Basics of Container Design

Learn how to create container gardens that look fantastic.
Container Garden

Container Garden

This container garden follows classic design tenets with a monochromatic twist.

Photo by: Photo by Andrew Sisk

Photo by Andrew Sisk

This container garden follows classic design tenets with a monochromatic twist.

Mix and match plants to create container gardens that will be the envy of the neighborhood. Most container gardens feature a mix of plants with different heights. A tall plant surrounded by shorter plants creates an eye-catching tableau. Add a trailing plant to cascade over container edges, and you have a work of art. Follow this basic design premise, and you’ll take the guesswork out of planting a beautiful pot.

Thriller Plant

The tallest plant in a container garden is known as the thriller. This plant should steal the spotlight and command attention with its size. Usually a pot only needs one thriller plant. The mature height of this plant should equal 1.5 times the height of the pot. For a 12-inch-high pot, you want a thriller that grows no more than 18 inches tall. Tuck thrillers into the center of the pot for containers viewed from all sides and toward the back of the pot for containers viewed from one side.

Examples of thriller plants include banana, ornamental millet, New Zealand flax, alternanthera (tall types), purple fountain grass and ‘Senorita Rosalita’ cleome.

Filler Plant

Filler plants surround the thriller and fill the space between the thriller and soil, disguising the sometimes ungainly stems of the thriller. Filler plants usually grow in billows and give a container a sense of fullness. Typically you plant two or more filler plants in a container, placing them on opposite sides of the pot.

Examples of filler plants include lantana, begonia, pentas, Diamond Frost euphorbia and impatiens.

Spiller Plant

Spiller plants tumble over the edges of the container and visually help anchor it to surrounding scenery. Tuck spiller plants near the edges of the container. For container gardens viewed from one side, place the spiller toward the front of the pot. For container gardens viewed from all sides, place spiller plants in the front and back of the pot.

Examples of spiller plants include scaevola, petunia, sweet potato vine and verbena.

Consider Color

Choose plants with leaf and flower colors that complement or contrast with each other. Select your palette by playing off trim colors on your house or cushion hues on outdoor furniture. Design like an artist by choosing plants in the same color family, like purple Persian shield, purple angelonia and trailing lavender Swan River daisy.

Group Similar Plants

Above all, as you select plants for your container, consider what they need to thrive. You want to weigh light and water needs first and foremost. Container gardens won’t sparkle when you put sun plants with shade-loving ones. That’s a recipe for a disaster. You can always find photos of great container combinations online or in plant catalogs. Copy those designs or use them to inspire your own creativity.

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