How to Choose Plants for Garden Pots

Close-up image of a stone garden planter or container with scented lavender flowers in the summer sunshine

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Choosing plants can be the most exciting, challenging, and nerve-wracking part of container gardening. It's easy, however, to walk into a nursery and become stricken with plant panic, completely overwhelmed by the choices, and then leave with nothing.

There are some things you can do before you walk into a nursery or store to buy plants to make the experience more successful and pleasant.

Here is a list of basic questions you can ask yourself before choosing plants.

How Big Is My Pot?

This question is important for two reasons. You will want to get plants that are in proportion to your pot. One of the most frequent design mistakes people make is to put lots of short plants in a large, tall pot. Short plants can look fabulous in a large, wide pot. As a rule of thumb, try to have at least one plant that is at least as tall as the pot it's in—even better if it is 1.5 times as tall as the container. You will also need to know how big a pot you have is if you are going to buy potting soil and to figure out how many plants you will need. One trick is to cut out a piece of paper the size of your pot, so you can put it on the floor in the nursery to easily see how many you will need to fill the space.

How Much Sun Will the Pot Get?

This is one question that most of us will get wrong—almost everyone tends to overestimate, sometimes significantly, how much sun an area will get. You really need to figure out how much sun your pot will actually get, not how much you wish or think it gets. To do this, time how many hours the sun directly hits your spot over an entire day, close to your planting time of year. There are also several gizmos and gadgets that will help you figure this out. One great sun calculator is the Suncalc.

  • If your area gets at least 6 hours of direct sun, you can choose plants for “full sun.”
  • If your area gets 3 to 6 hours of direct sun each day, choose plants for “partial sun/partial shade.”
  • If your area gets less than 3 hours of direct sun each day, choose plants for “shade.”

How Much Care Am I Willing to Give?

If you travel a lot and can’t be around to water every time you plant gets dry, you should look for an easy-care plant that is drought tolerant. Some plants get all stressed out if you let them dry out and then water them. There are others that don’t mind at all. You can also solve this problem by either using self-watering pots or an automatic drip irrigation system.

Will My Container Be Near the Hose or Faucet?

Plants in containers need a lot of water. If you don’t have a faucet or hose nearby, that can mean a lot of lugging—and water is heavy. When choosing plants, keep this in mind. If it’s too hard or tedious to water, you probably won’t do it often enough, so again, you will want to choose drought-tolerant plants. If you put your pots in a protected, shady area you won’t have to water them as much.

What Look or Color Do I Want?

It is better to decide what look or color you want before you go to a nursery. Try to decide while you're home, looking at your pot and what’s around it, though chances are high that you will throw out all your decisions when you see some plant that makes you swoon. If your pot isn’t too big, it’s a good idea to bring your pot with you to the nursery. That way you can try different plant combinations in the pot before you buy.

Is ​My Pot ​in a Protected Area?

Many plants don’t like being whipped by the wind. Big, broad leaves can easily get battered or act like a sail and pull even a big pot right over. Some plants with heavy flowers or fruit can bend or break delicate stems in a stiff breeze. Conversely, a protected area can act like an oven, retaining heat and cooking plants that don’t like the heat.

Go to a ​Local Nursery and Ask Questions

One of the most important things when choosing plants is to buy them at a place where the plants are healthy. While buying plants at a big box store is sometimes less expensive, it’s often a false economy because the plants are stressed from less than optimal care and won’t live long. Also, the prices at big box stores and supermarkets can sometimes be higher than at your local nurseries. Also, local nurseries have information about your climate and what grows best in it. If you do have problems with a plant, you can often ask for help identifying what is wrong and how to fix it.

Have Fun and Experiment

Part of the joy of gardening is experimentation. While there are some plants may want to grow over and over, it's also great to try new combinations.