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Container Gardens - Choosing and Combining Plants for Containers

Some Rules to Guide You and/or Break When Creating Container Gardens


Shade Container Garden of Caladium, Fuch

Shade Container Garden of Caladium, Fuchsia & Lantana

Marie Iannotti

Whether it's a question of space or interest, container gardens are everywhere. Maybe it's because they are so much fun to create, offer immediate gratification and you can just keep creating more and more of them.

There are no "rules" for designing a container garden, except to give the plants what they need to thrive. However, there are certain design principles that can be scaled to container size and make creating effective container gardens an art. Think of them as Rules of Thumb, not Rules per se.

Balance & Contrast

  • Plants should be sized to the pot & pots should be sized to the site. Small plants will be lost in a large pot, just as small pots will be lost on a large deck.

  • Plants shouldn’t be more than twice the height of the pot or 1 ½ times as wide

  • Simple plants show off an ornate pot and flamboyant plants are showcased by simple pots.

  • Have at least 1 tall plant, 1 filler and one trailing plant or simply one plant per pot.

  • Sometimes it's nice to have just one type of plant per container. Bold plants, like zonal geraniums (Pelargonium), look very nice on their own. You can always group several pots together.


    • Suit your choice of colors to your site.

      • For drama & impact, go for contrast (Colors opposite one another on the color wheel)

      • For harmony & tranquility stay with one color in different shades, like lavender, lilac and purple

    • To show off the color of the container, don’t hide it with trailing plants.

    • Use foliage for color

    Bones & Focal Points

    • Use foliage as the bones of your container garden. Find interest in the color, texture and size of the leaves. (Coleus for color, grasses for spiky airiness and Hostas for bold, textured leaves)

    • You can create a focal point within a mixed container with height, bold leaves or striking color. (Phormium for height, hibiscus for striking color, Elephant ear (Alocasia esculenta) or cannas for drama)

    • Create a focal point with a grouping of containers, each with one large plant, like a pot of black bamboo, a bugmansia and some Gartenmeister Fuchsias.

    Container gardens are the perfect place to experiment and have fun. Use whatever plants you like. Mix in perennials, trees, shrubs, houseplants, vegetables and herbs. Use whatever strikes your fancy as a container. If it doesn’t have drainage holes, plant in plastic pots and place the pots inside the container. Include garden art in your containers or groupings. And place pots anywhere there’s an open space: on the deck, the front steps, in holes in the flower border or create borders and screens with potted evergreens or bamboo. If you don’t like what you’ve created, take it apart and start again.

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