Container Garden Design

Every move you make in a garden has to start someplace.  Some activities begin for everyone in the same place.  Should you decide to run a marathon, there is a starting gate and a finish.  If you are designing a container garden, it’s your choice where to begin, and where to end.  The inspiration for a container can come from lots of places.  A favorite flower, color, or texture.  A favorite pot, a memory of a garden from another place or time can provide a place to start.  For this container design, I started with my two Julias.  Julia the Mom from whom I inherited a love for flowers, and Julia, my friend.  Friend Julia is a plant afficianado-whether it be a dwarf evergreen, a flower, or a tree.  She spent 20 minutes with me a few weeks ago, extolling the virtue of a new osteospermum called 3D.

3d silver daisy

I decided to design a container around this particular plant. Her enthusiastic praise for its performance was compelling.  The flowers stay open all day-a decided improvement over older varieties.  They bloom strongly all season long; I like this too.  But I was intrigued by the color-an icy white, and a purple that was decidedly on the red violet side.  I laid a few plants out in the driveway, so I could take a closer look.


petunia White Russian

Julia was equally keen about a new petunia called White Russian.  Why not see if both flowers would work in the same arrangement?  After all, a pair of great plants might making for a smashing container.  But right off the bat, there was trouble.  Not all whites are created equal.  Color in nature is infinitely varied.  Some color combinations I find more appealing than others.  These two whites together did nothing for each other.

petunia White Russian

The brilliant, almost luminescent white of the daisy looked wrong with the flat white of the White Russian petunia.  The petunia took on a rather lifeless greyish look-to my eye.  But until I had some more plant choices in place, I wouldn’t rule out the combination.

annual heliotrope

Adding heliotrope to the mix was jarring.  The flower is a blue based purple-not at all like the carmine in the daisy.  This was a combination that made everyone look bad.  It looked bad to me-that is.  Everyone sees color very differently.  Whern in doubt-trust your own eye.  It also seemed that having a fine floret sized texture would be better underneath the daisy, rather than on top.  I eliminated the heliotrope.

euphorbia Diamnond Frost

A pot of Euphorbia Diamond Frost moved the arrangement in a better direction.  The bright white color was the right white.  But even better is its contrasting texture.  The daisy has a rather stiff habit in both leaf and flower.  The euphorbia has a fluttery, sparkly texture that would loosen up the composition.  As a centerpiece in a pot, the euphorbia would grow fairly tall and wide-as will this osteo.  They would be fairly evenly matched.

tricolor sage

On a whim I tried adding Cirrus dusty miller to the mix, but the leaf size was overpowering.  A tricolor saga had a little more grace, and that same blue green color that contrasts so well with red violet.  A salvia Cathedral sky blue-the wrong color altogether flower wise, and the leaves were not blue enough.  I thought briefly about some lavender, but if the 3D daisy was to be the star of the show, all of the other colors and textures should be chosen in visual deference to that idea.

cirrus dusty miller

I have a small group of plants here, with a bigger collection of rejects.  I see Rob do this all the time when he is trying to help someone design a container.  He groups plants together.  Then he adds this, and subtracts that until he gets a composition that looks right.

variegated licorice

After putting away all of the flowers that were not going to work, I added some variegated licorice to my group.  That cool green looked good with the sage, and the cool whites.

carex frosted curls

Carex comans Frosted Curls is a very similar color to the licorice, but an entirely different texture.  The delicate blades of grass would be in concert with the habit of the euphorbia.  At this point the arrangement has a subtle and delicate coloration, and just enough contrast to have visual interest.  Subtle does not mean sleepy.

supertunia mini silver

The White Russian petunias proved to be too sleepy.  I switched them out for the supertunia mini silver.  It is a small flowered petunia that grows vigorously.  Those sturdy stems and that vigorous blooming would be a great contrast to the euphorbia.  It would also add a lot of color to the sage/licorice/grass mix.  In a container, I would alternate the petunia with the licorice, and then the grass.  A mix of 3 plants is much more lively and interesting than a mix of 2.

persian shield

Were I to plant a large container with this scheme, I would want to introduce a plant that would grow larger.  A Persian Shield would grow very large, so there would need to be multiple plants of the Diamond frost and 3D daisy.  The numbers of this plant versus that is about balancing the composition.  Little plants may need a bigger voice via greater numbers.

white dahlias

I could also add a white dahlia to the mix, meaning my daisy would have to become part of the supporting cast.  What I like about the dahlia idea is the yellow derived from the bud color, and center of the flower.  It would bring out the red-violet in the other flowers, and contrast with the cool greens in the foliage plants.

nicotiana saratoga white

I still liked the idea of the floret sized flower in this container.  Alyssum, whether it was white, citron, or red violet, would do a great job of that.  Even a mix of all of the colors would work well.

butterflies boston daisy

I could revisit the pale yellow idea with a flower that was smaller and less overbearing than a dahlia.  The butterflies boston daisy has a habit and size more in keeping with all of the other plant choices.

container garden design

The nursery industry has gone to great trouble and expense to include tags in their plant pots.  These tags will give you a brief overview of the eventual size of the plant, and the light and water it will require.  Taking advantage of this information means you will avoid making cultural mistakes.  Making sure you have the right neighborhood in mind for all of your residents will help your container to prosper.  I do think I am ready to plant up this pot.

