Pots with Personality

Follow these design guidelines to get the most impact from container plantings.

April 19, 2011

Planted pots belong in every garden. Whether you garden on a sunny urban balcony, in the shade outside a studio apartment, or in a suburban or rural garden, whether in USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 2 or 10, planted pots add so very much to the garden’s character. Plant the tropical glory bush (Tibouchina) in a pot, and you’ll introduce an energizing bolt of luminous blue into your sunny garden. Plant three ‘Texas Parking Lot’ coleuses in a 24-inch pot, and in a few weeks the burgundy-and-gold leaves will light up a semishaded corner of your terrace.

No matter where you garden in North America, planted pots expand your plant vocabulary and introduce striking textures, forms, and colors in plants from around the world. Remember reading about papyrus in elementary school? Ever seen it? Last May, in my garden in southern Vermont, I planted six small papyruses (Cyperus papyrus) from 4-inch pots into a tall, narrow terra-cotta container in full sun, and another six in a different pot that I set into a pond in full shade. By late August, all 12 were 6 feet tall.


Go into any good garden center in late spring, and you’ll see a remarkable selection of low-maintenance annuals that are suited to container culture: Egyptian starflowers (Pentas), fragrant Zaluzianskya, globe amaranth (Gomphrena), autumn sage (Salvia greggii), and African daisies (Osteospermum), to name just a few.

Sometimes the most dramatic effects are created when a pot is dedicated to a single beautiful specimen or an all-of-one-kind planting. To add the element of contrast, pair two types of plants in one pot. For example, plant two pink-flowering upright ‘Billy Green’ fuchsias in the center of a large pot; then surround them with five trailing blue fan flowers (Scaevola).

Or choose plants with three different growing habits: pillars, fillers, and spillers. Place an upright plant (the pillar) in the center of the pot, mounding plants (fillers) around the upright one, and trailing plants (spillers) where they cascade over the edge of the pot. For example, in the center of a 24-inch-diameter terra-cotta pot, place two of the upright Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’, a long-blooming variety of anise hyssop that grows 36 inches tall by summer’s end. Plant three Diamond Frost euphorbia (Euphorbia graminea), a mounding annual with airy sprays of tiny white flowers, at the base of the Agastache. Around the perimeter of the pot, alternate three each of Million Bells Trailing Pink (Calibrachoa) and chartreuse licorice plant (Helichrysum petiolare ‘Limelight’). The result is a striking blue/pink/chartreuse combination for full sun.

There are certain places in the landscape where planted pots look particularly good:

  • At a garden entrance or the front door of a home
  • Next to a bench, gazebo, or arbor
  • In the corner of a stone patio or terrace—wherever people sit
  • On steps, alongside a path, or atop stone walls
  • In perennial borders to fill blank spots or to add contrast
  • Where two or more paths intersect, as in an herb garden

For an informal look, gather several pots, each planted with different combinations of plants. Formal design calls for more restraint, such as a pair of matching large pots on either side of the entrance to a path. And don’t forget, some pots are so gorgeous, so beautifully made, they can enjoy pride of place with no plants at all.