Garden Forever
Container Gardens Design and Practical Decisions by Lisa Erickson

Container gardening is one of the most popular forms of gardening since it can be done almost anywhere by anyone. Potted gardens allow us to have blooms, vegetables and herbs on the tiniest of decks. Window boxes and hanging baskets allow us to admire flowers at eye level and often from inside looking out. They are also ideal for people who have trouble bending over a flower bed or maneuvering around a large garden, for those who rent or live in apartments, for adding instant colour to a plain patio, under trees where perennial beds would compete for nutrients, for invasive plants that would take over the garden if left unbridled.

Types of Containers

Size is one of the most important considerations when planting in pots. Generally the larger the container the less watering it will require. Larger pots are also heavier to move around so if you like to rearrange your patio during the summer you might try some of the light weight terra cotta imitation pots that are available now. You could also put large pots on stands with wheels for rolling about.

Clay does tend to dry out faster, but it is a natural material that breathes and there are so many beautiful designs on the market now. Wooden whiskey barrels make great pots, they are large enough for small gardens of herbs, vegetables, annuals, and perennials. Many plants can be successfully overwintered in large barrels since the wood doesn't crack and the depth is adequate for the root systems. Don't ignore common household items for interesting whimsical containers - old boots, a campfire coffee pot, baby baskets can add charm to the garden. Be sure to have holes for drainage added to the bottom so the roots don't sit in water.

Consider the scale of the space when choosing containers. Small balconies would quickly be filled up with a couple of big pots. On the other hand a large patio needs some substantial pots to help balance the size. Groupings of smaller pots can fill larger areas but remember that they will need lots of watering to look their best. Varying the size and material of the pots can add interest to the area but too many different styles and textures can be just look like a jumble. Choosing a style, material or colour to form the overall impression and then mixing in other types can be interesting. For instance use many clay pots but mix the designs (cherubs, garlands, plain, etc.), choose blue pots in various materials and styles will keep the continuity of the potted garden while remaining interesting and fresh.

The texture of the walls, fences, furniture, and ground can help you decide what best suits your pots. If you have rattan furniture and brightly coloured cushions you might consider painted baskets for a casual look. Paved patios show well with substantial clay or concrete urns and pots. A wooden deck can be charming with whiskey barrels and wooden planter boxes.

If the balcony faces south, choose plants that will tolerate a lot of sun or be prepared for drooping, unhappy burned out potted gardens. Look for annuals portulaca, petunias, heliotrope that thrive in sunny conditions. On the other hand, recognize how much shade you patio under the oak tree really gets and look for annuals like lobelia, impatiens, fuchsias, or begonias. If the plant you choose is well suited to the amount of light your area receives it will reward you with plenty of blooms and fresh foliage. If you're potting up perennials, there are many types that have varieties that suit any condition. There are so many clematis available that will grow in a large pot and overwinter. Some are perfect on a northern wall, like Nelly Moser that tends to fade badly in bright sunlight and is much happy on a shady wall. There are even some roses that will grow and product prolific blooms in a shady condition. Try Zephyrine Drouhin but be sure to give it a large pot for overwintering.


One of the beauties of containers is the instant punch of colour they provide to bare spaces. Colour design is an art form but you can still master it even if you don't have the eye of a Monet. Choose complimentary colours and hues. Blues, pinks and purples make nice combinations as do bright yellows, oranges and reds. Many gardeners will play with colour, adding a bright red to a pink mixture but exercise caution when getting doing this. It's easy to get a jumble of colours that wearies the eye. White is an excellent choice for many colour combinations: it softens the bright colours, adds as a contrast, blends different colours to create a pleasing overall effect. White stands out at night (see The Evening Garden ) so if you use your patio for relaxing in the moonlight, add some plants with white blooms and light, silvery leaves for a natural evening glow.

The nice thing about containers is that every year your garden can be different, muted pastels one years, bright calypso splashes another. You can also create areas of different colour if you like them all but worry about mixing everything together. A pink corner, yellow and white balcony box, red and purple collection can trick the eye into thinking that there the area is larger since so much is going on. This works best if the patio or balcony has some kind of path of hidden area so that when you turn a corner or move through a space a different colour combination introduces a new experience. Continuity of colour can be very relaxing and soothing. Using a pink palette with different combinations can pull a disjointed space together. With containers you can easily experiment with colour and get just the right combination that suits you best.

Arranging the Pots

One pot on its own can look pretty lonely. Grouping of pots can create the image of lush gardens in the tropics. Many pots lining the steps of decks soften the edges. Defining an edge or taking the sharpness off of a corner of a building or fence is easily achieved with the placement of a good sized potted plant. Tall pots, wide barrels and planters can be arranged to fill an entire corner of a deck providing dense coverage so that you have to get very close to even realize the plants are growing in pots. Containers bulging out from balcony walls can create instant paths on an otherwise linear deck, leading from a sitting area to a dining spot. Don't forget about height in your arrangement. One trick is to put a pot on an old chair or overturned pot. You can't always move pots around later, trying other colour combinations and designs until you hit upon one that makes your place extra special.

Popular Gardening Pages


All articles are the property of Garden Forever.

All rights reserved. The use of any part of this publication reproduced, transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or stored in a retrieval system, without the prior written consent of Garden Forever is strictly forbidden.