Newly planted container that overflows with color-Zinnias, Petunias, Coleus, Cannas, Verbena
Same container grown in
Finesse With Containers
Updated April, 2016
I create containers for clients all the time and am always looking for inspiration to move away from the “geraniums with spike and trailer” school of thought. With a little more planning and shopping, you can come up with a showplace masterpiece with WOW impact. For pollinator containers, go to Nectar in a Pot- Movable Feast
Pink Polka Dot Plant has pretty foliage for the shade
Succulents are a good choice if you don’t want to water everyday
The best piece of advice that I picked up over the years was the secret to coordinating your colors in a container. Choose a piece of fabric or piece of art that you really like and take it with you when you plant shop. Of course, you can’t take a painting with you so grab refrigerator magnets with famous paintings on them from museums, or cut out paintings from magazines. My most successful container was inspired from a Van Gogh magnet obtained from my many museum visits. Van Gogh’s iris painting has that intense blue which is hard to get with flowers – also orange, greens, a touch of white and yellow. If you like it in a painting, you will like it in a container!
Beautiful colors from Van Gogh painting
Early spring container planted with Tulips, Daffodils, Violas, Grape Hyacinth, Salvia, and Nemesia
Vase with Red Gladioli, 1886, Private collection (F247) This painting represents some of Van Gogh’s early Paris still life, where he introduced brighter, contrasting color. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I have plenty of room to plant in my beds but I really enjoy planting in containers because they become a piece of art in miniature. This is my opportunity to try new annuals that look good in the nursery and go wild with the color combos. I also do it professionally for clients who don’t have the time or ability to put it all together.
Musical Plants-Rearrange for the Season!
I rarely keep my flowers in the pot all season. They just fizzle by the end of the summer and I get tired of them. Sometimes I have three seasons of containers – a winter one with an evergreen and some pansies, then I move on to petunias, supertunias, cannas, lantanas -everything that likes heat, and finally to fall plants – mums, asters, grasses, cabbages, and ferns. I mix and match perennials, shrubs and annuals to get the most versatility and longevity out of my pots. For All Season Containers, go to my post on adding and subtracting plants for all season interest.
Seasonal container planted with Autum Fern, Mum, Ivy, Kale, Miscanthus, and Helichrysum
Large Containers Are Best
Choose a large enough container to avoid constantly watering it during long hot summers. A pot with a circumference of at least 15 to 18 inches is enough to get you going with a selection of different types of plants, plus enough room for them to grow throughout the summer. I like the light faux pots that look like real pottery, but will not crack and will retain water better than terra-cotta ones. These faux pots will last for years and you can leave them out all winter, plus they are inexpensive and portable. There are even self-watering ones available which have a water reservoir built into the container. Regardless of the type of container that you have, make sure there are drainage holes in the bottom. If there aren’t any, drill some using a large bit on a portable drill.
Attractive composite containers planted with shrubs and flowers
A great little trailer- Silver Falls or Dichondra, also, Sweet Potato Vine, Ginger, Petunia, and Verbena
Good Soil – Good Plants
Soil or potting medium can make or break your container. Use a more expensive potting medium that has an organic mix of compost, sphagnum moss, and perlite. There are a lot of commercial potting mixes on the market so be sure to choose one that has added fertilizer to it as container plants need a good boost of fertilizer to bloom all season long, plus regular applications. Make sure that you add a good dollop of compost in the bottom of the pot – a couple of inches at least. This is where the roots are going to reach down and use up all those nutrients to produce flowers all season long.
Container in full summer glory
Plants – Dress It Up
Placement of the container is key to what plants you select. Notice if the site will get all day or part-day sunlight, or will be in mostly shade. Shady container plants are just as colorful as sunny ones with careful selection of vibrant foliage. Go to the nursery and ask a knowledgeable employee for suggestions on varieties. For any situation, you want something tall for the back- a thriller, like a grass or Canna or Caladium, a filler-something shorter for the middle area, and a spiller to cascade down the sides – thrillers, fillers, and spillers! – I am sure everyone has heard this phrase. It is an overused phrase, but it really describes the process well. For a pot 18 inches in diameter, you would need approximately 5 to 9 plants. Of your chosen 5 plants, use a tall architectural one, a couple of fillers, and a couple of spillers. Aim for a variety of foliage sizes and textures so that each plant stands out.
Unusual window box
Planting window boxes uses the same principles as containers. To create depth you really make use of those spillers. Silver Falls, Dichondra, is a great asset for trailing down walls and window boxes.
Silver Falls at Chanticleer in the ruin
When selecting your plants, consider your textures. I see too many containers planted with flowers and foliage that are similar in texture and look too busy. Try mixing it up with some broad sculptural leaves, variegated foliage, and deeply lobed leaf shapes. Using varying forms will help your plants stand out instead of blending together in an indistinguishable mass.
Good textural contrast and variety
Good textural variety
Cannas and Caladiums
Cannas are good selections for containers – just make sure your pot is large enough. I have seen cannas get 8 feet tall or higher! For shade, try Caladiums. There are beautiful Caladiums on the market with very colorful unusual markings and they will shine in the shade. The foliage of Cannas is their best attribute but some varieties have beautiful flowers also.
The Coleus on the market now are not your grandmother’s Coleus! Bred for both sun and shade, these plants come in a veritable kaleidoscope of colors. Literally, there are hundreds of varieties on the market and you could simply do lots of containers with just Coleus and have very colorful pots. Coleus are among my all-time favorites with beautiful striking foliage with endless color combos.. I prefer not to let Coleus flower as the flowers detract from the foliage beauty, and when they appear, I remove them.
A beautiful Coleus – I forget the name!
Partial shade container in old fashioned lead pot
Maintenance-Nip and Tuck!
Maintenance includes regular watering, at least once a day when it is hot, fertilizing with a dilute or granular fertilizer at least once a week, and pinching back plants as they grow to maintain their shape. I call this nip and tuck. If you don’t do this on a regular basis, your plants will get leggy, unattractive, and woody. It is also a good idea to elevate containers on bricks or “pot feet” so that they drain properly. If you don’t have good drainage, your plants will sulk and die! Make sure that your drainage holes are large enough so they don’t get clogged up and don’t use gravel in the bottom. The gravel just makes the pot heavier and does not help with drainage. Drip irrigation is an option if you have lots of containers that need regular watering and you don’t want to be a slave to your water can. Drip is pretty simple to set up, with all the components available at a local nursery or hardware store and they just snap together. I compare it to playing with Tinker Toys!
Group your containers, especially if you have many small ones. By grouping, you achieve a bigger impact and it is far easier to take care of them in one bunch. If you do drip irrigation, grouping is essential as you use less tubing and you can hide the tubing in the adjacent pots. Pollinators like hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies will more easily locate plant groupings. Go to Nectar in a Pot-Movable Feast to check out my pollinator container ideas.
A large grouping at the National Arboretum in D.C.
Great color combo
Don’t be afraid to plant just one kind of sensational plant in a container – here it is oleander