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Planting a Pot with Only One Plant

Proportion, color, and shape are all important when highlighting a solo performer

planting a pot with one plant
These bold, simple pots of Dragon Wing® Red begonias accent, rather than distract from, the matching front door.

Contrary to the reliable strategy of using a pleth­ora of plants in a single container, one plant in a pot can really shine. Placing just one plant in an urn or container enables it to achieve its full potential in size and vigor, which would be compromised if it were competing with other plants for space, light, and nutrients. Many plants with unique attributes can attract attention when standing alone. Consider the structure of shrubs like hydrangeas, which enjoy stretching out their branches in every direction, or plants like New Guinea impatiens with their tightly rounded habits. Planted singly in a con­tainer, these plants can impart a dramatic impact wherever they are displayed.

Choose plants for maximum impact

In a container that has many different plants, a failure is easy to hide. If one plant doesn’t live up to its potential, the other plants can compensate and the container will still look presentable. If the pot has just one member, it had better be a good one. When searching for a perfect plant to fill a pot, look for long-lasting, attractive foliage; exceptional form; and perhaps an added bonus, like a long bloom period.

red and green coleus in a pot
The intriguing foliage of this coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides ‘Fire Dragon’, annual) commands full attention when displayed alone in a pot. Photo: Todd Meier

Cannas (Canna spp. and cvs., USDA Hardiness Zones 8–11) are a good example of plants to grow on their own. Beautiful but needy, they do not share water and nutrients well with pot mates. Large cultivars, such as ‘Australia’ or ‘Pretoria’, develop their rhizomes quickly, even in a container. They need all of the space a pot has to offer to produce their numerous stems of abundant flowers. Together with their bold leaves, they make a dramatic statement.

Like cannas, most shrubs grown in confined quarters need the entire soil mass of a pot to grow and produce flowers. Vigorous shrubs, such as butterfly bushes (Buddleia davidii* and cvs., Zones 5–9), are much better grown alone in a pot as they quickly develop a mass of shoots and roots. Hydrangeas (Hydrangea spp. and cvs., Zones 4–9) exhibit a rounded form that looks better displayed alone.

The hardiness of a woody plant for a container is an important issue. Unless I know that I can move a container into a greenhouse or dig the shrub out of the pot for the winter, I always choose shrubs that are a zone hardier than recommended for my climate. Ideally, shrubs or trees are best moved to a spot close to a house or building, preferably on the east side so that they’re sheltered from winter winds. You can pile the area around the pot with straw to provide an even cozier environment. It’s also important that the pots you choose are made of materials that are resistant to winter damage, such as concrete, wood, resin, or plastic.

cacti and succulents in terra cotta pots
The bold forms and textures of cacti and succulents are a perfect match for one-plant pots. Here, an urn of echeveria (Echeveria sp., Zones 10–11) rises above globes of barrel cactus (Ferocactus sp., not hardy below Zone 11) and a spiky mescal (Agave parryi, Zones 9–11). Photo: Jennifer Brown
sedum and fountain grass planted in two separate pots
When planted in their own pots, plants can be moved around and arranged on a whim. This sedum and fountain grass make a pleasing pair in a courtyard. Photo: Jennifer Benner

The restricted root area of a pot keeps some plants small, so the range of material for specimen plantings can be broadened to include plants that would grow larger in the ground. This is most evident when using ornamental grasses, shrubs, and trees. Orna­mental grasses quickly become spectacular specimens in containers. Their inflorescences add grace and movement to the garden. Grasses such as ‘Northwind’ switchgrass, with its tall, blue foliage, mature to a smaller height when in pots. Fountain grasses perform well when confined, and they can remain outdoors for fall and into winter, giving you three seasons of interest. Shrubs such as ‘Red Sprite’ winterberry (Ilex verticillata ‘Red Sprite’, Zones 5–8), redtwig dogwoods (Cornus alba and cvs., Zones 2–8), and red osier dogwoods fill out a container nicely. They take a back seat to more colorful specimens during the summer, but in winter, they light up dreary days with colorful berries or stems.

