5 Tips for Planting Healthy, Great-Looking Container Gardens

Plants in pretty pots can be beautiful, but producing containers overflowing with lacy vines, color-saturated flowers, and delicate grasses requires a lot of know-how and a strong back, right? Well, partly. Planting a large container garden can, indeed, be a challenge both physically and aesthetically, but there are ways to do this successfully without breaking your back. Here are five no-nonsense tips to help you tackle this project.

  • 01 of 05
    A beautiful Lunaform pot at Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens
    Photograph © Kerry Michaels

    Let's start with the planting medium. While it's not a great idea to fill up pots with material other than potting soil, doing a version of that may help you. If you have a really big container, you could fill the bottom with a lightweight material, which would save you money and decrease the weight of those incredibly heavy pots.

    To achieve this, you could use everything from milk jugs and soda bottles to packing peanuts, though this last filler is the least desirable for the environment and the health of the plants. There are also products designed for this purpose, such as Better than Rocks, Packing Pearls, and Ups A Daisy, available at home improvement stores and garden centers.

    The advantages of lightening the pot can be significant, particularly if you ever have to move the pot or are putting it on a deck or balcony where weight can be an issue. A large pot filled with damp soil and plants can be so heavy it could compromise the integrity of the structure over time. Generally, the more soil a pot has, the more it will retain water, and that can be a good thing. In a huge pot, though, it can take an enormous amount of water just to moisten all the soil in the pot.

    If you do fill the bottom of your pot with lightweight material, it's a good idea to separate the filler from the soil. To do so, cut a piece of plastic screening big enough to fit into your pot, and then put it over whatever filler you have in the bottom of the pot. Separating the soil from the other material makes cleaning up and emptying the pot much easier at the end of the season. 

    Contrary to conventional wisdom, it does not improve drainage to put gravel or rocks in the bottom of your container. You should know that, in general, more soil is better than less and that you shouldn't put gravel in garden pots.

  • 02 of 05
    A large garden urn with a single, huge agave plant
    Photograph © Kerry Michaels

    While plant choice is important for any container, it is particularly essential for large containers. Plants can easily get lost and look dwarfed in a large pot. It's a challenge to choose plants that will give you a container design that is interesting and balanced in terms of scale.

    Particularly with big pots, the container design principle of using  "thriller, filler, and spiller" plants will help give your pot a cohesive look.

    Thrillers: You may want either one tall and dramatic plant or a group of them. This could be a small tree or another great large plant, such as banana plants, cannas, grasses, palms, or shrubs. Using trees, shrubs, or large perennials that will survive the winter in your area gives you the advantage of having a good-looking pot year-round.

    Fillers and Spillers: While it's common to do mixed containers, don't hesitate to use only one plant or several of one variety. For pots that are wider than they are high, even a low-growing ground cover like golden creeping Jenny or low-growing succulents can look stylish and interesting, particularly when you've got a spectacular pot.

  • 03 of 05
    A large red Lechuza planter, resplendent with colorful plantings
    Photograph © Kerry Michaels

    When you buy your potting soil, find out if it has fertilizer already mixed in. It's actually better to buy potting soils without it. Instead, mix an organic, slow-release fertilizer into the soil when you plant. Make sure to really mix the fertilizer well all through the soil in your container. This can be hard with a large pot, but you want to make sure it gets to the roots of your plants as they grow down.

  • 04 of 05
    An organic-looking large, wide, relatively shallow pot at Asticou Gardens, Maine
    Photograph © Kerry Michaels

    There are a few practices you need to follow regularly to give your plants a fighting chance and keep them looking beautiful.

    1. Keep up with deadheading. While many garden centers say flowering plants don't need to be deadheaded, it's a good idea to remove spent flowers to keep your pot looking neat. More important, some flowering plants will bloom more if they are deadheaded; in other words, you promote reblooming by preventing seed production.

    2. Pinch back plants to make them bushy rather than leggy. Coleus, Persian shield, and many other branching plants will benefit big time from pruning. Pruning can help you fill out your large container by preventing your plants from getting spindly.

    3. Fertilize your container regularly throughout the growing season. Many large plants are heavy feeders, so use a diluted liquid fertilizer every other week.

    4. Make sure your plants are getting enough water. Especially with large plants, leaves can act as an umbrella, and light rain or hose water can be shed off the leaves and right out of the pot before it has a chance to reach the soil. You can tell you've watered both the roots and soil by watering until you can see liquid seeping out from the drainage holes in the bottom of the pot.

    Continue to 5 of 5 below.
  • 05 of 05
    Large Lunaform vessels at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens
    Photograph © Kerry Michaels

    A lovely, large container can be a piece of art and a focal point of your yard, deck, or garden. A lot of big beautiful containers also have big beautiful price tags.

    You don't have to spend a lot of money to get a fabulous container. Think, for instance, the huge clay and enamel-painted pots you'll find at home improvement stores like Home Depot and Lowe's, home design stores like HomeGoods, flea markets, thrift stores, and neighborhood garden centers.

    That said, the expensive pots you might think you can't afford could actually pay for themselves over time. Not only will they imbue your garden with an incredibly artful aesthetic. If you maintain those expensive containers correctly according to directions, many will last forever and you'll be able to keep them outside year-round, even in the coldest temperatures.

    Where do you find these large, modern works of art? Here are a few favorite sources of garden designers:

    • One great source is Lechuza. These self-watering containers are durable, sleek, and fabulous.
    • If you want museum-quality art in a garden pot, consider Lunaform. These giant pots are hand-thrown in Maine, and each is more exquisite than the next.
    • Another place to look for beautiful, handmade design is the website of California artist, Mary Martha Collins. Her vessels come in amazingly graceful shapes and breathtaking colors.
    • Campania containers are well designed and some are drop-dead gorgeous. The company makes fabulous historical replicas in cast stone as well as lighter-weight pots. Campania pots are available at many independent garden centers.