Container plantings play a number of important roles in the garden—whether as a welcome at the front entry, dramatic interest for a patio or pool area, or filling emply spots in a border. Attention to the choice of plants and containers can make a signficant difference in the overall impact of the garden.
While container design is an art more than a science, it's always nice when there are some rules of thumb to help the art along. As one who was often frustrated with the appearance of my containers (too small, too sparse, not quite right), I'd like to pass on some tips I've picked up over the years.
When we think of containers, we usually think flowers.But foliage is just as important. Foliage provides texture, color, and continuing interest when the flowering plants are taking a rest (as most do at some point in the season). In choosing container plants, experts suggest two-thirds foliage plants and one-third flowering plants.
A couple of years ago, I attended a lecture given by a botanical garden staff in which they described planting containers as full as possible—so much so that they sometimes used a shoe horn to squeeze things in. The results is that containers look good instantly and get even better as the season progresses.
Unless you are someone who starts containers early in the season, or who has lots of patience, start out with well-developed plants. For the sake of economy, I often buy well-established hanging baskets planted with 3-5 individual plants. I gently pull the plants apart and distribute them in containers. I usually get better results with these divisions than with 2" pots of the same variety.
Think about when and where the containers will be viewed most—in the evening, afternoon, shade, or sun—and choose color themes accordingly. For example, if the containers are for a patio area used most often in the evening, light colors will show well, while dark colors will disappear. If the containers are in full sun, strong colors will have more impact than pastels which tend to fade in strong sun.
Monochromatic containers can look great—just make sure to include a variety of textures and forms. If you're mixing colors, put the strongest colors at the top and bottom—include lighter tints of these colors as a middle layer. A formula that seems to work is two-thirds of deeper colors and one-third of lighter colors.
Combine spiky and ferny plants and upright and trailing plants to keep things interesting.
While even the best gardeners sometimes deny reality in the face of plants that look good together, consider the cultural requirements of the plants that are intended to coexist in the same pot for a season. Does one like moist soil while another likes it dry? Does one do best in full sun while another likes shade? If your container plants don't like the same conditions, some are going to be unhappy. While you may be able to coax them along, you are better off starting with plants that have similar requirements for light and moisture.
Perhaps the most common problem with container plantings is that they are just too small. If you're buying new containers, it's usually worth the extra investment to nudge up a size or two. If you're working with existing containers, consider grouping several together for greater impact—vary height by placing containers in the back on upended pots. Just make sure that the containers complement each other and that the overall effect of the individual pots and plants works for you.
Signature Gardens supplies containers along with plans and plants for container plantings.
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