Container Planting 101

A tree in full bloom is a breathtaking sight. A flowering shrub covered with fragrant blossoms is awe inspiring, too, but it's a spectacular group of plants in a great container that never fails to get my attention.

I love container gardening. Whether combining edibles with flowering plants or succulents with lots of color in an interesting container, I can never have enough in my garden. I nestle them along paths, stage them on the deck and admire them everywhere I see them in nurseries, magazine articles and other gardens.

You can grow anything in a container.  Herbs and other edibles, fragrant flowers to attract beneficial insects, California natives or even plants that glow in the moonlight.

There's a spot on my deck that I see right outside my kitchen window. In the spring I grow red tulips to contrast against the green shrubs in the background.  They're a beautiful sight. This year I didn't have much of a display as the squirrels decided they loved them, too. Now I'm yearning for that bright red spot of color to brighten my view.

[ I'm putting together a container with a thriller, fillers and spillers featuring vivid red and contrasting purple with some  pink, white and gray to cool and complete the vignette. Here's how I went about putting together this mixed container.

I started with a classic color scheme, combining a primary color with a secondary color- red with purple. Can't go wrong with that. But then I saw this empty beautiful teal blue glazed pot in a corner of my transplant area and decided that maybe a mixed color container would echo that English garden look. So much for a planned color scheme. When it gets down to it whatever looks good to you is the perfect combination.

I've chosen plants that have the same light requirements. A container in full shade might have a Japanese painted fern as the focal point, a burgundy oxalis triangularis as filler and Kenilworth ivy to spill over the sides. A container of sun-loving natives could combine one of the new colors of mimulus or monkey flower with a lewisia and an Emerald Carpet manzanita to spill over the edge.

Opposite colors that always look good together are red and green, the Christmas colors, yellow and purple, the Easter egg colors or orange and blue, the sunset colors. Mix them with a color next door on the color wheel or white or gray to blend everything together.

My thriller ( the tallest plant ) is a vivid red nicotiana. I loosen each root ball with my trusty kitchen fork that I often use for this purpose as it's easier to control  than a larger garden claw. Depending on how root bound the plant is, don't be afraid to score or scratch the outer and bottom tangled roots. If you don't your plant may never really grow into the surrounding soil.  

My pot will be seen from the front only so I'll position this plant toward the back. If your container will be seen from all sides then start in the middle and work out to the edges. Make sure there is some fresh soil between each root ball and also around the sides of your container.

I use a good quality potting soil and work in some control release fertilizer before planting. I'll water everything in to settle the soil after planting with a dilute solution of fertilizer like Maxsea 3-20-20 Blossom Booster because the extra phosphorus will encourage rooting and also the next round of flowers in my container.

Sometimes, I put just one plant in each pot. A specimen like a bold hosta or Japanese maple doesn't need any help to make a statement. Ditto for the All-Gold Japanese Forest grass, hydrangeas and roses. You can stage several pots to make a dramatic composition. A short but showy plant can be elevated up off the ground at eye level if placed on a plant stand or overturned clay pot. Smaller plants grouped at the front can hide what's behind if needed.

When planting mixed containers never use more than three plants colors, two is sometimes enough.  That doesn't count green, unless it's lime.  Skimpy pots are a miss, pack the plants so the pots are full when you're done.  You want the pots to look good right away.  Big pots, at least 16" across are dramatic and make a nice contrast to matching smaller ones.

Be sure to have the children plant up containers of their own. Plants that appeal to their senses are always a big hit.   Soft, touchable plants like lambs ears and artemisia 'Powis Castle', or fragrant plants like chocolate cosmos and scented geraniums are easy to grow. Or plant up a pizza container with bell pepper, cherry tomato, basil and oregano.

Another idea is to plant up a salsa container with tomatillo, cilantro, jalapeno peppers and tomatoes. Harvest some onions and garlic from the garden and a lime from the potted lime tree you have growing on the patio and you'll have delicious salsa on no time.

The ideas for great container gardens are endless. Try a new combination this year.

Leave a Reply