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Garden Design: How to Use Plant Containers

Whether you like drama, whimsy or restrained elegance, there’s a container look that’s just right for your garden. But it’s not all about looks — containers are garden workhorses. Discover how they can make your garden design come to life.

 A burst of bold red geraniums, a towering canna, a carefully planned sequence of color or a trail of showy foliage — containers allow you to enjoy plants up close. And it doesn’t matter whether your garden is huge and expansive or a simple apartment balcony. Containers make a statement no matter where you put them.

Draw Attention to a Door or Steps

Often, a backyard retreat is tucked away out of plain sight. That’s great, because it makes it restful, but sometimes you need visual cues to remind you that it’s there, waiting for you to enjoy it. A carefully planned row of containers can point the way to a door, gate or steps just as effectively as a neon beacon — and it’s a lot more attractive, too!
 
Garden Design: How to Use Plant Containers
Tuck containers well to one side of steps, and make sure that there are no trailing, branching plants that could cause you to trip or stumble.

Take a look at the containers in the photo above. They don’t all match, but they’re in similar dark colors, so they’re not competing with each other. The ones closest to you, on the left, have foliage plants in shades of green, while the ones on the top two steps have brighter bursts of coleus, begonias and fuchsias. Those bright colors make you look right at the top of the steps, where you can see an umbrella peeking around the corner, hinting at a comfortable seating area just out of sight.
 

Create an Entrance

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Although none of the containers on this patio are the same shape, they’re all classic, unglazed terra-cotta, so this grouping looks planned, not haphazard.
 
The containers in the above photo certainly add a dramatic touch. First there’s the sweep of containers leading your eye along the edge of the patio. Then, two baskets of colorful petunias on pillars emphasize, “Here’s where you walk through to see the rest of the garden.” It’s no mistake that the colors in the pillar baskets are brighter than most of the rest of the plants — it helps draw your eye over and up to make a strong point.

These pillars are antique iron posts, mounted on concrete bases with a steel post inside. A loop of wire connects the baskets to the inner posts so the baskets can’t blow off. Even if there aren’t any antique posts handy, you can get this effect — straight sections of tree trunk are nice in a rustic garden, and even short pillars of stacked bricks will raise a pair of containers enough to help mark a transition area effectively. Or mark the entrance with containers of a brighter color — two red or cobalt blue containers would draw your eye, too.
 

Managing the View

 
 
The last thing you want to do when you’re relaxing in the garden is stare out at a view of the neighbor’s garbage cans or a busy street. You don’t have to plant a hedge or build a fence just so you can enjoy your seating area. Just put containers to use. In the two photos above, you can see that this round patio has some mature shrubs behind the chairs to block the view, but what about in front? It doesn’t seem very private. Containers to the rescue! Upright junipers in containers are tall enough to make an immediate screen. At the end of the summer, plant them in the garden.
 
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These planters are mounted on the outside of the rail so the plants get plenty of sunlight to keep them blooming.
 
Containers don’t have to sit on the ground. In the photo above, there’s just not enough room to put big containers or large plants on the floor of the small apartment patio. But hayrack-style planters on the rail save space, add season-long color that you can even enjoy from inside the sliding doors, and screen the view of a busy street, all at the same time!

Bring the Garden onto the Patio or Deck

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Bright fuchsias, dahlias and New Guinea impatiens make the container in the middle striking, while just a glimpse of fragrant purple heliotrope peeks out from the back.
 
The garden doesn’t have to stop short at the edge of the patio or deck! In the photo above, a grouping of terra-cotta containers sits just inside the neat boxwood hedge, bridging the gap between the patio and the beautiful perennial and shrub border in the distance. The boxwood in the biggest container echoes the ones in the hedge around the patio, linking the container grouping with the rest of the garden. None of these containers are very tall, because you wouldn’t want to block the view out across the lawn toward the garden.
 
