Container Garden Design: Three’s Company

Five designers prove that you don’t have to go overboard to have a gorgeous container

Fine Gardening - Issue 194

It’s easy to get carried away with container design, adding plants until the pot overflows. But simple designs can be stunning too, so the FG editors asked five designers to show us what they can do with just three plants. They could use more than one “copy” of a particular plant, but each container in this article only has three cultivars.

The designers came through with some great ideas. We have heat-and drought-tolerant beauties from the Southwest, a combo anchored by a redbud from California, some eclectic tropicals from our Midwest designer, a large-scale shade container from our Northeast contributor, and some standout perennial combos from the Northwest. If you had to choose just three, what would they be?

Photo: Carol Collins

Fine detail at eye level

Space is at a premium in my small garden, and containers allow me to make room for more plants. A hanging dish in a sheltered location was a good solution for these three, which all appreciate bright shade with protection from intense sun. The dish puts a spotlight on the delicate features and subtle colors of these small-scale beauties.

1. String of bananas (Senecio radicans, Zones 10–11)

2. ‘Pink Starlite’ earth star (Cryptanthus bivittatus ‘Pink Starlite’, Zones 10–11)

3. Coral cactus (Rhipsalis cereuscula, Zones 9–10)

Photo: Carol Collins
Designer: Cherry Ong • Northwest


Photo: Carol Collins

Bold shapes for shade

I created a pair of these large-scale containers to flank the doorway to our nursery’s classroom. They are designed for a simple yet stunning look that will thrive in a low or soft light setting. All three plants are very easy to grow and have low maintenance requirements. The elephant’s ear adds height and drama with its upward reach, while the cascading play of the begonia brings in the color. The fern acts as a subtle green backdrop for this color pop and adds a finer leaf texture to the trio.

1. ‘Portora’ elephant ear (Alocasia ‘Portora’, Zones 7–11)

2. Dragon Wing® Pink begonia (Begonia × hybrida ‘Bepapink’, Zones 9–11)

3. ‘Macho’ fern (Nephrolepis biserrata ‘Macho’, Zones 9–11)

Photo: courtesy of Sarah Partyka

Designer: Sarah Partyka • Northeast


Photo: courtesy of Sheila Schultz

A trio that can take the heat

Life in the low desert of Tucson, Arizona, is a challenge, especially for container plants. With many days above 105°F, our long summers take a toll on both plants and humans. The water-wise plants we grew when we lived in Denver shrivel and die here. Sometimes it is a lingering death; at other times it is quick and efficient. We were determined to create a container garden using native plants that can survive in this very harsh climate, where temperatures can also drop to 20°F for brief times in the winter months.

1. Sweet prickly pear (Opuntia ficus-indica, Zones 8–11)

2. ‘Desert Dragon’ mangave (Mangave ‘Desert Dragon’, Zones 9–11)

3. Desert marigold (Baileya multiradiata, Zones 9–10)

Photo: courtesy of Laurel Startzel and Sheila Schultz

Designers: Laurel Startzel and Sheila Schultz • Southwest


Photo: courtesy of Rebecca Sweet

Dramatic color from spring through fall

I created this container to highlight the beautiful chartreuse color of the moss that grows on the granite boulders throughout this part of my garden. From spring through fall (photo), the colorful foliage of ‘Ruby Falls’ redbud does the job perfectly. This pot is large enough to act as a focal point from farther away, enhancing the view from the large picture windows that look out on this spot. The sedge and lion’s tail harmonize nicely with the orange tones in the fall leaves, and all three plants do really well in the baking hot sun this container receives.

1. ‘Ruby Falls’ redbud (Cercis canadensis ‘Ruby Falls’, Zones 5–9)

2. Prairie FireTM sedge (Carex testacea ‘Indian Summer’, Zones 6–9)

3. Lion’s tail (Leonotis leonurus, Zones 6–11)

Photo: courtesy of Rebecca Sweet
Designer: Rebecca Sweet • Northern California


Photo: courtesy of Irvin Etienne

A hot combination of tropical textures

Tropical plants feel right at home in our hot, humid Midwestern summers, and containers are a great way to experiment with the forms and colors these plants can offer. In this pot, the firey hues of the cordyline and euphorbia play well together, and the rickrack cactus is a thriller, filler, and spiller all rolled into one. A container is a great place to experiment with an over-the-top look. Go for it, and enjoy the show!

1. Sticks on Fire’ euphorbia (Euphorbia tirucalli ‘Sticks on Fire’, Zones 11–12)

2. ‘Red Pepper’ cordyline (Cordyline fruticosa ‘Red Pepper’, Zones 9–12)

3. Rickrack cactus (Epiphyllum anguliger, Zones 9–11)

Photo: courtesy of Irvin Etienne

Designer: Irvin Etienne • Midwest


From Fine Gardening #194

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