Visit Every Corner of the Garden Center When Choosing Plants for a Mixed Container

Shop every aisle of the nursery to discover fresh new textures and unexpected focal points

Fine Gardening – Issue 217
mixed container designs

One of the great things about being a container designer is the amount of time I get to spend in nurseries looking for unique and interesting plant material. Strolling through your favorite garden center can be an easy way to express creativity and develop your own one-of-a-kind design.

Keeping the size, appearance, and planned location of the container in mind, I enjoy tapping into my intuition while systematically walking each nursery aisle. Which plants catch my eye? What colors do I find most interesting? Is there a theme I could explore based on a recent trip or a client’s favorite color? I often pick up plants I particularly love and keep them with me as I continue to shop.

Sometimes it’s helpful to begin by identifying the largest or the most prominent component of your design, but this is not a hard-and-fast rule. Keep an open mind as you roll your cart through the displays in the nursery. Trees are natural focal points, and smaller cultivars can often remain in their containers for multiple seasons. Shrubs, particularly those that flower, offer many excellent height and color options. Perennials are hardworking fillers that add interest as they change through the seasons, and they can be moved into garden beds when you change the planter. Annuals are useful for filling flowering gaps, and something from the succulent or tropical aisle will lend a touch of texture and artistic whimsy. To get your creative juices flowing, here are a few favorite displays I’ve designed with plants from every corner of the garden center.

Embrace some seasonal magic

group of three container with spring bulbs

When nurseries bring in loads of new spring stock, look for pots of forced bulbs with the foliage just starting to poke out of the soil. At this stage, clumps of bulbs are easily teased apart and tucked in throughout a container, where they will fill in beautifully. Cheery pansies and nemesias will reliably provide compatible color until summer heat arrives. Pussywillow stems are another seasonal item often found in the annual section or near the register, and they are useful for creating early-season height and interest. Dark-colored hellebores have a long bloom life, from very early spring into late spring or even early summer. When they finish flowering they can be added to a garden bed. The euphorbia is evergreen and can stay in a container year-round in milder winter climates.

  1. ‘Dutch Master’ trumpet daffodil (Narcissus ‘Dutch Master’, Zones 3–8)
  2. ‘Splendid Cornelia’ hyacinth (Hyacinthus orientalis ‘Splendid Cornelia’, Zones 4–8)
  3. ‘Dark Dimension’ hyacinth (Hyacinthus ‘Dark Dimension’, Zones 4–8)
  4. Frostkiss® Pippa’s Purple hellebore (Helleborus ‘RD09’, Zones 5–8)
  5. ‘Ascot Rainbow’ euphorbia (Euphorbia × martinii ‘Ascot Rainbow’, Zones 5–9)
  6. SunGlow™ Purple Bicolor nemesia (Nemesia ‘PENB24’, Zones 9–11)
  7. Sorbet® Lemon Chiffon pansy (Viola cornuta ‘PAS872977’, annual)
  8. ‘Delta Premium Violet’ pansy (Viola × wittrockiana ‘Delta Premium Violet’, annual)
  9. Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia* ‘Aurea’, Zones 4–8)


A long-blooming shrub is effortlessly entertaining

container planting with white and purple flowers

Hydrangeas are some of my favorite shrubs for multiseason interest. From early spring through early fall, they reliably provide ever-changing displays of foliage and flowers. ‘Limelight’ looks especially fetching when skirted with similarly free-blooming annuals such as angelonia, euphorbia, and fan flower; these have been planted here in cascading layers that soften the container’s edge.

  1. Bobo® panicle hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata ‘ILVOBO’, Zones 3–8)
  2. Archangel™ Dark Purple angelonia (Angelonia angustifolia ‘Balarckle’, Zones 10–11)
  3. Whirlwind® Blue fan flower (Scaevola aemula ‘Scablhatis’, Zones 10–11)
  4. Diamond Frost® euphorbia (Euphorbia hypericifolia ‘Inneuphdia’, Zones 10–11)
  5. Whirlwind® White fan flower (Scaevola aemula ‘Bomy Whit’, Zones 10–11)


Unique leaf patterns add a tropical vibe

container planting with pink and orange flowers and colorful foliage

This shady lady has a fabulous mix of textures, patterns, and colors. Ferns, which give containers a woodland feel, can be found either in the perennial section or the annual section, depending on the variety. For this combo I shopped first for plants to add fullness, then went looking for color in the annual section. Coleus, caladiums, and rex begonias (sometimes found in the houseplant section) offer bountiful options for mixing and matching patterns and hues. Planting a pair of closely related begonias together is an interesting way to create a shimmering color effect.

  1. Southern wood fern (Thelypteris normalis, Zones 7–10)
  2. ‘Salsa’ rex begonia (Begonia rex ‘Salsa’, Zones 10–12)
  3. ‘Batik’ Rieger begonia (Begonia × hiemalis ‘Batik’, Zones 9–11)
  4. ‘Netja Dark’ Rieger begonia (Begonia × hiemalis ‘Netja Dark’, Zones 9–11)
  5. Kong™ Rose coleus (Plectranthus scutellarioides ‘Kakegawa CE14’, Zones 10–11)
  6. ‘White Cap’ caladium (Caladium ‘White Cap’, Zones 8–12)


Dwarf evergreens have enduring appeal

pair of containers with colorful foliage plants

Trees, both deciduous and evergreen, make excellent focal points. Many smaller cultivars can remain in their containers over multiple seasons, accompanied by a mix of perennials, annuals, and ground covers that are swapped in and out as needed. In this grouping, the golden color of the dwarf conifers is picked up by a few splashy ground covers and given some strong contrast by dark-leaved heucheras and silky black mondo grass. Ornamental brassicas were tucked in for some rich, unexpected seasonal color.