 
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Foliage plants don’t have to take a back seat to flowers. Here, several kinds of coleus mingle with grasses and jewel of Opar for a color symphony that’s based almost entirely on leaves.
 
Containers in the photo above also connect the deck with the garden beyond. Repeated splashes of chartreuse all the way down the steps and out into the garden draw your eye outward, enticing you to explore. A striking empty container out in the garden provides the final touch, acting as a focal point and visually linking both the deck and the island bed.
 
When you think of bringing the garden up onto the deck, think about all your senses, not just sight. If you like to relax on the deck in the evening, why not plant a container with heliotrope, stock or nicotiana to enjoy the fragrance near at hand? Or plant an herb garden in a container where it’s handy for cooking outside.
 
For many people with townhomes or condos, a deck or patio is the garden. Don’t feel you have to limit your container choices to a few tiny pots — one or two large, bold containers give you more planting space and make a bigger impact, too.

Instant Impact

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Smooth-surfaced pots in neutral colors keep the attention on the plants, while providing interesting contrast with the rough bark of the tree trunks.
 
Patience might be a virtue, but it can be awfully hard to wait for a garden to get going. Sometimes you need some instant impact to feel like you’re making progress. Containers come to the rescue once again!
 
In the photo above, annuals in containers dress up the space next to a patio. They’ll fill out in weeks and look beautiful for months. There’s no waiting around for several years while they reach their full potential.
 
Apart from the lush color all summer, using containers in a setting like this has other benefits. You have a chance to test out plant colors and sizes. When you’re ready to do a permanent planting, you’ll have a better idea how big plants should be to fill in the space.
 
Containers are also a good way to create a garden where it would otherwise be difficult. Under these established trees, there’s a lot of competition for moisture and nutrients. Growing plants in containers allows you to control the growing conditions better — you may decide to just stick with containers in a spot like this, instead of trying to establish a permanent planting. This isn’t just for shady spots, either — if your deck is the only sunny spot in a yard surrounded by trees, containers will allow you to grow showy sun-loving plants that simply won’t thrive in the rest of your garden.
 
Last but not least, containers are great if you do a lot of outdoor entertaining. You can change the “outdoor decor” in an afternoon just by swapping out plants. (A handy tip: Large house plants, available from many big box stores, are about the fastest instant impact you’ll find — just pop them in the container and you’re ready. There’s no need to wait even a few weeks for them to grow.) And if you choose annuals, like the begonias, coleus and New Guinea impatiens above, you won’t have to worry about your garden having a dull period where some plants are past their peak while the rest haven’t hit their stride yet.
 

Year-round Interest

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Take advantage of blank wall space by mounting decorative planters. They add height to this grouping without taking up valuable surface area.
 
Although container gardening seems like a summer enjoyment, think about the other seasons as well. Pretty as the narrow patio in the photo above is in summer, it can look just as charming year-round. Why not have something beautiful to look at spring, summer, fall and winter, both as you walk by and as you look out the glass doors you can see to the left?
 
To begin with, these decorative wall-mounted planters break up what could otherwise be an overwhelming expanse of wall. And they draw your eye up from the ground, helping you to appreciate the attractive round windows, too. Even if you planted nothing but summer annuals in these containers, the decorative hangers and shapes of the containers themselves would add visual interest to the patio.
 
But carefully chosen plants can keep it looking absolutely gorgeous all year long. Begonias add color to this area in summer and fall. Evergreens, like the boxwoods that form the backbone of the wall containers as well as the largest containers on the ground,  can add color and interest all winter in a sheltered site. Too cold to allow shrubs to sit outdoors in containers over the winter? (That’s usually a problem in zones 5 and colder.) There’s a simple solution. Cut evergreen branches, colorful twigs, pine cones, interesting seed heads, winter berries and more to create winter arrangements that look beautiful with a dusting of snow. Once spring shows up, put the cut branches in the compost, and start the yearly cycle of gorgeous planters all over again!