything else, but it was very pretty. When I found it again, I gave it a container by itself, and it made a great show there, forming a dense, pot-filling, 6- to 8-inch-tall clump of lacy, light green-and-white foliage that’s blushed with pink when the weather gets cool.
Clusters of tiny white flowers may appear in summer, but they’re not nearly as showy as the leaves. Full sun to partial shade is fine. As you may guess from the name, variegated water celery is a great plant for container water gardens, but it also grows just fine in ordinary container mix with regular watering. In pots, it’s usually hardy in Zones 6 or 7 to 10. A few sources for ‘Flamingo’ include ForestFarm and Glasshouse Works.
Variegated Water Pennywort (Hydrocotyle sibthorpioides ‘Crystal Confetti’)
This carpeting creeper grows just a few inches tall, making mats of scalloped green leaves thinly edged with cream to white (and sometimes with a light pink tinge too). In the garden, it hugs the ground and spreads rapidly where the stems touch the soil; in a planter or hanging basket, it makes a delicate-looking trailer for full sun to partial shade.
Like variegated water celery, variegated water pennywort is great for water gardens but also grows well in regular container mix as long as you don’t let it dry out completely. I’d guess the hardiness range would be Zones 7 or 8 to 10 in pots. ‘Crystal Confetti’ is available from Glasshouse Works (listed there as Hydrocotyle sieboldii ‘Crystal Confetti’) and The Water Garden Shop.
Dwarf Whitestripe Bamboo (Pleioblastus variegatus, a.k.a. P. fortunei)
Just the thought of planting bamboo makes many gardeners cringe, due to the plants’ reputation for being ultra-aggressive spreaders. Full-size bamboos can easily bust out of pots after several years, but dwarf types tend to have thinner roots, so they seem more amenable to long-term container culture.
Dwarf whitestripe bamboo is strikingly streaked with green and white, forming an elegant clump when contained by the walls of a pot or planter. If you prefer yellow-and-green markings, look for dwarf yellowstripe bamboo (Pleioblastus viridistriatus).
Both species can reach 3 to 4 feet tall in the ground but tend to be more compact (usually more like 18 inches tall once established) in a container. Give them full sun to partial shade with ordinary container mix. Hardiness is probably Zones 6 or 7 to 10 in pots, though the tops may die back in the colder parts of this range. Sources for both species include Tradewinds Bamboo Nursery, Bamboo Garden, and Tripple Brook Farm.