  1. ‘Fernspray Gold’ Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Fernspray Gold’, Zones 4–8)
  2. ‘Ascot Rainbow’ euphorbia
  3. Creeping Jenny
  4. Ornamental cabbage (Brassica oleracea cv., Zones 6–9)
  5. ‘Vintage Gold’ Sawara cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Vintage Gold’, Zones 5–8)
  6. ‘Black Pearl’ heuchera (Heuchera ‘Black Pearl’, Zones 4–9)
  7. Black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’, Zones 6–9)
  8. ‘Minimus Aureus’ sweet flag (Acorus gramineus ‘Minimus Aureus’, Zones 5–7)
  9. ‘Scarlet’ kale (Brassica oleracea ‘Scarlet’, biennial)
  10. Black scallop ajuga (Ajuga reptans ‘Binblasca’, Zones 4–9)


Bring in a houseplant to get the garden party started

container planting with variegated foliage plants

Summer is a great season to play with variety. Check out the houseplant aisle, where you will find many plants that would love to spend the summer outdoors. ‘Tineke’ rubber plant’s painterly foliage pattern inspired this joyful mix of perennials, succulents, and annuals. Autumn Charm™ sedum’s eye-catching foliage will later be topped by blooms, and sprays of eucalyptus add movement and an enticing scent. Annuals were tucked in for some all-season color; for example, the heartleaf ice plant draped over the edge will be sprinkled with red blooms from mid to late summer.

  1. ‘Tineke’ rubber plant (Ficus elastica ‘Tineke’, Zones 10–11)
  2. Hippo® White polka dot plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya ‘G15180’, Zones 10–11)
  3. ‘Pistachio White’ tradescantia (Tradescantia ‘TPIWH01-0’, Zones 8–10)
  4. Big® Pink Green Leaf begonia (Begonia × benariensis ‘1600-05T1’, annual)
  5. Autumn Charm™ sedum (Hylotelephium ‘Lajos’, Zones 3–9)
  6. Mezoo™ Trailing Red heartleaf ice plant (Aptenia cordifolia ‘Mesbicla’, Zones 10–11)
  7. Silver dollar eucalyptus (Eucalyptus cinerea, Zones 9–11)


Perennials are the key to reliable autumn color

group of three containers with colorful foliage plants

Turn to the perennial aisle for plants that deliver eye-catching hues for weeks or months on end. In this combo, the height and texture of the variegated iris create a pleasing backdrop for a tapestry of heucheras and ornamental grasses. Fall favorites like croton, ornamental cabbage, and miniature mums are woven in for additional color, along with a few faux berry branches from the floral section.

  1. ‘Variegata’ Japanese iris (Iris ensata ‘Variegata’, Zones 4–8)
  2. ‘Petra’ croton (Codiaeum variegatum ‘Petra’, Zones 9–11)
  3. ‘Carnival Watermelon’ heuchera (Heuchera × villosa ‘Carnival Watermelon’, Zones 4–9)
  4. ‘Angelina’ sedum (Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’, Zones 6–9)
  5. Ornamental cabbage
  6. Bowles’ golden sedge (Carex elata ‘Aurea’, Zones 5–9)
  7. Forever® Purple heuchera (Heuchera × ‘TNHEUFP’, Zones 4–9)
  8. ‘Black Pearl’ heuchera (Heuchera ‘Black Pearl’, Zones 4–9)
  9. ‘Glowing Dream’ coneflower (Echinacea ‘Glowing Dream’, Zones 4–9)
  10. Chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum cv., Zones 7–9)
  11. ‘Evergold’ sedge (Carex oshimensis ‘Evergold’, Zones 5–9)
  12. ‘Toffee Tart’ heuchera (Heuchera ‘Toffee Tart’, Zones 4–9)

plant buying checklist

| TIPS |

Working With Large Plant Containers

An oversized planter offers abundant space for assembling a unique medley of plants. Here are a few pointers for working with big containers.

moving an oversized planter
Photo: courtesy of Wubby Designs

Track down a hand truck or dolly

With a set of heavy-duty wheels, you can gently guide a container into position without injuring your back. A blanket or tarp placed between the pot and the dolly will protect the pot’s finish.

Get help on moving day

Nurseries and garden centers often have staff who can help load a new purchase into your vehicle, and many shops offer delivery service. Once the container is home, it’s helpful to have two people to move it around—one to wheel the dolly and the other to hold onto the container.

Find a planter you love

Like a piece of furniture, this will be part of your home decor for years. It’s worth investing some time and money to track down a container you’ll be truly happy with over the long term.

Add weight if necessary

For pots made from lightweight materials like fiberglass, you may wish to fill the bottom portion with stone or pebbles. Add pine-bark mulch up to about the halfway point, then fill the rest with high-quality potting mix, leaving space at the top to plant.

Plant focal points first

Measure the height of the largest root ball and leave that portion of the pot empty. Position your largest plants, backfill around them with soil, and then tuck in your fillers.

Don’t forget to water

A great bonus to having large containers is that they do not dry out as quickly as small containers. Check the moisture level regularly, and water as needed.

Carolyn Meeker Wubbenhorst is founder and owner of Wubby Designs in Colonia, New Jersey.

*Invasive Alert:

Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia)

This plant is considered invasive in AK, CT, IL, KY, MA, NH, OR, PA, RI, TN, VA, WI, and WV.

Please visit for more information.

Carolyn Meeker Wubbenhorst is founder and owner of Wubby Designs in Colonia, New Jersey.

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