For an Updated Version of this post, go to Container Design Simplified, April 2019
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
Take pictures of creations that you like and copy them, but add your own personal touches to make it your own. Once you have done enough containers, the combinations are second nature, starting with just one really wonderful plant and working from there.
The best piece of advice that I picked up over the years was a secret to coordinating your colors in an arrangement. 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, cut a swatch from fabric, or cut out paintings from magazines. Inspired by a Van Gogh, my most successful container used the colors from his iris painting. Van Gogh’s painting has that intense blue which so many people adore – also orange, greens, a touch of white and yellow. If you like it in a painting, you will like it in a container!
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 are untested by me, and go wild with the color combos. Bold, vibrant, and sizzling color, is the driving force for many of my combinations. To browse the new Pantone colors for 2018, check out Pantone. 2018 Ultra Violet. That inspired me to create containers with intense purples. I love the new AAS Winner Purple Evening Scentsation. It has wonderful color and an even great fragrance! I can smell this one from 20′ away!
Purple Scentsation Petunia, from AAS
Coral Bells are usually my starting point for color inspiration as they come in some unusual colors not normally seen in the plant world.
I find that there are too many containers with pastel and hum drum hues, and that I rather create a bold and striking container.
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 and other cool weather flowers, 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. To see my post on Fall containers, go to Creative Fall containers. For early season containers, go to Seasonal Containers.
Edibles in containers are big now and rightly so. So many leafy crops have gorgeous foliage and shouldn’t be relegated to the vegetable garden, and it is a great way to grow your veggies in limited space. One of my all time favorite fillers is curly parsley. Colorful kale, lettuce, spinach, and other herbs like thyme are also great. Or, you can have an entirely edible container selection, and include eggplant, tomatoes, lettuce, cucs. The sky is the limit. If it is too late to start seeds, there is a huge variety of midget sized plants available at any nursery that have been developed for container culture.
Large Containers Are Best
Choose a large enough container to avoid constantly watering it during hot summers. A pot with a circumference of at least 15 to 18 inches is enough to get you going with a choice of different types of plants, plus enough room for them to grow throughout the summer. I like the light weight faux pots that look like real pottery, but will not crack and will retain water better than terra-cotta ones. The 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 and be sure to make them large enough, at least 3/4 of an inch in diameter. In addition, elevate your containers for air circulation. I use pot feet to elevate.
Good Soil – Good Plants
Good soil or potting medium is critical for the health of your plants that will be sitting in the container for months or years. Use 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. If you must reuse the same soil, then remove the top 5 or 6 inches and replace with fresh potting medium.
Right Plant, Right Spot
Note if your container will be in all day sunlight, partial shade, or mostly shade. Shady container plants can be just as colorful as sunny ones with careful selection of colorful foliage. Go to the nursery and ask a knowledgeable employee for suggestions on varieties. For any situation, you want something tall for the back, like a grass, cordyline, canna or caladium, and a cascader for the edge and something to fill in between- thrillers, spillers, and fillers!
It is an overused phrase, but it really describes the process well. For a pot 18 inches in diameter, you would need about 5 to 9 plants. Use a tall architectural one, a couple of fillers, and a couple of spillers. When I create a container, I want mature plants to make a big impact right away. Later on, you can prune and winnow out the ones that are failing to thrive.
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 planters for sun and shade, and the new begonia ‘Bonfire’ is valuable for bright color in the shade.
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.
Cannas and Caladiums -Focal Points
Cannas are good selections for sunny 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. But be careful when you plant these as they are very sensitive to cold. Make sure the nights keep above at least 50 degrees before setting these out.
The Coleus on the market now are not your grandmother’s Coleus! Many of these new varieties are designed to thrive in full sun – not shade – though there are a few that prefer shade only. 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. I prefer not to let Coleus flower as the flowers detract from the foliage beauty, and when they appear, I pinch them off.
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. If you don’t have good drainage, your plants will literally drown from lack of Oxygen! Make sure that your drainage holes are large enough so they don’t get clogged up and don’t use gravel in the bottom. I carry a long metal rod for unplugging clogged drainage holes.
Added 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. Grouping also makes it easier for butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds to find the nectar rich flowers.