Container Gardeniing - Choosing and Combining Plants for Containers

  • 01 of 06

    Getting Balance and Contract In Container Gardens

    Balanced Container
    The plants in this container are very similar in hue, which gives them balance and allows them to blend. The container rely on the size and texture of the leaves for contrast. Photo: © Marie Iannotti

    Whether it's a question of space or interest, container gardens are everywhere. Maybe it's because they are so much fun to create, offer immediate gratification and you can just keep creating more and more of them. You can show off individual plants for try your hand at creating plant combinations.

    When it comes to combining plants, there are no "rules" for designing a container garden, except to give the plants what they need to thrive. However, there are certain design principles that can be scaled to container size and make creating effective container gardens an art. Think of them as Rules of Thumb, not hard and fast rules.

    Balance & Contrast

    • Plants should be sized to the pot & pots should be sized to the site. Small plants will be lost in a large pot, just as small pots will be lost on a large deck.


    • Plants shouldn’t be more than twice the height of the pot or 1 ½ times as wide


    • Simple plants show off an ornate pot and flamboyant plants are showcased by simple pots.


    • Have at least 1 tall plant, 1 filler and one trailing plant or simply one plant per pot.


    • Sometimes it's nice to have just one type of plant per container. Bold plants, like zonal geraniums (Pelargonium), look very nice on their own. You can always group several pots together.
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  • 02 of 06

    Combining Colors in a Container Garden

    Colorful Container Used in a Garden
    The color of the container is what is being showcased here. It probably would have been just as effective with no plants in it at all. Photo: © Marie Iannotti


    • Suit your choice of colors to your site.


      • For drama & impact, go for contrast (Colors opposite one another on the color wheel)


      • For harmony & tranquility stay with one color in different shades, like lavender, lilac and purple


    • To show off the color of the container, don’t hide it with trailing plants.


    • Use foliage for color
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  • 03 of 06

    Creating Focal Points in Containers

    Container planting of succulents.
    Who'd have though green leaves would make such strong focal points? The brightness of the 2 green succulents jumps out from the receding tones of bugundy. Photo: © Marie Iannotti

    Bones & Focal Points

    • Use foliage as the bones of your container garden. Find interest in the color, texture and size of the leaves. (Coleus for color, grasses for spiky airiness and Hostas for bold, textured leaves)


    • You can create a focal point within a mixed container with height, bold leaves or striking color. (Phormium for height, hibiscus for striking color, Elephant ear (Alocasia esculenta) or cannas for drama)


    • Create a focal point with a grouping of containers, each with one large plant, like a pot of black bamboo, a brugmansia and some Gartenmeister Fuchsias.

    Container gardens are the perfect place to experiment and have fun. Use whatever plants you like. Mix in perennials, trees, shrubs, houseplants, vegetables and herbs. Use whatever strikes your fancy as a container. If it doesn’t have drainage holes, plant in plastic pots and place the pots inside the container. Include garden art in your containers or groupings. And place pots anywhere there’s an open space: on the deck, the front steps, in holes in the flower border or create borders and screens with potted evergreens or bamboo. If you don’t like what you’ve created, take it apart and start again.

    Ideas for:

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  • 04 of 06

    Thrillers - Tall Plants for Focal Points in Containers

    Focal Point Plants for Containers
    This container is not large, but the Arrowhead plant in the center is a definite focal point thriller. © Marie Iannotti

    Container gardens can look one dimensional without a tall plant or two to provide some height. Don’t feel restricted to only the spiky Dracena on sale with the annuals, at the garden center. Here’s a list of tall plants that would be perfectly at home growing in a pot. Your choice of plants is only limited by the size of your pot; you want to be certain your thriller won't cause the whole container to topple over.

    Tall Focal Points or Solo Performers

    Ideas for:

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  • 05 of 06

    Fillers - Plants to Fill Our a Container

    Colorful Container Planting.
    Although this container could use a Thriller, the coleus fills the pot and draws attention with its colorfulness. © Marie Iannotti

    Good container garden design relies heavily on the choice of filler plants, those plants that make your container look lush, abundant and - full. Filler isn’t a very respectful term, but filler plants can make or break your garden. They need to perform well over a long period of time and complement each other, while highlighting the focal points in your container.

    Great foliage is often the key to a great filler plant. Colorful or textured foliage provides interest all season.



    Ideas for:

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  • 06 of 06

    Spillers - Tralining Plants for Container Gardens

    Using trailing plants and spillers in containers.
    Spillers aren't just there to hide an ugly pot. They help blance the upper portion of the container. © Marie Iannotti

    Even the nicest container garden is softened and somehow made more cohesive if there are plants trailing down its sides. Luckily plant breeders have been developing better and better choices of trailing plants. A great trailer for a pot is one with a long season of bloom, but that doesn’t need immediate deadheading. In lieu of long season vines, many annuals do better in either cool or warm weather and can be swapped out as the weather changes.

    Trailing plants

    • Alternanthera dentata
    • Alyssum
    • Asarina (Chickabiddy)
    • Bidens
    • Brachycome (Swan River Daisy)
    • Calibrachoa (Million bells)
    • Cobea (Cup and Saucer Vine)
    • Creeping Zinnia (Sanvitalia)
    • Eccremocarpus (Glory Flower)
    • Helichrysum petiolare (Licorice plant)
    • Iberis (Annual Candytuft)
    • Ipomea batatas (Sweet Potato Vine)
    • Ivy geranium (Perlargonium peltatum)
    • Laurentia
    • Lobelia
    • Lotus berthelotii (Parrot's beak)
    • Nasturtium
    • Plectranthus argentatus (Silver plectranthus)
    • Scaevola (Fan Flower)
    • Thunbergia alata (Black-eyed Susan vine)
    • Verbena
    • Vinca
    • Wave Petunias
    • Zinnia angustifolia (Narrowleaf Zinnia)


    It's  hard to go wrong designing a container. If you don't like the combination or if one of your plants under performs (or dies), you can always pull it out and put something new in its place. Although I like to keep track of plant combinations that have worked well for me, so I can potentially repeat them in future years, the choices keep expanding and it's just too tempting to try something new.

    Ideas for: