Containers allow you to garden where there’s no ground to till, brightening up the patios, porches, decks, and stoops where we linger on long summer days. They also let you skip the major digging and weed-pulling of backyard gardening and fast-forward to the fun: designing, planting, and enjoying. You get just enough dirt under your fingernails to feel like you’ve accomplished something. Pairing up pots and plants in pleasing compositions, you can even work in perennials, grasses, and dwarf evergreen shrubs to provide year-round interest. Best of all, container gardens are close-up delights. They invite you to slow down, notice the details, and savor the scents. Here’s how to pot up some gems.
1. Pick a Pot
Unless you’re set on specific plants, it’s best to pick the pot before you decide what’s going in it. Look for ones in a style that suits your home. Classical urns look great on stone patios or flanking the front entry of a formal house, while clean-lined geometric shapes complement modern settings. Muted neutral colors emphasize the plants, while vivid ones draw more attention to the pots themselves. If you’re going for a grouping, an odd number of pots generally looks better than an even-numbered collection. Aesthetics aside, there are also practical concerns when picking pots. For a mixture of plants, look for containers at least 12 inches wide. Annuals usually need at least 8 inches of soil depth, while grasses and shrubs may need two or three times that amount. The ideal container has straight sides or ones that flare out at the top for easy access. If you’ll be placing pots on a deck or a rooftop, look for lightweight materials, such as metal or composite. These and some glazed ceramic pots also have the advantage of being nonporous, so they keep soil moister. Porous unglazed terra-cotta gets a wonderful patina over time but allows soil to dry out more quickly.
Any pot needs drainage holes so roots don’t get waterlogged; these should be covered with pottery shards, stones, or a small piece of screening to keep soil from migrating out. If containers sit on a wooden deck, consider using pot feet or a plant stand to elevate them so that the decking doesn’t stay wet, which will lead to rot.
2. Assemble the Plants
Think beyond one-note plantings of marigolds or impatiens. For a long-lasting display, combine showy annuals with ornamental grasses, shrubs that change leaf color in the fall, or dwarf evergreens. Go for a mix of colors, textures, and foliage types. A tall grass, a delicate vine, and a plant with large, interesting leaves make a good combination. “A vertical element is important to give the planting height,” says Gabrielle Whiton, a container-plant specialist at Bainbridge Gardens, a nursery on Washington’s Bainbridge Island. She often starts with a dwarf conifer, then selects lower-growing and trailing plants to go around its base. One of those might be a flowering perennial or annual in a 4-inch container. She places this, pot and all, into the soil at the front of a large container. Once the blossoms fade, she can pull out the small pot and put in a new one with a plant just coming into bloom. She also likes to echo the pot color in her plantings.
To balance form and proportion in a pot, Ellen Zachos, owner of Acme Plant Stuff in New York City, which creates and maintains container gardens, relies on her own catchy recipe of “thrillers, fillers, and spillers.” Thrillers are tall plants that go in the center or back, fillers are medium-size plants that fill out the middle, and spillers gracefully trail or cascade over the edge to soften the pot’s hard edges.”Resist the urge to crowd in too many different things,” says Ellen Zachos, who likes to stick to three to five types, tops. “A lot of plants are fine, but a lot of different kinds of plants starts to look messy.”