Container Garden Design
by Diane Linsley and Andrea Steen
Container garden design is fun and easy. Some of the best plants for containers can be grown from seed.
Whether your garden is large or small, you can enjoy container gardening. Containers make nice focal points in the garden. They also bring the garden right up to the front door, making the entrance to your home more inviting.
Container Gardening Tips
1. Group plants according to their needs for water, fertilizer and sunlight.
2. Start with good-size transplants. Container gardens draw attention to themselves, so they need to look good right away. Seed-grown plants should be started indoors 4-8 weeks early.
3. Make sure the container has good drainage, unless you are creating a bog garden in a pot.
4. Use quality potting soil. Some potting mixes include slow-release fertilizer and wetting agents or polymers. If your mix doesn’t include these, you can add them in small amounts. Plan on fertilizing once a week with a balanced fertilizer (preferably organic), even if the potting mix includes fertilizer. Unlike plants in the garden that can spread out their roots in search of nutrients, container garden plants must be fed regularly.
5. Mulch the surface of the container garden with cocoa shells, buckwheat hulls or aquarium gravel for an attractive finish that helps retain moisture.
6. Water your container garden at least once a day. In hot summer areas, it helps to choose drought-tolerant plants. 7. Keep the plants deadheaded and pruned to look their best. In a container, there’s nowhere for scruffy plants to hide. If a plant isn’t working, replace it with something else. Although dwarf annuals are usually preferred, taller varieties may be used if they are pinched back before bloom to keep them compact. An example of this is cosmos, which comes in various heights.
Designing Container Gardens
Sun or Shade
There are plenty of container plants for full sun to part shade, but fewer choices for full shade. Full-shade plants include begonia, blue woodruff, browallia, caladium, coleus, ferns, fuschia, impatiens, hosta, ivy and lamium. For seed-grown flowers that can tolerate part shade, see Shade-Tolerant Flowers.
Color combinations are a matter of personal taste. But in general, bright and bold colors are preferred for container gardens because they stand out. Pastels can work if the container is to be viewed up close, like next to the front door.
The size of the plants, including their flowers and leaves, should be balanced with the container. Many popular annuals come in dwarf forms that are suitable for containers. In Contain Yourself, Kerstin P. Ouellet says, “As a rule of thumb you should aim for the plant portion to be at least twice as big as the visible part of the container.” But don't overplant because crowded plants will be prone to diseases and pests. Remember that plants grow!
For a visually stimulating container garden, try a variety of plants with different habits. Kerstin Ouellet recommends combining upright plants with mounding and trailing plants. In hanging baskets, the upright element can be replaced with another trailer.
Container Garden Design Tips
2. Add a trailing filler like alyssum, bacopa, bidens, brachycome, helichrysum, lobelia, sanvitalia, silene or verbena. 3. Finish with a climber like thunbergia, morning glory or sweet pea. The vine can be trained up the chains of the hanging basket. In non-hanging pots, the vine is trained on a small trellis or an interesting tree branch for a sculptural touch. Push the branch into the soil, and anchor it with rocks to keep it stable.
4. Optional: Add a striking foliage plant like coleus or sweet potato vine.
Container gardens aren’t just for flowering plants. Beautiful potted gardens can be created by juxtaposing foliage plants with different leaf shapes and textures. Consider leaves that can be described by the following adjectives: wide, narrow, coarse, fine, shiny, fuzzy, heart-shaped or ferny. Use different shades of "green" to increase the visual delight. How about chartreuse, blue-green, red, purple, silver-gray or variegated? Ornamental grasses are popular for container gardens because they add the dimension of motion. Stipa tenuissima is a favorite because it sways gracefully in the slightest breeze. Grasses are especially nice when combined with flowers. In Gardening in Containers, Gary Keim says, “More than anything else, foliage gives body to container groupings. It provides the backbone and adds color to reinforce the floral display.”
Don’t do too many different things in one container, or it will look messy. Most containers look best with 3-5 different plants. But rather than adding more different species, you can also try using different colors of the same species. For example, try a mix like African Daisy Mix, Cosmos ‘Dwarf Sensation Mix’, Cosmos 'Ladybird Mix', Marigold 'Petite Mix', Nasturutium 'Dwarf Jewel Mix', Pansy 'Swiss Giants Mix', Petunia 'Laura Bush Mix', Phlox drummondii Mix, Snapdragon 'Choice O.P. Mix', Linaria maroccana Mix, Clarkia amoena Mix, Zinnia 'Lilliput Mix' or Zinnia 'Persian Carpet Mix'.
Container Gardening Design Ideas
With so many ideas to choose from, where do you start? It might help to identify a theme or purpose for your container garden. Here are some ideas that feature the container garden seeds that we sell.
Hummingbird Container Garden
This is a fun one to put outside a main window of your house where you can observe the hummingbirds up close. Try Cosmos 'Ladybird Mix', fuschia, Diascia 'Pink Queen', Salvia coccinea, nasturtium, petunia, phlox, silene, zinnia, geranium or scarlet creeper. For more ideas, see Flowers for Hummingbirds.
Kitchen Herbs Container Garden
Fragrant Container Garden
Rock Gardening in Containers
I enjoy making my own cement planters for small, drought-tolerant perennials like sedum or hens & chicks. There are hundreds of possible rock garden plants for containers. For rock garden plants from seed, see Rock Garden Perennials.
Container gardening can quickly become addictive. Once you master the basics, you may find yourself staging whole groups of container gardens.
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