3 Ways to Design With Containers

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

Fine Gardening - Issue 111
From left to right: Create a vignette. Photo: Todd Meier; Add focal points. Photo: Todd Meier; Break up wall space. Photo: Michelle Gervais

Planting a container garden is a lighthearted way to garden. Container gardening requires less time, space, and energy than in-ground 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.

1. Create a vignette

triangular vignette arrangement

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. The colorful hibiscus (above) serves as the apex of a triangular composition completed by subordinate elements placed slightly in front and to the side.

Photo: Virginia Small

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. If you have two containers of similar stature, raise one on a pedestal to give it prominence.

Photo: Jennifer Benner

Take it as far as you want

To expand on the classic triangle grouping, simply add more subordinate pots. While no hard-and-fast rules exist concerning how many to use, it is easier to arrange uneven numbers into a pleasing pattern. This complex grouping (right) creates an irregular triangle and includes pots of all sizes, a plant stand, and a whimsical sculpture.


2. Add focal points

focal point container
Photo: Jennifer Brown

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 in-ground combinations. This composition provides a burst of spring color to keep things lively until the rest of the garden comes to life.

Photo: Stephanie Fagan

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. The unplanted urn grabs our attention first and helps us make sense of the shady planting surrounding it.


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. Lush mounds of foliage (above) soften the dizzying lines of the wall and hardscape. 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.

Photo: Michelle Gervais

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 left 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. 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: Jennifer Benner

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.

Sydney Eddison is the author of several books, including Gardens to Go. She gardens in Newtown, Connecticut.

Photos, except where noted: Todd Meier


More inspiration for your container garden

Video: Designing Container Groupings

Designing Great Containers

Thrillers, Spillers, and Fillers

Stylish Shady Containers

10 Plants for Year-Round Containers

Wonderful Winter Containers

Planting Spring Bulbs in Containers

Containers that Celebrate Spring

Create an Elegant Hanging Basket

Containers That Keep Kicking Into Fall

Container Planting Ideas for Autumn

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  1. kristamuir 06/27/2017

    What is the succulent in the first picture round iron bowl?

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