Planting Great Containers

Every great pot starts with some rocking good science.  A container needs to be sized to comfortably hold the plants you want to grow when they are full grown. Rhubarb planted in a 10 inch pot-not a good look.  Nor is it a workable idea. Every container needs lots of drainage material; I usually plant large containers with 2/3 drainage material and 1/3 soil.  Very small containers I might fill to the top with soil, with a small piece of landscape fabric over the drain hole.  The ability to maintain even moisture is essential to the health of the plants.  Good soil holds water.  My soil mix is a custom blend of compost, topsoil and sand-I do not grow plants in soilless mixes.  Growers mix is designed for professional growers who require a weed, pest, and disease-free medium.  It takes a skilled hand to properly water and feed any plant grown in peat based plant mixes-every grower has their own formula. For a gardener, the best part about them is how easy the bags are to pick up and carry.  Ease of soil transport is not a factor in planting great containers.  I like to grow plants in soil.  real soil.  I like all the organisms, the micronutrients-I like living soil, not sterile plant mix.
The next issue-where will they go?  Pots flanking a formal front porch may ask for the same plants that you use on your terrace-but how you use those plants is about inspired design.  Great containers have everything to do with good design.  This traditionally styled two tiered wirework plant stand is a completely unexpected choice for a contemporary concrete deck/terrace featuring a stainless steel braided wire railing.  That juxtaposition of the round and delicate wirework with this minimal fencing is a visual surprise.  As for the planting, imagine this planter without its topknot of faux tulips and grass.  You get this-dull.  The additional height breaks the horizontal line of the fence-this makes for great rhythm.  The planting at the same height as the rail-static. The idea that stops short, comes up short. That tulip and grass hat-very sassy.  This single planter holds its own, in front of that somber forest of hundreds of tree trunks.  The big-faced pansies are in the larger bottom tier, and the diminuitive violas in the top; the size of flowers themselves should be proportional to the size of the container.  The restricted plant palette has a contemporary feeling; the mix of colors has a more personal feeling without getting too frou-frou.  I like this planter, how and where it is placed, and how it is planted, relative to this forest dominated landscape.    

Sometimes the shape of a planter will suggest how the plants should be used.  Pale yellow pansies in the center back, and bright yellow pansies on the edges highlight the color and form of the violas in the front.  Light colors do a great job of bringing dark colors placed in front of them to life.  The yellow twig dogwood placed in a row, rather than a bunch , celebrates the shape of the container.  The ivy at the corners-a yellow variegated variety that repeats the yellow of the flowers.  Plants that would thrive in this lighting situation go on to work together well.  This look-a thoughtful and put together look.

Pots in commercial settings need to read well from the street.  I would not want anyone passing my shop to not get a good look.   This can mean generous height, and compelling color.  Subtle works much better up close to the eye.  In this case, a bunch of yellow twig dogwood has been augmented with faux yellow flower stems made from bleached and dyed palm leaves.  Forsythia is common in my spring landscape; passing by in a car, this centerpiece is entirely believable.  More striking than real forsythia, this centerpiece will provide great scale and visual punch throughout the spring.  A pot of tulips in the center can be switched out for fresh when the flowers fade; annual phlox intensia and violas will grow and do well on into early summer.  The red violet, lavender and pale yellow tulip mix is from John Sheepers-they call it the Princely mix.  The color combination is really lovely.  Small pots for a tabletop ask for one thing, well grown.  Small pots have to be placed close to eye level to be appreciated, so  I plant small pots with plants that are easy to grow to perfection.  This pot of violas seems happy-no yellow leaves, no dead flower heads.  It looks good, up close.

In terms of container design, it does not matter whether you are planting a vintage bulb crate from the Netherlands, or a fine pair of antique urns-the container is as much a part of the planting as the plants themselves.  These tulips were planted low, so the lower foliage would not obscure the beautiful surface and vintage lettering on the crate.  The boxes on the roof of my shop-they were constructed of sheet metal, and reinforced on the inside with pressure treated limber.  They are a vehicle for the plants that make my summer roof garden.  These rectangular boxes hold soil, and support plant life.  They are not in any way beautiful.  They are serviceable.  Every space demands a little something different.  At my office front door-I want beautiful containers, well designed, and thoughtfully planted.  On the roof, I want to make but one point.  Anyone who looks at what is growing  on the roof-I want them to see that garden.  A beautiful garden.   

Planting in the ground- a second cousin twice removed from planting in containers.  Big spaces on the ground plane ask for a different approach than containers.  Soil and seasonal flowers, above ground, in containers, could not be more different than seasonal flowers planted into the ground.  More tomorrow-I promise.


  1. the pink tulips in the wood boxes beside the green urns make the most beautiful tableau–love all of that green with the pale pink and old wood!! you have inspired me to put on my raincoat, boots & get outside and finish planting all of my urns, windowboxes and planters that have been neglected. i may even plant tomatoes.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Nanne, have at it! If you are planting tomatoes now, you must live someplace warm! Deborah

  2. Michael says

    Tomatoes….!!! It is hard to even imagine.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Like you, I see no tomatoes in my immediate future. The forsythia that usually blooms in late March is in full bloom right now-the second week of May. Whoa; way behind. As every gardener knows, there is no make up day. or week. Can you hear me sighing?

  3. Michael says

    Not to sound like Pollyanna…but…
    When I look on the bright side, and I do try to, I LOVE how elongated the lifespan of the spring flowers is this very cold spring….my forsythia still looks beautiful…my flowering quince seems that it will last forever (indeed, it has barely bloomed!)…and the daffodils have been holding on for quite some time now…the pansies are stunning…and the greener than green magic of “emergence time” seems like it will go one forever. I must say that I hate the opposite extreme just as much: a super sudden and premature week of 80s summer heat that forces everything open then wilts it all in three days.
    OK…you can call me Pollyanna !

  4. Some great examples of beautiful plantings…and I appreciate your comments about what makes them work.

  5. mary garlough says

    Reading your advice about soil for containers – do you literally mean buying bags of straight topsoil? I always thought it would compact and become to dense for good airflow and drainage but sure would love to be wrong – so much cheaper than all the artificial potting soil.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Mary, we bag up our own soil mix for containers-it contains topsoil, compost, ground bark and sand. I do not use artificial soil mix. best, Deborah

      • mary garlough says

        thanks for the clarification. Since I can’t prepare my own mix like you do, I’ll be on the lookout for something other than completely artificial soil. If anyone has a brand they prefer, please advise. Thanks!

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