Friday, February 24, 2012

Container Garden Design

So my two readers out there may be thinking that it's really rather early to be planning garden designs, but what is the non-gardening season for but to dream about the gardening season? Plus, if you grow a lot of your plants from seed like I do, this is the right time of year to be browsing seed racks and catalogs, and to be setting up your grow lights and getting a few things started.

Last summer I was invited to help with the planter design process at work. While attempting to put together fabulous container gardens for our clients I gleaned several handy tips from our design manager, many of which I'll pass along in this post:

1. Mix it up.

A basket full of one kind of flower is pretty. A basket full of tastefully selected flowers of different shapes and colors combined with interesting foliage and textures can be breathtaking.

Pansies, begonias, astilbe, petunias, and Japanese hakone grass. Photo courtesy of Green Connection.
Don't be afraid to mix upright plants with cascading ones, or spiky plants with soft, billowing varieties. It's okay to add some plants that don't flower; grasses and other foliage plants can make an average arrangement into something spectacular. Add color variety in flowers or foliage for even more interest.

2. Mix it up...but not too much.

While variety is the spice of life, it's important to keep things unified so they don't appear chaotic and disorganized. This can be done by repeating some elements, like texture or color, throughout the design. In the picture below several colors are unified by the repeated use of daisy-like blooms.

A symphony of daisies. Photo courtesy of Green Connection.
Note the repeated use of chartreuse foliage in the photo below. (I loooove limey foliage! Drool.)

Dracaena spike, two pelargonium varieties, verbena, and lysimachia. Photo courtesy of Green Connection.
3. Keep things in scale.

Because nothing looks stoopider than a little tiny plant in a ginormous container, or vice verse. Most flowers come in several different flavors, so be sure to read plant tags and seed packages closely for size information.

Begonias, calibrachoa, and lysimachia. Photo courtesy of Green Connection.
The small planter in the picture above would have looked decidedly odd if filled with overly large plants, such as 3' tall snapdragons or a dinner plate dahlia. Luckily for the mailbox planter, it was filled with appropriate (and adorable) small-scale plants.

4. Choose the right plants for the right place

No matter how lovely your design is, the finished product won't look good if you use plants that don't grow well in your specific area. Is the site shady? Windy? Cool and moist? Hot and dry? For lush and vibrant plants, match the type of plants to the surrounding environment. Here in Alaska it's best to stick with cool-season plants. Lucky for us, there are a lot of annuals that do well up here.

Dogwood, scented geranium, dahlia, snapdragons, osteospermum, and petunias. Photo courtesy of Green Connection.

Osteospermum, bacopa, and helichrysum. Photo courtesy of Green Connection.
5. Have fun!

The most important thing to remember when designing a container garden is to have fun! Don't feel like you have to stick to what's currently featured on HGTV. So what if some people don't care for pink and orange together? If you like it, do it. (I personally love hot pink and tangerine together.) The best part about garden design is coming up with something that is uniquely yours and then being able to share it with others.


Sambucus, ageranthemum, pelargonium, calibrachoa, and lysimachia. Photo courtesy of Green Connection.

Well, guests and loyal readers, do you have any tips to share on container garden design? Plant combinations you find particularly pleasing? Creative uses for a specific type of container or flower? Let us know! Share your knowledge! We'd love to hear your ideas!

49 comments:

  1. So very lovely! I've always been a fan of varying heights for added visual interest. When possible, I think it's nice to have height (astilbe, spikes, etc) to cascading (sweet potato vine, ivy, etc.) and everything between.

    Happy dreaming and eventual planting!

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    1. Thanks, Kim! I definitely agree...a little variation in height goes a long way! Thanks for the comment :-)

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  2. They are beautiful! Visualizing this kind of thing is something that is hard for me. Especially the greenery stuff. Every time I see one of your creations I am in awe!

