Basics of Container Gardening Design: Choosing Container Plants
Beauty in Small Spaces is the tagline for my business. However, these “small spaces” actually need to be analyzed and assessed in exactly the same way as for a larger landscape design. While the container garden designer has ultimate control over the type of soil and the size of the outdoor container planting, Mother Nature has control over everything else.
When determining what plants to install in your outdoor container garden planters, it is important to look at the exposure of the container. That is, what sort of sun does it get? Is the location windy? Is one side shaded most of the day while the other side is in sun? Will large plants overhang smaller ones? Is this planter designed to be seen from all sides, or is only two-thirds of it visible because it is backed into a corner? Careful analysis of these conditions will help you eliminate guesswork when choosing your plants. Unfortunately, we can’t just choose what we like without considering how the plant will perform in the container garden conditions we have.
What makes a good container planting? Contrast, form, focal points, color, line – all the same elements that make a good landscape planting. Be sure that the plants you choose will coexist happily in the location you have chosen for your container. However, the ‘painter’ matters more than the ‘paint.’ Worry less about which plants you choose and more about how you put them together. That’s what makes for original landscape design ideas as well as an interesting container design.
Choosing Plants. Always take into consideration the conditions the plants require. Read your plant tags and talk to knowledgeable nursery people. The smaller nurseries are usually your best resource for this type of personnel. If they have a CPH (Certified Professional Horticulturist) on staff then you can be sure you are getting good information. For example, if a plant tag says Full Sun, that typically means a certain number of hours of direct sunlight during the hottest part of the day (10 am to 2 pm). Direct sunlight from 3 pm to 6 pm is not the same. Part Sun or Part Shade usually means morning sun, afternoon shade. Talking to good nursery people is even more helpful because they have experience with how the plants actually perform here in the Pacific Northwest. What is stated on the tag can sometimes be overly generic, since that information is provided wherever a plant is sold across the country.
Mixed Containers. If creating a mixed container, one thing to really take into consideration is contrast. If all the plants in the container have the same texture – all fine leaved or all broad leaved – then the container design has no contrast. It all looks the same. I like to be able to look at a container and have my eye ‘flow’ around the container. I don’t like for a container to look ‘busy’ to no purpose. The beginning designer can try to put too many different kinds of plants in a mixed container – too much of a good thing, so to speak. I like to limit the different kinds of plants to three to five, not including any centerpiece if I have one, and then mass those chosen plants to fill the space.
Alternately, if you have room for a container grouping that includes some smaller, wonderful containers, don’t try to create a mixed container. Use one beautiful plant in the smaller containers that will fill each and be in scale with the container. Those containers can then be clustered around larger containers to turn the whole grouping into a mixed container.