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.
“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).