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8 Ways to Create Gorgeous Container Gardens

Pots of bright flowers and foliage add beauty and are easy to care for

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Containers bursting with flowers and foliage add “wow” to a patio or porch. But how can you take ornamental pots from ordinary to extraordinary?

Basic color, design and care principles give displays that professional polish, say the experts who actually design containers for some of the country’s top botanical gardens. That said, don’t worry too much about hard and fast rules. It’s important to go with what you like, and horticulture is “very forgiving,” says Adam Dooling, curator of outdoor gardens and herbaceous collections for the New York Botanical Garden.

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“I just encourage people to experiment. And I like the idea of finding new ways and breaking the rules,” he says. “If you experiment and it fails, just try again.”

No matter what you put in a pot, it’s important to set it up for success: Choose a container with drainage holes, then add potting soil and perhaps some slow-release fertilizer. Adjust your watering habits to the container (clay pots dry out faster than plastic) and your site. And when pots are dry, water “like you mean it,” says Jim Sutton, associate director of display design at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania. That means soaking the soil enough so that water runs out the bottom of the pot. Shallow watering only encourages shallow root growth.

Then comes the fun part of designing your display.

Start by visualizing the architectural space where the containers will sit. Your colors, for example, might look different up against a brick wall as opposed to gray shingles. Next, consider the effect you want to create — soft, wispy ferns or dramatic towering canna lilies, for example, says Dooling. Then, head to the garden store and experiment by grouping plants in your cart like they might be in the pot and playing with some of the following fundamentals:

1. Thriller, filler and spiller

This is the classic mantra for planting containers. Thrillers are the eye-catchers, says Tim Pollak, assistant production manager of the Chicago Botanic Garden. Fillers cover the soil, hide the stem of the thriller and add volume to the design. Spillers drape over the edge of the pot, softening the edges and expanding the vertical line. Some plants, like petunias, might fill and spill, doing double duty, Pollak says. One combination might be dramatic begonias (thriller) with colorful coleus (filler) and trailing sweet potato vines (spiller).

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2. One plant, one pot

The traditional style known as monotypic is chic, Dooling says. Instead of putting several plants in one pot, it’s a grouping of several pots with one plant each. “It allows you to play with different plants, height, and shape and form. And you have more flexibility with your composition,” he says. It also allows you to swap out a poor performer or add seasonal accents.

3. Stick to odd numbers

“It's a little bit more natural versus using [plants] in pairs,” Pollak says. “Sometimes pairs can formalize a container or a design. Sometimes they can create a wall or almost divide the container in half.” Or, perhaps you want formal symmetry around the front door, Sutton says, while being more playful on the back patio.

4. Consider texture and shape

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“You can have daisy flowers, you can have flowers that are cup shaped, you can have flowers that are dangly or are ear drops or earrings, if you will,” Pollak says. Foliage also adds texture — shiny, smooth, fuzzy or feathery. “Maybe some plants have big leaves, heart-shaped leaves; some plants have fern-ier, lacy-like leaves.”

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5. Play with color

If you want to be scientific about which colors complement each other or make each other pop, use a color wheel (tutorials available on YouTube). Otherwise, just experiment with mixing colors. Or, go monochromatic and play with different textures, experts say.  Keep sight lines in mind, Pollak says. “One thing about darker colors — blues and purples — they’re really great to see when you’re up close, but when you’re from a distance or driving by, and you have big containers by your front door and use a lot of blues and purples, they get lost.” 

If you want to go with blues and purples, then consider adding a pop of white or yellow, he says. If you want to stay up to date, check out the color of the year as determined by Pantone, the color consulting company. This year, it’s periwinkle.

6. Keep them (mostly) compatible

Be wary of extremes, putting water-loving ferns with dry-tolerant succulents for example, experts say. And you’ll want to be consistent about whether your plants need shade or sun. That said, containers are more forgiving than gardens, says Siena MacFarland, a horticulturalist with the Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden in Fort Bragg, California. “In a container you can get away with mixing plants that wouldn’t be compatible in the garden long term because most containers are planted for one growing season and then changed the following year,” she says.

7. Mix in something practical

“There are some vegetables that are actually quite pretty in containers — I’m thinking ornamental peppers and things like that, which are actually edible,” Sutton says. “Herbs also benefit from being in a container because most of them like to dry out between waterings. You could put a nice container together with rosemary, lavender and basil.”

8. Borrow or buy designs

Study the containers in catalogs and at local botanic gardens and garden centers. Look for ideas on Instagram, Pinterest and other social media. Check out books at the library; Container Theme Gardens by Nancy J. Ondra, for example, has more than 40 five-plant containers designed by the author. If the idea of planning and planting all seems too overwhelming, let the pros do it. Many mail-order plant companies sell curated collections for containers. Usually you can count on those having been designed by experts, says Dooling.

Susan Moeller is a contributing writer who covers lifestyle, health, finance and human-interest topics. A former newspaper reporter and editor, she also writes features and essays for the Boston Globe Magazine and her local NPR station, among other outlets.  

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