Many annuals and perennials are good to grow singu­larly in pots, as well. Annual impatiens quickly form a nicely rounded mound, bloom nonstop all summer, and can be grown in sun or shade. Dragon Wing® Red begonia is one of the ultimate plants for a container. Its shiny foliage fills in quickly, and it blooms nonstop. It gets large by the end of the growing season, so a medium-size to large pot works best. Umbrella plant is great for a pot without a drainage hole because it needs constant moisture; it also adds an exotic look to any location. Perennials like ‘Sum and Substance’ hosta and ‘Golden Sculpture’ hosta add bold drama to a shady patio with their chartreuse foliage.

Matching a plant to its pot

It’s easy to get caught up in standard design rules, but the truth is that you can match almost any plant shape with almost any pot shape as long as the scale is balanced. When a container suits its occupant, and vice versa, it just looks right. A plant’s size usually dictates the size of the pot, but the shape of the pot is up to you. Experimentation and experience will increase your confidence and enjoyment when choosing just the right container for a cohesive partnership.

tall pot short squat pot medium sized pot

A tall, narrow pot

If a plant has a strong vertical habit, the look is intensified when put in a tall, narrow pot. A plant with a rounded habit placed in a tall pot may take on the appearance of a cone with a big scoop of ice cream on top.

A short, squat pot

When a short, rounded pot is used for a plant with a strong vertical habit, it looks like it is anchored to the ground.

A medium-size pot

If the container is about the proportion of the expected mature size of the plant within, the combined shapes take on the look of a balanced composition.

Things to consider when matching a plant to a pot

blue flowers in a blue pot
A cobalt blue pot complements the azure blooms of Cape leadwort. Photo: June Hutson

Let the colors of both plants and pots help dictate your design. I particularly like the jewel colors of glazed ceramic pots as they can be a contrast to plants or an extension of the same hue. One of my favorite color-harmony combos is Cape leadwort in a blue pot. The plant’s exuberant stems reach out in all directions, creating a tumble of blue flowers that mimic the same azure shade of the ceramic container in which it is planted. Cape leadwort’s wild form engulfs the pot just enough to create a living sculpture. A similar pairing is a short, dark purple pot planted with purple shamrock (Oxalis regnellii var. atropurpurea, Zones 7–10). The pairing of the shiny con­tainer surface with the sheen of the triangular purple leaves is outstanding. Another example is the reddish hue of a terra-cotta pot that serves as an anchor to the ground but becomes more of a focal point when combined with the rustic colors of ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum (Zones 3–11). To capitalize on contrast, forest green ceramic containers are stunning when planted with anything orange or red, such as a red-flowering annual tobacco (Nicotiana alata ‘Nicki Red’).

hosta in a container and blue anise sage in a container
The wide, mounded forms of some plants, such as this ‘Sum and Substance’ hosta (left) and blue anise sage (right), combine well with large, wide pots.

Another factor to consider when designing a one-plant pot is pairing the size and proportion of a plant with a complementary pot. In general, plants with a rounded habit are successfully paired with pots of low, chubby proportions. Blue anise sage, a great hummingbird plant, has an overall rounded form that looks stunning in a squat pot. The vertical effect of a larger, more upright pot can be enhanced by pairing it with a similarly shaped plant, such as a tropical smoke bush, cannas, upright coleus, or grasses. Top a small, narrow pot with a spiky hat by choosing a plant such as fiber optic grass or an agave (Agave spp. and cvs., Zones 9–11). The same look can be achieved with a larger narrow pot using a fountain grass. Ornate, flaring urns benefit from the blowsy habit of shrubs such as hydrangeas or flowering maples, which add Victorian charm to a cottage-garden setting. Draping ferns, such as foxtail fern (Asparagus densiflorus* ‘Myersii’, Zones 9–11), also work well.

purple flowers planted in pots around a stone sundial
One-plant pots can make a bold statement in a garden and, when used in multiples, can frame an entryway or architectural element. Here, matching pots of tulips (Tulipa spp. and cvs., Zones 4–8) flank a stately bench in a formal garden (below), while seasonal pots of pansies (Viola × wittrockiana cv., Zones 8–11) adorn a sundial pedestal (above).

