While the task is simple, there are some key ingredients to planting the perfect container garden. Here's what you need to keep in mind. As a bonus, we've also included a few container gardening ideas for sun and shade.

By Jenny Krane
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Container gardens are an easy way to add color to tight spots in your garden or on your porch. And it's not as simple as throwing some begonias and impatiens in a pot and calling it a day. You need to pay attention to what plants you're pairing in a container. Some plants grow well in both sun and shade, while others are pickier in their preferred light exposure and water requirements. Aesthetically, it's important to vary the height, color, and texture of plants for an eye-catching display. Here's everything you need to know about container gardening.

Related: Container Gardening Advice

How to Choose a Container

There are a number of things to consider (budget, space, and style, to name a few) when choosing a container. Just like plants, containers have their own characteristics: weight, sensitivity to weather changes, and appearance. These are common types of pots you'll likely be choosing from.

  • Terra-cotta: Terra-cotta pots are versatile and inexpensive—that's why they are seen so commonly in the garden. The only downside to using terra-cotta is that the clay material won't stand up to freezing temperatures.
  • Concrete: Concrete containers can take any type of weather. Be careful when placing your concrete planters because they are extremely heavy and even more difficult to move once they're filled with soil and plants.
  • Wood: Pick a sturdy wood, like cedar or nontoxic treated pine. To be safe, brush all wood surfaces with a waterproofing liquid.
  • Metal: Galvanized tubs and buckets are great options for container gardens. However, beware when using a metal container, as plants can get hot quickly. To protect the plants, line the container with garden fabric and place it in a shady spot.
  • Plastic or polyurethane foam: These types of containers can be made to look like just about any other type of container (but at a lower price). They aren't as high quality and won't last forever, but they can accomplish a certain look.
  • Repurposed containers: Choose old baskets, tin buckets, bird baths, and watering containers to house your favorite plants. The thrifted look is stylish and rustic.

Standard Plant Container Sizes

Be careful not to overfill a container garden. If the plants are overcrowded, growth can be stunted above and below the soil. You generally want to follow these pot size-to-plant ratios:

  • 10" to 12" pot can house 3-6 plants
  • 14" to 16" pot can house 4-8 plants
  • 16" to 20" pot can house 6-12 plants

Related: 5 Things You MUST Do For Your Container Gardens

How to Select Plants for a Container Garden

There is a rule of thumb when choosing different plants to combine in a container: have a thriller, a filler, and a spiller. Combining these three types of plants adds interest and balance to any container garden.

  • Thriller: Thrillers are plants with height that add drama and a vertical element. Some options include foliage plants, ornamental grasses, or upright flowering plants. Thrillers typically go in the center of a container.
  • Filler: Fillers tend to be more rounded or mounded plants and serve the purpose of making the container look full. These are generally placed in front of or around the thriller. In a long and narrow container like a window box, fillers are placed midway between the edge of the container and the thriller variety.
  • Spiller: Trailing plants that hang over the edge of the planter are considered spillers. If the container is going to be seen from all sides, be sure that spillers are placed on all sides.

Planting and Caring for a Container Garden

Before adding soil or plants, add rocks to the bottom of your container to aid in drainage. Use a potting soil—garden soil is heavy and compact, while potting soil makes it easier for containers to drain while retaining moisture. Container gardens tend to dry out more easily than in-ground gardens, so any added moisture helps plants stay happy. Be sure the container is sterilized, which eliminates the chance of fungus and bacteria being spread to your plants. Water your container garden in the early morning or evening—if the first inch or so of soil is dry, it's time to water.

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Shade Container Ideas

Spruce, the thriller in this container garden arrangement, is a cold-tolerant plant, so it will last through the fall.

In cooler weather, you can keep the spruce in the container and switch out the surrounding plants. The hostas are perennials, so you can plant them in the ground after they're done growing in the container. Creeping Jenny and English ivy act as spillers.

Textured leaves provide color in this container design, rather than relying on flowers.

The deep greens and purples add depth. This arrangement is built off of the style of the container but uses spillers like lobelia and painted fern to break up the dark arrangement and dark container.

This container is light and bright, which you don't typically get with shade plants.

Caladium is definitely the thriller in this container garden, thanks to its large leaves and tall stems. Euphorbia and dichondra add small, delicate texture, while begonias bring in ivory and blush hues that mimic the finish of the container.

Related: Our Favorite Shade Container Garden Ideas

Sun Container Ideas

This arrangement loves full sun and is designed with heat-tolerant plants.

The color red carries through this container and focuses on foliage instead of flowers. The bronze container brings out similar hues in the foliage of the sweet potato vine, copper leaf plant, and canna.

Lime green and warm colors make his sunny container pop.

The yellow of the canna flowers and calibrachoas down below work together nicely, while the orange salvia and firecracker plant are a perfect pair. Two varieties of sweet potato vine add bright foliage and trailing texture.

Related: Heat-Loving Container Garden Plants


Comments (1)

October 13, 2018
I wish these would show where the container came from as well. I love the "light and bright" container and want one!