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Pots with Panache

Design is an important part of successful container gardening

By Carol Papas ©2012
Penn State Master Gardener


Do you wander through the nursery every spring, overwhelmed by a riot of colorful plants for your containers?  Information regarding the culture and care of containers is readily available, but design is just as important to successful container gardening as it is to any other aspect of gardening.

Before you go plant shopping, take a moment to plan your containers.  Nothing creates personality in a garden, or establishes a sense of style at an entry, like a well-chosen container overflowing with thriving, colorful plants.  Take a fresh look at your home and decide where containers will have the greatest impact.  Containers are especially well suited to entries and outdoor living areas, be it a terrace, deck, porch or balcony.

Once you’ve determined the site for a container, evaluate the conditions where the plants will be growing.  If the spot has six hours or more of direct sunlight, it is full sun.  Between two to six hours of sun, consider the space part sun/part shade.  Anything less than two hours of sun is considered shade.  The proximity of a water source should also factor into the equation.  If the container will be sitting on a porch or under an overhang, it will be entirely up to you to provide water, and the time and effort required should be a consideration.  Even if a container is open to rainfall, some hand watering will be required.  A densely planted container will shield the soil from a good soaking, and potting soils typically dry out quickly.
 

Helxine and Squirrel planter
Helxine and squirrel planter

Choose the largest container that will fit the site you’ve chosen.  Large containers require less frequent watering.  A cluster of tiny pots might look cute but will lose their charm after requiring twice-a-day watering in mid-summer.  There are myriad choices for containers, from classic terra cotta or concrete, to lightweight synthetics and glazed containers in sumptuous colors.  Containers are limited only by your imagination: There are wall-mounted planters, hanging baskets and planters created out of found objects, from wagons and wheelbarrows to chimney pots and porch chairs.

Petunias planted in half a wooden barrel
Wooden barrel half planted with petunias

Consider the background where the container is to be placed. A casual home clad in warm cedar might call for a terracotta pot, while a formal dark brick home might look best with a classic concrete urn.  The same traditional home constructed in pale stone or light brick would benefit from containers with more depth of color, be it bronze or a dark, rich glaze.  If you fall in love with a pot that is colorful and detailed, it might look best with a very restrained planting, allowing the container to take center stage.  Amphora shaped pots can be left unplanted and used as lovely pieces of sculpture within the garden. 

 

A symmetrical, formal entry looks great with a classic pair of containers, planted exactly the same, on either side of the door.  A casual, asymmetrical entry could feature a vignette of pots, perhaps one large and one smaller on one side, and a medium pot on the opposite side.  The shape of the pots could be varied; one tall and thin, one a low bowl, and the third somewhere in between.

Petunias cascade from a hanging basket
Petunias cascade out of a hanging basket

Groups of containers can enliven your deck or patio. In one area you could arrange a trio, while across the way two pots with different shapes create another vignette.  I have used multiple groupings of containers in my garden, typically with a loose theme carried throughout.  Year one might have had lots of white with silver foliage.  Another year, I chose pinks and purples and upped the contrast with chartreuse foliage such as lime licorice plant (Helichrysum petiolare ‘Limelight’) and golden creeping jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’).  Last year I went with warm purples and bright orange; my favorite foliage plant with this palette was ‘Sweet Caroline Red’ sweet potato vine (Ipomoea batata). 


Just to get you started here are some ideas to try this year:

  • For a pair of containers or a single large container in full sun:  Try the amber and russet coleus ‘Henna’ (Solenostemon scutellarioides) with the dark leaved, yellow-flowering dahlia ‘Mystic Illusion’.  Add bright yellow or orange lantana or calibrachoa to tumble over the sides.  If you prefer cool pinks to warm colors, try anchoring a container with a hot pink Mandevilla x amoena ‘Alice du Pont’ vine climbing a teepee of bamboo stakes or a metal obelisk.  Add the sweet pink and white Verbena 'Lanai® Twister Pink', Euphorbia ‘Diamond Frost’ and the silver licorice plant.  The euphorbia is a plant that has earned its press.  It thrives in full sun to part shade and adds softness to any planting. 
  • For a trio of containers in the shade:  Try the mini-impatiens ‘Butterfly Deep Pink’.  Because of its vigor I like to plant it on its own.  Add a pot filled with pink caladiums and finish the trio with a container planted with the perennial lady fern ‘Lady in Red’ (Athyrium felix-feminina).
  • Using perennials in containers allows you to plant them in your garden at the end of the year.  If you want a classic, grand entry, splurge on a pair of ivy topiaries centered in elegant urns.  At the base of the ivy add one variety of the beautiful patterned Rex begonias; and finally, add a few complementary colored torenia plants to spill over the sides.
  • Some of the most inspired container plantings have no flowers at all.  Foliage is center stage with tapestry plantings of succulents that have color and texture and nary a flower.  The aforementioned Rex begonias mixed with ferns and sedges can create similar excitement in the shade.
  • Finally, don’t give up on the “spike”, properly known as Dracaena species and their relatives, Cordyline.  Try them as a dramatic textural element surrounded by soft, low growing annuals or ground covers and showcase their architectural strength.  With a little planning and imagination your containers can be a fun, yearly adventure in making your garden an expression of personal style.

Spikes with Geraniums
Spikes intermingled with Geraniums


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