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Maximizing Creativity: Gardening with Containers

May 2001 (Updated February 2011)

Container gardens open up a whole new world of creativity in the garden. They can add a burst of color and form to an otherwise uninteresting area in the landscape and can help create intimacy in a garden. For apartment dwellers, they are a way to enjoy a bit of garden paradise on a small balcony or patio. Container gardens are also a great place to experiment with the latest plant cultivars, combinations, and color schemes.

When shopping for plants suitable for containers, the possibilities are truly endless. The plants you choose will depend upon the effect you wish to create in your landscape and the growing conditions. Remember, these plants will be squeezed together in the same environment so they must have similar needs for sunlight, water, and soil. In other words, don’t try to plant a hosta with a cactus.

Experimenting with color is a great way to express your creativity as a gardener. You can have multi-plant containers just bursting with color and form, or hang a lovely basket of salmon-colored impatiens to give a spot of color in the shady area near your front door.  Plantings can be monochromatic—such as all white or all red flowers—or they can be a little more daring by using combinations of complimentary colors such as purple and orange. You can create the feeling of coolness with softer shades of white, blue, pink, and purple or provide a hot display of pinks, reds, yellows, and oranges. Some lush container plantings don’t use flowers at all, but rather plants prized for their foliage, interesting form, and texture such as coleus, Caladium, tropical house plants, and even some perennials such as hostas.

Here, Dracaena is used at the thriller, petunias as the filler, and sweet potato vine as the spiller. Designing your containers is easy if you use the ‘Thriller, Filler, Spiller’ concept when choosing your plants. The ‘thrillers’ are plants that act as vertical focal points in the container and are usually tall or spiky, such as purple fountain grass. Next, the ‘fillers’ are the mounding elements that fill in the containers, usually having upright, mounding, or spreading habits such as geraniums (Pelargonium sp.), heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens), or coleus (Solenostemon scutellerioides). Finally, the ‘spillers’ are the trailing plants that carry the color scheme down over the edge of the pot or container, such as trailing verbena (Verbena hybrid ‘Tapien’). However, feel free to experiment and let your creativity take charge! Just make sure that all the plants share similar requirements. 

There are many types of planters available on the market today, including terracotta, wood, plastic, and fiberglass. On a little more imaginative side, any items that would have adequate growing space for the plants you are choosing can be excellent prospects for a container garden, such as galvanized wash tubs, antique watering cans, etc. There are also an assortment of hanging baskets, and other new designs that provide an easy way to fasten a planter on a deck or window. Good drainage is Here, an old galvanized pail has been repurposed as a planter. essential for whatever container you choose. Plants do not like having their roots sit in water, so be sure to drill a few holes in the bottom of the container if needed. And while you want excess water to drain from the planter, keep in mind that containers need a little more care and watering than a flower bed. Clay pots, for example, are nice because they have a natural appearance, provide good drainage, and allow air to permeate their surface. On the other hand, these characteristics mean they must be watered at least daily, and even twice a day when it’s really hot or windy.

Finally, don’t feel like you are limited to only one container in a particular area. Groupings of potted plants can help create ‘rooms’ in your landscape. Multiple containers also allow you to grow plants with different watering requirements next to each other. Although you still won’t be able to grow your hosta next to your cacti, you can instead grow a pot of cactus-flowered dahlias next to your prickly little friend. Also keep in mind if you don’t care for how something looks, containers allow you to change your design with little effort or expense—perfect conditions for gardeners who like to be creative in their landscape! Plan on ordering your bulbs by the end of August for fall delivery.

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