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    1. Thanks! I have a suggestion for you if you're trying to figure out what to put in your containers. Measure the size and shape of your planter opening, and make a cardboard cut out that same size. Take your cutout to the plant nursery and when you are picking out plants, you can set them right on the cutout in your shopping cart. This way you will know exactly what your design will look like before making your final purchase and exactly how many plants will fill your container.

      Good luck! Hope that helps!

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    2. love the gardening tips, but doesn't anybody think "tundra monkey" is an inappropriate title these days considering it's a slang for inuit people?

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    3. I have never heard the term used in a negative way; in fact, I have never heard it at all before I adopted it. Why would I take something derogatory as my username and blog title?

      Still, your comment worried me, as the last thing I want to do is insult anyone on my garden blog. So I consulted with my one of my best friends, who is part native Alaskan and has extensive family connections in rural northern and western Alaska. Neither she, nor her mother, nor any of her relations have ever heard the term 'tundra monkey,' much less heard it as a racial slur.

      My boyfriend said the closest thing he's heard is 'glacier monkey,' which refers to white people. And as everyone knows, whities are fair game for derogatory names :-)

      I also consulted with friends who work for Alaskan native corporations. They've never heard of it either. And as a life long resident in a state full of Inuit, Yupik, Eskimo, Athabaskan, Tlingit, and Aleut people I'm going to trust my instincts on this one. Either you are from somewhere very far from here where the lingo is quite different, or you are full of BS.

      Either way, thanks for bringing it to my attention. I can now breath easy knowing that my blog is 100% politically correct.

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  3. I always use this little reminder when trying to choose the plants for a container: "You need THRILLERS (tall ones), SPILLERS (ones that hang) and FILLERS (ones that make up the body).

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    1. Thanks for the comment! Varying heights and cascading plants can definitely make for a stunning container. I find that the Thriller, Spiller, and Filler method is especially helpful when planning very large containers.

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  4. I love these photos, Gretchen...it is strangely spring-planting time around here, so I am definitely thinking of container gardens. Except that I think our weather skipped spring and now I'm going to have to buy instead of grow annuals...bummer, because that can get so expensive! Do you have any tips for keeping costs down when buying annuals? (Flowers, mainly.)

    Also, I really love your mailbox with the planter. It is so charming. If our mailbox suited it, I'd want to copy! Here, though, for ease of delivery, all mailboxes are on one side of the road, with three grouped together. So it's not really mine to plant around, and I don't think there's a spot for a planter anyway. But yours looks so...professional! I guess that's why you are a professional, eh? :)

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    1. Erin: Thanks! While I didn't design all of the containers in these photos, I did happen to design the little mailbox planter. It just so happens to be my favorite too!

      As for money-saving gardening tips, I do have a couple:

      1. Go for those small cell-packs of four or six plants whenever possible. Small plants generally recover from transplanting more quickly than larger plants, and therefore tend to catch up in size within a couple weeks. Cell packs are often half the cost of a 4" or 6" potted annual, and you get several of them instead of just one.

      Unfortunately, I've noticed a trend in the big box stores towards larger plant sizes, probably because the profit margin is higher. Cell packs are getting harder and harder to find, but local garden centers and nurseries may still carry a good variety of them.

      2. While it won't be of much help this year, consider buying annuals that you can overwinter or start again from tuber/bulb/rhizome next year. Geraniums, dahlias, fuchsias, tuberous begonias, lavender, rosemary, and thyme are all good examples of things that can be saved over the winter and used again the next spring.

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  5. LOVE all of these!!!! thanks so much for sharing!! happy spring!!!!

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    1. Happy spring to you too! Thanks for the comment :-)

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  6. Lovely images and great tips - thank you. The thing I like about greens in a container garden is that you can use perennials, like the Lysimachia in the third picture. After it winters over in the same container you can amend the soil, add a bit of annual color, and your container garden is ready to go again.