Use one-plant pots in several ways

The intrinsic beauty of one specimen plant in a pot can be used as a focal point or as an accent, leading the eye to a direction or destination wherever the container is placed. For example, a parterre garden with symmetrical beds can be connected into a whole by directing the eye to a single-plant container in the center of the garden. And a series of containers placed by a doorway directs a visitor to the point of entry. Pots placed along a garden walk draw you forward, perhaps to discover that the path continues on to a farther destination.

The design of a one-plant pot can sometimes be determined by the in­tended placement of the container. Scale is a strong criterion. A large ornamental grass complements an expansive hardscape area, such as a patio. Repetition of that same planting can create a vertical accent along a fence, which moves the eye along like a bouncing ball, giving it direction. Using a matched pair of conifers at a doorway provides symmetry and adds a sense of permanence, with the added benefit of being able to decorate the plants with lights for the holidays. If the entry is not obvious, the containers can help point the way.

pink and white tulips planted in pots on both sides of a wooden bench

Many plants have such strong individual attributes that a true appreciation of them and their singular beauty can only be fully appreciated by featuring them in a pot all their own. Simplicity is often a surefire recipe for success.

Great Plants for One-Plant Pots

Here are some of the author’s favorite specimens for one-plant pots.

Fiber optic grass and profusion Series zinnia in pots
Fiber optic grass (6) and Profusion Series zinnia (9). Photos: Jennifer Benner (left); Colleen Fitzpatrick (right)

Annuals and tender perennials

  1. Blue anise sage (Salvia guaranit­ica ‘Black and Blue’, Zones 7–10)
  2. Cape leadwort (Plumbago auriculata, Zones 9–11)
  3. Chile pepper (Capsicum annuum cvs., annual)
  4. Dragon Wing® Red begonia (Be­gonia Dragon Wing® Red, Zone 11)
  5. Elephant’s ear (Colocasia esculenta* and cvs., Zones 8–11)
  6. Fiber optic grass (Isolepis cernua, Zones 8–10)
  7. Flowering maple (Abutilon spp. and cvs., Zones 8–11)
  8. Impatiens (Impatiens spp. and cvs., annual)
  9. Profusion Series zinnia (Zinnia Profusion Series, annual)
  10. Tropical smokebush (Euphorbia cotinifolia, Zones 9–11)
  11. Umbrella plant (Cyperus alterni­folius, Zones 9–11)
sedum in a stone container shaped like a face
Sedum (7). Photo: Jennifer Benner

Perennials and grasses

  1. Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum and cvs., Zones 4–11)
  2. Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta and cvs., Zones 3–7)
  3. Fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides and cvs., Zones 6–9)
  4. ‘Gateway’ Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum ‘Gateway’, Zones 5–11)
  5. Hosta (Hosta spp. and cvs., Zones 3–9)
  6. ‘Rozanne’ hardy geranium (Geranium ‘Rozanne’, Zones 5–8)
  7. Sedum (Sedum spp. and cvs., Zones 3–9)
  8. Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum and cvs., Zones 5–9)

Trees and shrubs

  1. Bigleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla cvs., Zones 6–9)
  2. Fastigiate hornbeam (Carpinus betulus ‘Fastigiata’, Zones 4–8)
  3. ‘Foxtail’ Colorado spruce (Picea pungens ‘Foxtail’, Zones 2–8)
  4. Mugo pine (Pinus mugo and cvs., Zones 3–7)
  5. Red osier dogwood (Cornus stolonifera and cvs., Zones 3–8)
  6. Small-leaved boxwood (Buxus microphylla and cvs., Zones 6–9)
Small-leaved boxwood (6)

June Hutson is supervisor of the Kemper Home Demonstration Gardens at the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Photos, except where noted: Michelle Gervais

Illustrations: Melissa Lucas

*These plants are considered invasive in some areas. Please check or your state’s list of invasive plants for more information.

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