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3 Ways to Design with Containers

Go from humdrum to eye-catching with these easily adaptable strategies

Add focal points. Click to enlarge image Add focal points.

Planting a container garden is a lighthearted way to garden. Container gardening requires less time, space, and energy than inground planting and is just as much fun. In terms of plant material, the only limitation is your budget. As for the planters themselves, you will find pots of every size, shape, and material, along with less-conventional vessels at garden centers, antique shops, and hardware stores. After all, a container can be anything that holds soil and provides drainage.

If you are unsure about how to design a container garden, feel free to dive right in. Much of the fun of playing around with containers is that there are so many different ways to use them. And a pot's portability makes it easy to correct poor placement. No matter where you live, containers can add pizzazz to the ordinary, create color and pattern against a blank wall, and provide high points in the landscape.

Create a vignette. Create a vignette.
Break up wall space. Break up wall space. Photo/Illustration: Michelle Gervais

1. Create a vignette

A triangle always works
Containers can be grouped into vignettes the same way plants can. A triangular arrangement of pots will produce quick, pleasing results. In design terms, a triangle consists of a dominant central element flanked by components of smaller stature. This form is a staple of all art forms for good reason: It always works.

Allow one pot to dominate
A container grouping will quickly fall into place if the tallest element is placed at the rear of the composition with the other pots on either side. Plant the tall container with something appropriately commanding so it will dominate the grouping

Take it as far as you want
To expand on the classic triangle grouping, simply add more subordinate pots. While no hard-andfast rules exist concerning how many to use, it is easier to arrange uneven numbers into a pleasing pattern.

A triangle always works: A colorful hibiscus serves as the apex of a triangular composition completed by subordinate elements placed slightly in front and to the side. Click to enlarge image A triangle always works: A colorful hibiscus serves as the apex of a triangular composition completed by subordinate elements placed slightly in front and to the side.
Allow one pot to dominate: If you have two containers of similar stature, raise one on a pedestal to give it prominence. Click to enlarge image Allow one pot to dominate: If you have two containers of similar stature, raise one on a pedestal to give it prominence. Photo/Illustration: Virginia Small
Take it as far as you want: This complex grouping creates an irregular triangle and includes pots of all sizes, a plant stand, and a whimsical sculpture. Click to enlarge image Take it as far as you want: This complex grouping creates an irregular triangle and includes pots of all sizes, a plant stand, and a whimsical sculpture. Photo/Illustration: Jennifer Benner

2. Add focal points

Provide something to look at
The purpose of a focal point is to attract attention. If you are burdened with an area where nothing adequately does this job, a container will quickly fill the void. Because they can be planted and replanted with colorful, eye-catching plants, containers have an advantage over inground combinations.

Create coherence in mixed plantings
The opposite of having nothing to look at is having too much to look at. Often in a mixed border, there can be so much going on that one isn’t sure where to look first. Adding a focal point provides a sense of order to such scenes.

Provide something to look at: This composition provides a burst of spring color to keep things lively until the rest of the garden comes to life. Click to enlarge image Provide something to look at: This composition provides a burst of spring color to keep things lively until the rest of the garden comes to life. Photo/Illustration: Jennifer Brown
Create coherence in mixed plantings: The unplanted urn grabs our attention first and helps us make sense of the shady planting surrounding it. Click to enlarge image Create coherence in mixed plantings: The unplanted urn grabs our attention first and helps us make sense of the shady planting surrounding it. Photo/Illustration: Stephanie Fagan

3. Break up wall space

Masses calm a busy background
The rigid, repetitive pattern of a brick wall can be tiring on the eye. But when blurred by lush masses of foliage and colorful flowers, the lines of mortar recede. The terra-cotta pots echo the warm color of the brick. The clusters of bright red flowers contrast with the darker orange and the greens of the foliage, bringing the whole scheme to life.

Fine texture stands out against a plain wall
A plain, unadorned wall can dominate an area with its monotony and mass. One can take advantage of these features by using them as a backdrop for fine-textured foliage that can often get lost on a large scale. The photo at right shows how simple means can achieve a beautiful effect. Large pots of small trees with fine foliage are evenly spaced along a perfectly plain wall. A border of wispy ornamental grass reinforces the container plantings so that, together, they hold their own against the bulk of the wall.

Saturated colors work with a light backdrop
Unadorned with plants, this white wall would dominate the area with glaring brightness. But as the background for a dense, complex arrangement of forms and colors, it is perfect.

Masses calm a busy background: Lush mounds of foliage soften the dizzying lines of the wall and hardscape. Click to enlarge image Masses calm a busy background: Lush mounds of foliage soften the dizzying lines of the wall and hardscape.
Fine texture stands out against a plain wall: The movement of the small leaves and the grass stands out against the immobile wall, turning what could have been an imposing view into something breathtaking. Click to enlarge image Fine texture stands out against a plain wall: The movement of the small leaves and the grass stands out against the immobile wall, turning what could have been an imposing view into something breathtaking. Photo/Illustration: Michelle Gervais
Saturated colors work with a light backdrop: The plain surface of the wall sets off the rich hues and interesting leaf shapes, and the plants return the favor by creating patterns against the simple backdrop. Click to enlarge image Saturated colors work with a light backdrop: The plain surface of the wall sets off the rich hues and interesting leaf shapes, and the plants return the favor by creating patterns against the simple backdrop. Photo/Illustration: Jennifer Benner
Photos, except where noted: Todd Meier
From Fine Gardening 111 , pp. 50-55

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