If gardening space is limited, be creative with containers

Wednesday, May 20, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

Do you have a creative bent and seek ways of expressing it through gardening? You can put your artistic talents to use when designing container gardens. You can find step-by-step plans for designing container gardens in many books, but it is much more fun and satisfying to create your own. Creating the gardens is easy and is a fun way to learn about plant combinations, colors and textures. Think of plants as a palette from which to paint.

A simple system to use is a mix-and-match system.

It roughly divides container plants into four categories: flags, fillers, contrast and accent plants and trailers. When designing your container, try to pick plants from each category if the pot is big enough to hold them all. While strolling through the garden centers, keep in mind each category. As you gather your plants, you begin to see your container garden taking shape. Don't be afraid to experiment with plant combinations — especially with colors and textures. You can come close to your final look simply by placing young nursery plants side-by-side while evaluating your choices. Be sure to keep in mind where this container is going to be — will it have a sunny exposure or a shady one? Will there be lots of wind blowing on it or will it be in a protected area?

Here are descriptions and examples of the various types of plants:

  • Flags — These plants stand upright and add height to plant combinations. Flags can contribute foliage and flowers. Examples include dwarf cannas, salvias, coleus and ornamental grasses.
  • Fillers — These plants, as their name suggests, fill in the spaces, add texture and set off the foliage and flowers of the bolder participants in the garden. The best plants to use have fine-textured foliage and small flowers. Examples of these are dusty miller, pansies, flowering tobacco, vinca and Persian shield.
  •  Contrast and accent plants — These are good for adding surprise and color to your combinations. These plants often feature bold foliage and have leaves that are variegated or have unusual color. Examples of these would be begonias, caladium, ornamental peppers, coreopsis, fuchsias, cosmos and marigolds.
  • Trailers –  These plants, as their name implies, trail over the edges of containers, spilling out of hanging baskets or mingling among other container inhabitants. Examples would be ornamental sweet potato, edging lobelia, cascading petunias, ivy geraniums, verbenas, licorice plant and trialing fuschsia.

Many people think of flowers as the main feature of the container garden, but foliage is usually the most important element. Plants with attractive leaves all season long can echo or complement the color scheme you want. Foliage should set off flowers but should also be interesting and beautiful in its own right. However, as you design your container garden, be sure to try for a balanced, harmonious look. Something good to remember is that if you plant something that doesn't do well or isn’t to your liking, just replant with another mix next year or replace the plants with ones you do like. It's not a disaster, and with practice you will learn what combinations you like best.

Whatever you plant, be sure to check it frequently to make sure it doesn’t dry out. Container gardens tend to dry out more quickly and need more water.

Fertilize regularly to replace the nutrients that the plant is absorbing from the potting soil. Prolong the show of flowers by snipping or pinching off faded blooms as this will cause the plant to produce more buds.

Use your imagination and have fun designing your garden and expressing your creativity.

Barbara Michael has been a Master Gardener since 1993, and serves as the Master Gardeners’ liaison to the Community Garden Coalition, in addition to serving on its board. She enjoys container gardening and houseplants. She can be reached at


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