Lily’s Pots

Next week I will be giving a talk to 50 members of a local garden club.  I am happy to speak to any group free of charge, provided they come to me.  It is an easy matter for me to show pictures from my computer, or from a book in my library.  My closet is a collection of the garden gear I like the best.  I can put a container planting together, and discuss those issues which influence my choices.  I can talk about the history and care of great garden ornament. I am equally at home with ideas about how to repurpose apple crates, iron headboards, galvanized livestock watering troughs  and old fishing tackle boxes. I can speak to what anyone should expect from a landscape designer, or an irrigation contractor.  When I am in my element, I have lots of physical examples to choose from.  I am too old to take my shop talk on the road.

This garden club is leaving the topic up to me.  No doubt I will choose a topic that is timely.  Early spring perennials no garden should be without.  Spring container plantings.  Designing a landscape project for the spring.  But no matter the group, no matter the time of year, some questions I see over and over again.  I am not especially creative-how can my garden pots be more beautiful?  What is the secret of growing good container plantings?   Given this topic, I refer to Lily. I am quite sure I have written about her before. She likes me to plant every color and form under the sun-the more the better.  It matters not what I throw at her, her mature pots would make a grown gardener weep.  She has an unerring instinct about how to make plants grow.     

Everything thrives for her.  She could pick up a yucca plant that had been in the trash at the side of the road for weeks, and grow it on to prize winning proportions.  She has a soft spot for dramatic plantings-this I oblige.  But once I have planted, she is in charge.  She does take charge. 

She understands perfectly that annual plants form roots that are very shallow.  Unlike the deep rooted grasses, or baptisia you have tried to dig out and divide.  Everything that goes on in a container or ground planted annual garden happens in the first 8 to 10 inches below ground.  Annual plants only want to set seed before the end of the season, they will bloom and set seed at the expense of a substantial root system.  Only long term plants grow deep.    

This means that top 8 inches of soil needs to be loaded with organic material, and watered regularly.  There are those times when people ask me why my containers grow up lush;  I simply say I water regularly.  I water when the plants need water.  I don’t skip, or put off the watering to another time.  Regular watering is critical to success with plants.

I make sure that the soil that goes into containers is loaded with organic material.  This helps the soil to retain moisture evenly. Organic material leavens soil, so air is a substantial part of the underground party.  Notice I say soil.  I do not plant in peat based soil mixes. 

Peat based soil mixes are easy to carry out to the car, but they are sterile.  Prefessional growers plant in sterile soil mix.  They cannot afford disease to infect a crop upon which their livlihood depends.  But once a soilless mix dries out, it takes lots of work to rewet.  A cursory watering of a container planting in soiless mix means the surface gets a little moisture, and the roots are dry as dust.

If you are a hit, hit and miss waterer, plant in soil.  Potting soil.  A 40 pound bag of potting soil is not that much-get that high school kid at your local nursery to load your trunk with all of the bags that you need, and get help unloading those bags at home.  This effort will be worth it.  Real soil will buy you some time in August, when you are at a high school softball game rather than home watering your pots.  There is no harm mixing some peat, or composted manure into your soil-every effort you make to enrich your soil will pay off many times over. 

Lily’s pots always look well grown.  You see the hose on the ground in the foreground-she knows how to use it.  The time it takes for her to water, dead head, and clean up her pots is time she is willing to give.  Don’t have the time?  Hedge your bets.  Plant succulents.  Plant fewer pots.  Group the pots that need water close together.  Invest in a hose that is lightweight.  Have a good irrigation contractor install automatic irrigation in your pots.  (automatic irrigation really means you have a little more time before you do a personal check-automatic irrigation cannot replace you!)  


 There is not a gardener anywhere that does not enjoy the results of a beautiful garden.  A great pot.  A great moment.  My secrets are anything but monumental.  Let no container lack for water. 

It matters not whether the style and color of these containers appeal to you. If one boxwood in a pot satisfies your idea of beautiful, the rules are the same as what applies to Lily’s pots. Or the landscape at Longwood Gardens.  Or my garden.  Or your shade garden.  Or the roses at Janet’s.  Or the pots on Michigan Avenue in Chicago.  What matters is that hand that gets put to seeing that the plants thrive.

My topic for the garden club next Monday?  You are able.  And since you are able, you should.  Plant it, Detroit.