Foliage Plants for Container Gardens

While flowers win the hearts and minds of many container gardeners, foliage plants can be beautiful, interesting, and easy to grow. Here are our favorites.

  • 01 of 10
    container gardening picture of foliage plants
    Elephant Ears or Colcasia. Photograph © Kerry Michaels

    There is something about colocasias, also known as elephant ears, that can be moving. They are graceful, elegant and often huge foliage plants. Great for large pots, they grow in partial shade and come in an enormous range of leaf shape, size and color.

    They like moist, warm conditions, but need to be kept sheltered from high winds. They can also be grown indoors in bright, indirect or filtered light.

    Design Tip: Grow colocasias in large pots. Plant a medium height plant around them, such as...MORE fuchsias, coral bells or coleus. Plant draping plants around the edges of your pot, such as creeping Jenny, ivy or sweet potato vine.

  • 02 of 10
    container garden picture of foliage plant heuchera
    Heuchera Dolce 'Key Lime'. Photograph © Kerry Michaels

    I am an unabashed fan of heuchera, also known as coral bells. While it does send up flower spikes, and they can be beautiful and great cut flowers, heuchera is mainly an amazing foliage plant. It is hard to kill, very adaptable to different light levels and is drought tolerant.

    Heuchera come in a wide range of leaf shapes and a fabulous array of colors, from dusky browns and grays to pinks and lime greens. Most form an attractive mound and will keep their form without being pruned.

    Design Tip: To...MORE show off the shape and colors of these spectacular plants, place heucheras alone in a pot that is the same size as the plant or smaller. Also use it as a filler plant in a large mixed container.

  • 03 of 10
    container gardening picture of Hosta autumn frost
    Hosta, Autumn Frost. Photograph © Proven Winners

    Hostas are notoriously beloved by deer, which is a great reason to grow them in containers where they are easier to protect. Hostas are just plain lusciously leafy. They come in many sizes, leaf shapes and in colors from lime green to blue-green, with yellows in between. Some are striped and some are solid. Hostas are known as a shade plant, but some will tolerate sun.

    Hostas are also perennial in zones 3-8. If you live in a cold climate, if you choose a pot that is tough enough to last all...MORE winter outside, you can leave your hosta potted up. I love to plant hostas in old logs where the center has rotted so there is a hole in the middle which I fill with potting soil.

  • 04 of 10
    container garden picture of Persian Shield in mixed contianer
    Persian Shield in Mixed Container Garden. Photograph © Kerry Michaels

    There are some plants you want to have every year, and for me, Persian shield, Strobilanthes dyerianus, is one of them. There have been a few years where I have gone looking for them too late and everyone has sold out of them. I don't understand why every nursery doesn't carry them. They are flat out stunning, easy to grow and care for and look good in many different container styles.

    The purple and black leaves of Persian shields are show stoppers--almost iridescent. I have grown them on...MORE their own, or put them in mixed containers. I have seen them rated to grow in part-sun to full sun to full shade. I think it depends on where you live. Too much sun and the leaves will bleach out, too little sun and the plant might get leggy. Mine have grown in part sun very successfully.

    To keep the plant full and well-shaped, pinch it back during the growing season.

    If you live in an area colder than zone 9 (though in zone 7 and 8, some people let it die back in the winter and it comes back in the spring), bring the plant in over winter. Place it in a bright spot, out of direct sun.

    Keep Persian shield moist. Do not let the soil dry out.

    It's easy to propagate Persian shield by cuttings, either by rooting in water or in soil.

    Continue to 5 of 10 below.
  • 05 of 10
    container garden picture of chameleon plant in a garden pot
    Chameleon Plants Should Planted in Pots. Photograph © Kerry Michaels

    Let me start by saying that chameleon plants can be invasive, so only grow them in pots and make sure not to let them run wild, or you will deeply regret it. Don't even compost them because they are so hard to kill, they could survive and quickly spread.

    Now the advantages to chameleon plants. They are beautiful and as you have probably guessed, really hard to kill. They are perennial in zones 5-8 and are rated from sun to partial shade. They are a medium sized plant that is good for filling...MORE in spots in mixed containers.

    Because of their striking colors, they are a little tricky to use in mixed containers. I have found the almost psychedelic leaf colors--green, red, pink and yellow--look great with more subdued plants that echo and enhance their almost chaotic color scheme.

  • 06 of 10
    container garden picture of large coleus and pink mum
    Coleus are Great Foliage Plants. Photo © Kerry Michaels

    Any list of foliage plants has to include coleus. There are so many varieties with different leaf shapes, colors and sizes, that the choices are overwhelming. From browns to reds to vibrant pinks and greens, this is a plant that pretty much covers the color spectrum. Leaf shapes go from simple to complex.

    Mixing different varieties of coleus can make a stunning display. Keeping them pinched back so they stay bushy rather than leggy is important. Also, cut off any flowers. Most coleus prefer shade...MORE to part shade and, if you live in a cold climate can be overwintered indoors.

    Instead of overwintering in their pot, I often take cuttings and root them in a jar of water.

  • 07 of 10
    container gardening picture of rainbow chard and nasturtium
    Rainbow Chard with Nasturtiums. Photo © Kerry Michaels

    Chard and kale are two excellent examples of container plants that are not only beautiful but edible as well. Both are super easy to grow and can add both color and texture to mixed container gardens.

    I love rainbow chard for a multicolored look and ruby chard for a fabulous accent color. Dinosaur kale is a fabulous blue color and can add both texture and personality to a mixed container. Redboar kale is a ruffled leaf and goes from magenta to dark purple.

    Both kale and chard last well into winter...MORE and are even said to taste sweeter after a frost. Ornamental kales and cabbages are sold in nurseries in the fall and they are beautiful as well, though they are seasonal and, while I believe they are edible, are not known to taste particularly good.

  • 08 of 10

    Herbs

    photo of container garden, golden sage in terra cotta pot
    Golden Sage in a Terra Cotta Pot. Photo © Kerry Michaels

    I love adding herbs to mixed containers. They add color, texture and many add fragrance when touched. Many are easy to grow and it is great to nibble them when watering your gardens. Purple sage, golden oregano, curly parsley and rosemary are all as easy to grow as they are beautiful.

    Plant them in pots alone, in mixed containers, or make themed herb gardens, like a pizza garden, an herbs of Provence garden or a salsa garden.

    The Basics of Growing Herbs in Containers.

    Continue to 9 of 10 below.
  • 09 of 10
    container gardening picture of foxtail fern
    Fox Tail Fern Container Garden. Photo © Kerry Michaels

    Ferns are a never ending source of amazement to me. Each has a different personality, yet all are graceful and lithe. I tend to like them in pots alone, so they can really shine. There are thousands of different ferns to choose from. Some of my favorites are foxtail ferns and Japanese painted ferns, which come in purples and oranges. I also love Staghorn ferns which are epiphytes and don't grow in soil but are commonly found living on tree trunks or in the crotches of limbs.

    Ferns can be easy...MORE to grow and, while some only thrive in shade, some will tolerate sun.

  • 10 of 10
    container gardening picture of rex begonia, coleus and caladium
    Rex Begonia, Coleus and Caladium. Photograph © Proven Winners

    Rex begonias can be weird and wondrous. The leaves can have patterns, shapes and colors that are so extreme that it's hard to believe they grow naturally. They look fabulous on their own in simple pots or can be placed in mixed containers for an eye-catching accent. They can also look great in hanging baskets

    In cold climates, bring them inside where they can be happily domesticated as houseplants. Keep them in a warm, humid environment with indirect light and moist, not wet, soil.