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    1. Thanks, Diana! I love reusing perennials in containers, too. Unfortunately up there they generally don't fare well during the winter in pots, so I tend to either bury the container in late fall for overwintering, or I take out the perennials and replant them elsewhere in my garden. In milder clients, however, perennials in containers makes redoing them then next spring a snap!

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  7. I ran across your website on Pinterest and love your pots!!! I've never tried this before because I've never known how to start. So are these pictured above made from seeds??? I've always thought this type of stuff was planted!

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    1. Thanks! You can grow plants from seed for your container gardens or buy starter plants from a nursery. If you are new to container gardening you may find it easier to buy small plants and then pot them together in a larger container. Starting from seed generally requires a lot more planning and expertise for good results, but it's worth a try if you want to give it a go. Good luck!

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  8. Thanks for including the names of the plants. Any suggestions for Florida? I have a mix of sunny and shaded locations.

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    1. Being from Alaska, I'm not terribly well acquainted with the types of plants that may do well in your Florida garden,although I can give you a few good guesses. I know things like hibiscus, gardenias, canna lilies, calla lilies, and mexican heather all do well in my mother's Houston garden, so they might work for you too. You can try incorporating a few big-leafed tropicals in to your containers, such as philodendrons, alocasias, dwarf banana plants or palms. Warm season annuals such as impatiens, vinca, and coleus might work well as fillers for you. Again, I'm from Alaska and can't tell you for sure what will grow in Florida, but hopefully this will give you a good place to begin your research. Good luck!

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  9. Can you share your wisdom on the best way to prepare the soil? Do you use rocks in the bottom for draining purposes? Just regular old potting soil? How many plants can you really put in a planter? What about water -- my plants always seem to turn yellow.

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    1. In my experience, for containers it's best to use a good quality, well-draining potting medium rather than regular garden soil. While sometimes I use the same medium for a few years in a row, I generally add some compost and some organic slow-release fertilizer every year.

      It's been proven by a number of soil scientists that rocks or gravel in the bottom of your containers actually impede drainage rather than improving it. See http://containergardening.about.com/od/containergardendesign/f/Should-I-Put-Gravel-In-The-Bottom-Of-My-Container-Gardens.htm for more informati

      As for spacing, I usually throw the plant tags out the window and just cram everything in there! Why wait half the summer for everything to look full and lush? Your annuals will do well in tight quarters as long as they get enough water and nutrients. I usually water when the soil surface feels dry, but is still moist underneath. This may mean once a week or twice a day depending on the type of plants, the location, and the moisture holding capacity of the potting medium.

      Good luck! Hope that helped!

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  10. I have been looking for a container like the container in the bottom picture. Where do you find a container like this one. I love it! Thanks!!!

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    1. I believe that is a Lechuza container. You probably won't find them in many retail stores, but most interior landscaping companies should be familiar with the brand and can probably order you one. Good luck!

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  11. Beautiful photos and good advice about arranging container gardens. It's nice to be encouraged to make it your own and not worry too much about "rules". I find that my containers need regular and frequent fertilizer, watering and dead heading to encourage growth.

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  15. I love your container gardening. I have just found myself doing a lot of that lately and I use some of the same flowers that you do and greenery. first frost is supposed to be tonight. So I'll have to wait and see what happens tomorrow. keep posting and I'll keep reading :-)

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  17. Great arrangements. Thanks for sharing, both photos and your comments. Being in Alaska must be challenging for container garden design and implementation.

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  24. The most important thing to remember when designing a container garden is to have fun! Don't feel like you have to stick to what's currently featured on HGTV.
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  25. I ran out of time to plant my tulip bulbs this year. Can i plant them in a containet to get them started so that i can transplant them outside in the Spring? If so if i want to plant them outside around April when should i plant them in the containers? Thank you in advance for your advise.

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  27. When I read the start of this article about "my two readers", I was going to jump to the comments and say "make that three!" but scrolling through the comments shows me you have many more!! Thank you for this wonderfully educational and motivational post on container gardening which I found on Pinterest.

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