Designing A Stunning Container Garden

Creating Your Beautiful Garden in a Big Pot

Limited outdoor space, a crazy tight schedule or simply a desire to concentrate on a single masterpiece - whatever the reason, focusing on designing and planting an outstanding container garden may be the answer to seasonal outdoor decorating success. Many people choose container gardens to limit weeding and the need to bend over. Containers also make it possible to have your garden right near where you relax with morning coffee and with an alfresco dinner.

Whether this is your first big planter adventure or your fifth, below are tips to guarantee to create a show-stopping mixed container.

Choosing a Container

Container Shape and Size

Container shape and size are largely guided by personal preference. That said, here are a few considerations for choosing containers that will fit needs well, early in the seasons and later when your plants have grown larger.

image of succulent garden in low container

As a general rule, short, compact plants look best in wide, bowl-shaped containers. Envision succulent groupings like these.

Tall, narrow containers flanking a doorway echo the vertical lines of the door frame and look great with lofty upright plants and an edging of cascading vines to extend the visuals down and to soften the presentation.

Midsize containers and those with rounded sides; the sky’s the limit with what you can do with these design wise.

Container size impacts both the number and scale of plants that work well in your mix. In the excitement of spring planting it's easy to forget to leave room for plants to reach their mature height and width - they will grow. Planter size also influences how often container gardens need to be watered. Smaller pots tend to dry out more quickly.

Container Material

Container material - porous versus non-porus - also influences water requirements. Unglazed clay pots lose moisture to evaporation from the soil surface and from the sides of the pot, so more frequent water is required. The same is true of open-weave metal containers, like hayrack with coir liners, as their side “breathe”, too.

Glazed ceramic, plastic and wooden containers are not porous. These materials retain moisture better and therefore require less frequent watering.

Container Weight

Planning to carry your container up three flights of stairs to your apartment balcony? Weight might be something to consider. On the flip side, if your container sits where it could be bumped by people coming and going or by those two high-energy labs pups you rescued earlier in the year, choose a pot with good bottom weight to help keep your work of art intact.

Soil for Your Container

Your plants are going to spend a full growing season, at least, in the soil you select so take a moment to consider this foundational component of your masterpiece. Avoid the urge to relocate a couple buckets of soil from the closest garden bed. While that’s an easy solution, it may introduce soil pests (slugs or nematodes) or disease spores. In addition to the unwanteds, average garden soil tends to compact readily. Potting soil formulated for containers, on the other hand, incorporates vermiculite, peat and/or pearlite to reduce compaction and ensure that the mix stays fairly fluffy. This loose soil, with air pockets between the particles, allows oxygen and moisture to flow throughout. This beneficial environment strengthens roots, which are essential for vigorous plants.

image of colorful mixed planting in bright blue container

Selecting Plants for Your Container


Most of the general guidelines you know about indoor decorating, or even about dressing yourself, apply to creating a pleasing color mix in a container. These include:

Brights Draw Attention

It stands to reason that bright colors, especially hot colors like yellow, orange, coral, red and salmon stand out. This is especially true when theses shades are framed by dark foliage and/or are spilling over the edge of a black, dark gray, purple or deep blue container.

Contrast Catches the Eye

As you play with color options for your container, think about what will be behind it. Use contrasts to add impact. For instance, purple foliage plants against light brick or siding pops. Silvery foliage looks great spilling over the edges of a cranberry or eggplant colored pot.

Choose What You Like

You’re going to be looking at this creative mix all summer – choose a combination that pleases you. Maybe your neighbor would rather be caught at the market in her bathing suit than to combine orange and pink. That’s fine. This is your creation. Go bold. Go pastel. Go with what you like.


Like roommates destined to cohabitate successfully, plants sharing a container do best when they have similar likes and dislikes. The main two are: preferred amount of sunlight and moisture needs. For instance, group sun lovers together and while you’re selecting those, look for ones with similar water wants. Cactuses and succulents can coexist happily. Begonias prefer some shade and like fairly regular drinks; they partner well with caladiums which like the same.

Selecting Plants for Your Container - Proven Proportions

Steve Silk, long time writer for Fine Gardening magazine, created this approach years ago. It worked then and it’s still a winner. By viewing your container’s plants with an eye to filling three main roles, it’s easy to get the proportions right and ensure that the overall look is dazzling.

Container Component #1: Thrillers

image of tall canna lilies in big pot

As the name implies, these are the stars, the plants that earn top billing and rave reviews. Choose varieties that are tall, colorful and eye catching. Use them to anchor the center of your mixed pot or the back of a container that will sit against a wall or fence. Good examples of thrillers are: cannas, tall grasses, angel's trumpets/brugmansia, elephant ear plants and mid-size to tall dahlias.

A winning approach is to choose your thriller first and build the rest of your cast around that plant’s color and size. In all but the largest pots, there's typically a single thriller plant. This leaves room for other container elements.

Container Component #2: Fillers

Fillers create the fullness, fluffiness, color and texture in the center of the planting. These can be a mix of plants, usually repeated, to provide some continuity in the form of flowers or exciting foliage. Great fillers include: colorful coleus, silvery dusty miller, upright tuberous begonias, dwarf dahlias, upright fuchsia and pinwheel leaved oxalis.

Container Component #3: Spillers

To soften the edges and add cascading grace, trailing plants are the final element for dazzling mixed pots. Planted along the interior rim, these are plants like ivies, sweet potato vines, creeping Jenny/Charlie (lysimachia), asparagus ferns, hanging basket begonias, trailing forms of lantana and lobelia, cascading petunias and even prostrate rosemary.

That’s it! You’re ready to create a breathtaking container garden. Keep these tips in mind and let your creativity soar!