Gardenwise: Get Creative with Containers

Pictured Above: A single planting of Madagascar periwinkle pops in this wooden planter. All photos by Susan Tito

by Susan Tito

Even though my garden beds keep me more than busy throughout the growing season, I always plant up a few containers for my front porch and deck as a way to bring more color and variety into my designs. 

The appeal of container gardening lies in its versatility. Have an area so inhospitable that even weeds won’t grow? Place a pot of plants there. Tired of paying for supermarket herbs that go bad in a week? Grow your favorite varieties in containers for a summer-long bounty. Looking for an easy way to enliven a drab spot? Grow something — anything — in a brightly colored container and see how it transforms the area.

Container gardening isn’t just for city dwellers with limited outdoor space. It can serve a useful function, such as providing food, or it can have a purely aesthetic purpose. What you grow and why you grow it isn’t important. Containers enable you to enjoy nature in a scaled-down, more controlled manner than if you were to care for plants in a garden bed. 

This container of herbs follows the thriller-filler-spiller design principle: Rosemary is a strong vertical accent (thriller), sage and thyme will eventually grow to be fillers, and oregano will trail over the container’s edge as spiller.

What kind of container should you use? It all comes down to personal taste, but the sky’s the limit. Barrels, troughs, lunch boxes, coffee mugs, discarded shoes — nearly anything you can think of can be used as a planter, assuming that it can hold soil and has drainage holes.

When it comes to traditional containers sold in plant nurseries and big-box stores, there are many materials from which to choose, each of which has pros and cons. Keep in mind, you get what you pay for.

Some people opt for plastic containers because they are lightweight and relatively inexpensive, but they degrade over time when left out in the elements. These can be recycled when they start to look ratty. 

On the other hand, terra cotta pots, with their striking brown-orange hue, and ceramic containers, which are glazed and come in vibrant colors, look and feel more substantial, but they, too, shouldn’t be left outdoors in areas that get below freezing. Consider containers made of fiberglass or resin, which are lighter in weight and more durable than their fragile cousins, and which can withstand the worst of Mother Nature. 

A vigorous late spring planting of Dracaena a thriller, petunias and sweet alyssum as filler, Persian shield as an accent and Bacopa as a spiller dazzles.

Wooden planters lend elegance to an outdoor space, but select those made from rot-resistant tree species like locust, cedar, teak or mahogany. Avoid planters made from pressure-treated wood, especially if you are growing herbs or vegetables, as these can leach chemicals into the potting medium. 

For durability, metal and concrete planters are hard to beat. Metal containers retain heat more than those made of other materials. That’s great in the winter, but during the summer, a metal container can fry a plant’s roots. Concrete planters have many benefits, such as being exceptionally sturdy. This prevents them from blowing over in a strong wind, but once filled with soil and plants, they’re difficult to move.

Persian shield, petunias, Dracaena are repeated in this planter, but sweet potato vine is a spiller and purple Angelonia is introduced as an accent. 

After making your container selection, consider these guidelines to ensure your planting success and to maximize aesthetics: 

• When mixing plant species, make sure all have similar moisture and light requirements. Consider a thriller-filler-spiller arrangement. Thriller plants are usually taller than others in the container, standing out as a vertical element. Filler plants surround the thriller in a mounding fashion, while spiller plants, like sweet potato vine, have a trailing habit. 

• Don’t use garden soil in containers. It is too dense and can get compacted, making the container unnecessarily heavy. Choose potting mix, which is specially formulated to retain moisture. 

• Fill your containers on the spot where you want them displayed. Even a medium-sized container can get heavy and difficult to move once filled with potting mix and plants. 

• Make sure to feed and water your potted plants regularly. You wouldn’t starve a beloved family member or pet; the same applies to your container plants. Plants grown in containers have higher nutritional and moisture requirements than their unpotted brethren. Use the appropriate plant food, as flowering plants’ needs differ from those of vegetables and herbs. If you’re away from home frequently or often forget to water your plants, buy a self-watering container.

• Consider swapping some of the plants in your container according to season. For example, when summer rolls around, replace tired-looking spring flowers like pansies with more vibrant selections like zinnia. In the fall, choose plants such as mums or ornamental cabbage. You’ll end up with a new container, but you’re not starting from scratch.

Now for the most important tip: Don’t contain your enthusiasm — contain your plants! 

The concrete planter showcases red in late summer, including coleus as an accent. 

Susan Tito
Susan Tito

Susan Tito is a freelance writer and proprietor of Summerland Garden Design & Consulting (summerlandgardendesign.com). She earned a certificate in ornamental garden design from the New York Botanical Garden and is a member of the American Horticultural Society and Garden Communicators International. She can be reached at stito630@gmail.com.

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