How to Plant a Container Garden in 6 Easy Steps

Create a picture-perfect container garden you can enjoy all season long.

Containers are an easy way to add a splash of color to your garden, patio, or porch. Sure, you can just throw some begonias or petunias into a pot and call it a day. But with a little extra effort, you can plant a truly stunning container garden full of thriving flowers and foliage. The right mix of plants arranged correctly in a pretty planter can be pure magic. These six simple steps will show you how to create a beautiful arrangement every time. Then all you'll need to do is keep things watered and enjoy the colorful display all season long.

blue ceramic container with bright tropical plants
Laurie Black

1. Choose the Right Container

Much like plants, containers have their own characteristics to take into account, including weight, sensitivity to weather changes, and appearance. You'll also want to consider your budget, space, and style when choosing a container. Keep in mind that the larger the size, the less you'll need to water, but whatever you choose, always make sure the container has holes in the bottom for drainage. Some common types of pots include the following.

  • Terra-Cotta: Versatile and inexpensive, terra-cotta containers are also called clay pots. You can find them plain or decorated in colorful glazes. The only downside to using terra-cotta is that it's somewhat fragile. It will chip and crack if handled too roughly, and can be damaged by freezing temperatures (empty and store them indoors over winter in colder regions).
  • Concrete: Concrete containers can take any type of weather. Be careful where you place concrete planters, since they're extremely heavy and very difficult to move, especially once they're filled with soil and plants.
  • Wood: Pick a durable wood, like cedar or nontoxic treated pine. To help them last longer, brush all the surfaces with a clear waterproofing sealer labeled for use on outdoor wood.
  • Metal: Galvanized tubs and buckets are great options for container gardens. However, beware when using a metal container because they will heat up quickly in the sun and cook your plants. To protect the plants, line the container with garden fabric and place it in a shady spot.
  • Plastic, Fiberglass, or Resin: These types of containers can be made to look like just about any other type (but at a lower price and lighter weight). They aren't as high quality and won't last forever, but they can provide a certain look.
  • Repurposed Containers: Choose old baskets, tin buckets, birdbaths, and watering containers to house your favorite plants. The thrifted look is stylish and rustic.
all red and pink grouping of container garden plants
Joseph Wanek

2. Select Color Schemes and Plant Combinations

Having a color theme for your container garden can help you select a good mix of plants. You can play off the color of your container, or focus on the flowers and foliage you plan to include. When combining plants in your containers, make sure they' all need the same light levels and frequency of watering. Plant them in odd numbers and be sure to have at least one thriller, filler, and spiller plant. Combining these three types of plants adds interest and balance.

  • Thriller: These plants add height and a bold vertical element. Some options include plants chosen for foliage, ornamental grasses, or upright flowering plants. Thrillers typically go near the center of a container.
  • Filler: Fillers tend to be more rounded or mounded and serve to make 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 thrillers.
  • Spiller: Plants that hang over the edge of the container are considered spillers. If your container garden is going to be seen from all sides, be sure to place spillers all the way around.

3. Limit the Number of Plants You Use

Be careful not to overfill a container garden. If the plants are overcrowded, growth can be stunted both above and below the soil. To lessen the chances of overfilling a container, you will generally want to follow these plant to pot size ratios:

  • 10" to 12" pot can hold 3-4 plants
  • 14" to 16" pot can hold 5-7 plants
  • 16" to 20" pot can hold 6-9 plants

4. Fill the Container with Potting Mix

Once you've selected your plants and a container, it's time to get planting. Fill your container two-thirds full with an all-purpose potting mix. Don't be tempted to use garden soil. It's too heavy and won't drain as well as it must in a container. If you have a really large planter and would like to use less potting mix, turn smaller empty containers upside down and place them on the bottom to take up some of the space. Then fill around them with potting mix until your container is two-thirds full.

