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How to Design Sensational Container Plantings

Container gardening display
Our Intervale store has partnered with Beds and Borders to bring you lovely, pre-designed container plantings.

If your pots and planters never quite live up to your expectations, take heart! Here are five easy steps to help you enjoy colorful, abundant and eye-catching plantings that will look great all season.

1. Choose the Right Pot or Planter

There are so many incredible pots these days in all shapes, sizes, styles and colors, that trying to choose one can be a bit overwhelming. Think first about where the pot will be placed and make sure you get the size right. Containers usually look best when there's about twice as much plant as pot.

Remember that good-looking plants have good-looking root systems. Make sure the pot you use is large enough to contain the entire root mass (three months after you plant!). A good size pot also means more room for soil, which means more room for moisture and less of a need for frequent watering.

All pots should have drainage holes at the bottom or sides so excess water can drain out and roots won't get waterlogged. A self-watering planter has a built-in water reservoir to help ensure roots have access to a consistent supply of moisture.

The style of pot should suit your home (much as you like the looks of a rustic Mexican pot, it might not be the best choice if you live in a white colonial home with a bluestone patio). If you already have a color scheme in mind for your plants, make sure the pot you select will complement these colors.

2. Select Plants with Three Different Habits
Container gardening display
Try different plant combinations while you're at the garden center.

As a general rule, planters look best when you select one plant that has a vertical habit (phormium, canna, calla, pennisetum, fuchsia gartenmeister), two or more with a horizontal, weaving habit (heliotrope, osteospermum, petunia, coleus, impatiens) and one or more with a cascading habit (nemesia, helichrysum, ipomoea, calibrachoa).

You can choose two different kinds of plants to play the same role (two cascading plants, for instance). When you are at the garden center, stand the plants next to one another and try to imagine how they will interact later in the summer when they're four to 10 times larger.

3. Select a Variety of Colors, Textures and Leaf Shapes

Even in a single-color planting of all pink or all yellow, you'll at least have the contrasting color of green. One of the most popular combinations in recent years has been blue, pink and gray. But bright, sharply contrasting colors— such as purple and orange or yellow and blue— are increasingly popular. (See the sidebar at right for some favorite combos from last season.)

Foliage color provides another opportunity to blend or contrast. Experiment with foliage:

  • Lime green: Ipomoea batatas 'Marguerita' or Helichrysum 'Limelight'
  • Gray: Helichrysum or Centaurea 'Colchester white'
  • Variegated: vinca or plectranthus
  • Burgundy: Ipomoea batatas 'Blackie', perilla or tradescantia
  • Highly colored: coleus, strobilanthes (Persian shield) or canna

You can also combine different foliage textures: the shiny leaves of cannas, phormium and New Guinea impatiens and the felted leaves of Helichrysum petiolare, heliotrope or a dark-leaved coleus, such as 'Felix.' And don't forget leaf shape. Contrast the broad leaves of canna or strobilanthes with the sword-like leaves of phormium or the finely textured foliage of verbena or calibrachoa (million bells).

4. Use a Soil Mix Formulated for Containers

Loose and well-aerated soil is what your container-grown plants want; moisture-retentive yet well-drained; easy for roots to penetrate. Our Container Mix has been specially formulated to address these needs. It is comprised of ground sphagnum peat, vermiculite and sifted compost. If you make your own blend, just use a combination of these same ingredients. Garden soil is much too dense for container growing.

Use fresh soil every year to ensure good aeration. Old soil gets compacted after a season of daily watering. Fresh soil will also prevent disease and pest problems that might otherwise linger from a prior year. Frequent fertilizing can also leave behind a residue of fertilizer salts in the soil that would inhibit healthy root growth. The price of fresh soil is a fraction of what you'll invest in plants. It's well worth the $5-10 to ensure a long season of healthy growth and abundant blooms.

5. Water and Fertilize. Water and Fertilize.

The most effective thing you can do to improve the appearance of your container-grown plants is to fertilize them three to four times a week. In most cases you will be planting into a nutrient-free growing medium and then expecting your plants to survive on a diet of nothing but air and water. No wonder they look pathetic after you've starved them for two or three months!

If you use an organically-based fertilizer such as Plant Health Care for Flowers, it's pretty difficult to over-fertilize your container-grown plants. Add two heaping tablespoons to 3 gallons of water about every other day. What an incredible difference it makes.

The other thing that will make a huge difference in the health and vigor of your plants is to water frequently so they never dry out. It is the growing tips of a plant's root system that are most responsible for absorbing nutrients and water. If these delicate root hairs dry out, they die, and the plant will need to generate new ones. A plant will concentrate on doing that before it will put energy into foliage or flowers. These wet/dry cycles also stress plants and may cause them to go to seed more quickly than they would if they received a consistent supply of moisture. Self-watering planters make it easy to ensure there's always a supply of water on reserve.

It may take 10-15 minutes every morning to water (and fertilize!) all the plants on your porch or deck. But that's 15 minutes every day that you get to listen to the birds as the watering cans fill, notice how things are growing, and appreciate the living art that surrounds your home.

6. Still not sure? We've got the answer!

Our Intervale store has partnered with Beds and Borders to bring you lovely, pre-designed container plantings. Each has nine pre-selected plants designed for sun or shade, mixes colors and heights all you have to do is choose the pot!