Plants For Containers: Oh The Choices!

Oh joy, spring is almost here and for gardeners everywhere that means one thing…plants are have begun to arrive at the nurseries.  From now on nurseries will be filled with plants and the collective twitters and sighs of plant crazed gardeners can be heard everywhere.  The new or inexperienced gardener is often caught up in this desire too as they long for something that says “spring” in their yard or on their front porch.  They wander in unaware of what they are about to experience and can quickly find themselves overwhelmed by the selection of plants. They never imagine that something as simple as flowers and plants can cause them to feel so…well…helpless.  Its that feeling of being overwhelmed the shear number of options coupled with the fact that they don’t know much if anything at all about plants.  You can see it in their eyes as they pear across the nursery, as they read every tag, picking up and putting back plant after plant after plant.  They can wander around for hours without having made a single selection.  My heart bleeds for them, I find myself gravitating towards them, wanting to rescue them.  I understand how they feel because I used to be them!

The selection is amazing and can be overwhelming.

For the seasoned gardener these days are more like being a kid in a candy store. For me I am tempted to run amok as my artistic soul delights in all the beautiful colors and textures of plants offered.  Playing with plant combinations is delightful fun, but for some of us it can be overwhelming when we try to put plants together for containers and don’t really know what we are doing.  Sometimes we get lucky but often times we just get overwhelmed.  It happens to me times too sometimes when I look at the vast array of plants to chose from.  It’s hard to choose which direction to go, which plants to choose because I love so many of them!  How does one get beyond this anxiety?  Here are some things to consider before you head to the nursery and keep tucked under your hat for when you go shopping for your plants that will hopefully help.

Decide on a color group or pallet you like.  As in any fashion color trends change so keep that in mind.  If you don’t like current trends them buck the trends and do what pleases your eye.
Color creates mood, so whether its too bring some coolness to a hot deck and brighten up a shady one, cheer up the steps and say hello to visitors or to celebrate a holiday, think about how it makes you feet.  Color can even encourage appetite at your next barbecue.
Use complimentary colors.  If you look at a color wheel the colors opposite one another are complimentary to one another.  This is a good thing to remember if you have trouble getting colors to play well with one another.
Colors like white, silver are important too because these lighter colors lift or bring forward darker more intense colors and make them “pop” visually. White will help lift dense saturated colors of black-eyed Susan yellow, rich delphinium blue and purple and deep rose reds, making them more pleasing and visible.  Silver play really well with purples, wines, pinks, soft yellows and blues.

Size of the blooms makes a statement too.  Its good to have variety in flower sizes as well as shapes…in other words create interest with bloom size as well as color.  Bold larger blooms can be cheerful and lively, smaller blooms are softer and quieter.

Ideas for pairings from the nursery can be borrowed.

Don’t forget leaves!  The photo of the container above has a big leaf presence in it but it still holds our interest nicely.  Flowers will fade but it’s the leaves last.  If you look closely at those designer containers you will see they use a lot of plants for their leaves.  Leaves can be bold and tropical looking or soft and lacey.  They can be stiff and upright, delicate and fernlike or round and succulent.  They add a lot of character to a planter that flowers alone can’t.  We live in pretty amazing times when it comes to what is available to us too.  Plant breeders are bringing more and more fabulous colors and textures in the leaves of plants as well as the flowers.  We have our choice of a lot more than just green and shiney.  There are yellow or white variegated forms, silvery overlays, ruffles both soft and brazen as well as a host of very artistic rusty and muted colors too.  As the saying goes…this isn’t your grandmothers garden center.

Plants with purpose!  Whether you realize it or not, whenever you select a plant you are selecting it for a reason.  Here are some purposes that plants serve that can help you in putting together the plants you chose by how they will serve you in the container.

  • Upright plants give height adding interest to the container and often some architectural interest too.
  • Mounding plants offer a feeling of fullness.
  • Trailing plants fill in the blank spots and when allowed to drape over the edges really soften the look of the container adding.
  • Small leaves soften the look…large leaves bring a sense of lushness.

Color of both flowers and leaves evoke emotion in us.

What about vines?  Clematis, Wisteria and other vines can grow really well in containers providing you don’t think you can get then to grow against their nature.  Wisteria is a huge vine normally but in a large container with careful pruning, can be kept as a rather large bonsai of sorts and be quite attractive.  In a hanging basket vines tend to look like a really bad hair day all jumbled on top of themselves.  That’s because they don’t want to trail but grow up!

Remember you don’t have to use only annuals in containers but can also use perennials and even trees and shrubs with success.  One of the best containers I saw last year was an evergreen shrub with Portuleaca planted at its base and spilling over the edges…it was gorgeous!  Sometimes you only want a single plant in a container which can be quite nice like the little primrose at the entrance of my garden here.

Just a little spot of color at the entrance makes this single primrose in a pot a delight.

Just a note before you go heading out to the nursery.  Sometimes nurseries do not have their annual plants selected for sun and shade separated so be sure to read those labels or ask someone who works there if you are not sure.

Check out the “Top-10 Plants for Containers”, “Top-10 Ornamental Grasses” and “Top-10 Vines” at Birds and

Also out to the great ideas on pages 30 through33 of the Feb/March edition of Birds and Blooms Magazine.   I love the great plant and container ideas there.  I am already making my list.  I’m liking the American Hero Hosta for my rather shady deck.  Those will look stunning in the large cobalt planters.

So remember, a little homework can go a long way and help make your containers be the best ever.  Happy shopping everyone!

  1. Noelle says

    Hello Patty,

    Oh, I am just itching to rip out my winter annuals and get started with new flowers. Great tips and ideas. Now, I just need to get to the nursery :-)

    • Patty says

      Noelle, I know exactly how you feel! This time of year I don’t even care if its pouring outside…I have to go get a fix at the garden center. Thankfully I do have veggie seeds to buy so I have a good reason to go.

    • Patty says

      Paula you are very welcome for the preview. So many of us are just twitchy to get in our gardens this time of year. Spring will be here soon!

  2. Patty says

    Leona, When shrubs are grown in containers they will not reach the size they normally do in the ground so you can get away with larger ones if you have a bit of room for them to grow. If you are in an area with adequate moisture you can grow small Rhododendron or Azaleas in containers. Some other varieties you could try are Nandina domestica (Heavenly Bamboo), Pieris japonica (There are dwarf froms of Andromeda that would be fabulous), Buxus sempervirens (Common boxwood which can be topiaried), Camellia and Japanese Dwarf Yew ‘Bright Gold’ which which does very well in filtered shade. If you don’t care if its evergreen or not you can also grow Hydrangeas and Fuchsias in containers for great summer color.

    I have seen some beautiful containers with shrubs pruned up from the ground and underplanted with fancy leafed perennials, flowering annuals and grasses.

    Have fun!

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