Test Garden Tip: Before filling your container, you can place a piece from a broken clay pot over the drainage hole to prevent the potting mix from draining out—but make sure the water can still drain. Never add a layer of rocks to the bottom because this actually makes it harder for water to drain out, rather than helping.

woman placing potted plants in container

5. Place Plants in Your Container

When you're ready to add plants, give their nursery containers a gentle squeeze around the sides to loosen the root ball enough until you can slide it out. Avoid tugging on the plant itself, which may damage it. Then, set your plants on the potting mix so that the top of their root balls are a couple of inches below the rim of your container. This will make it easier for you to water later. Fill in around your plants with more potting mix, making sure the stems are no deeper in soil than they were in their nursery containers. Use your hands to press down lightly on the mix to eliminate large air pockets.

6. Water in Your Plants

Water your container garden to help the soil settle in. Add more soil if needed so that all the roots are covered. Remember to keep the soil level a couple of inches below the rim of the container to prevent water and soil from spilling out.

After that first watering, check back in a day or two to see if the first inch or so of soil is dry to the touch. If it's dry, it's time to water again. You'll know you've given your container enough water when some runs out of the drainage hole (s). If you choose to use a saucer under the pot, make sure to keep it emptied since plant roots can rot when left sitting in the collected water.

Plant Combination Ideas for Containers in the Shade

01 of 05

Foliage First Container Idea

tall blue gray pot of flowers spruce creeping jenny hosta ivy top porch step
Spruce, the thriller in this container garden arrangement, is a cold-tolerant plant, so it will last through the fall. Jason Donnelly

Don't be afraid to mix up different types of plants, such as annuals, perennials, vegetables, and even small shrubs. The important thing is to choose plants that prefer the same light conditions. In this container, a dwarf Alberta spruce provides height as a somewhat understated thriller, paired with an artichoke as a more dramatic thriller with silvery, serrated leaves. The variegated hostas act as fillers, along with asparagus fern and flowering browallia. 'Goldi' creeping Jenny and English ivy take the role of spillers. All of these different plants do well in their part shade location.

02 of 05

Dark and Bold Container Idea

diamond patterned pot with flowers front porch
Textured leaves provide color in this container design, rather than relying on flowers. Jason Donnelly

Deep greens and purples add depth, even in shady spots. This arrangement echoes the look of the container with dark, boldly textured foliage from 'Brit Marie Crawford' ligularia (the thriller) as well as the fillers 'Obsidian' heuchera, 'Fanal' astilbe, and 'Red Threads' alternathera. Spillers are blue-flowered lobelia and silvery Japanese painted fern, which set off the darker plants and pot.

03 of 05

Pastel and White Container Idea

white vase of flowers on top porch step
This container is light and bright, which you don't typically get with shade plants. Jason Donnelly

Brighten up a shady nook with both a light-colored container and plants that feature white or pastel-colored foliage and flowers. Caladium is definitely the thriller in this container garden, thanks to its large leaves with dramatic patterns and tall stems. For fillers, 'Diamond Frost' euphorbia adds delicate texture as well as flowers that continue the white color theme, while 'Nonstop Mix' and 'Angel Falls Soft Pink' begonias bring in ivory and blush hues that mimic the finish of the container. 'Silver Falls' dichondra makes a fine spiller with its dangling stems of pale, silvery foliage.

Plant Combination Ideas for Containers in the Sun

04 of 05

Bronze and Red Container Idea

bronze pot of flowers on top porch step
This arrangement loves full sun and is designed with heat-tolerant plants. Jason Donnelly

Red hues carry through this container in both foliage and flowers. The bronze glaze of the container brings out similar warm tones in the foliage of the sweet potato vine (spiller), coleus, copper leaf plant (filler), and Tropicanna canna (thriller). Red Abyssinian hardy banana acts as a darker red thriller and 'Bossa Nova Orange' begonia adds a splash of bright red blooms.

05 of 05

Warm Colors Container Idea

short yellow pot with flowers on front steps
Lime green and warm colors make his sunny container pop. Jason Donnelly

This combination was inspired by the warm colors of a sunset. The yellow container brings out the canna flowers (thriller) and 'Superbells Lemon Slice' calibrachoa (spiller). 'Saucy Coral' salvia and firecracker plant (both thrillers), plus 'Bandana Cherry Sunrise' lantana (filler) heat things up even more with their fiery flowers. Two varieties of sweet potato vine ('Margarita' and 'SolarPower Lime') add bright foliage as spillers.

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