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Container Garden Design 101

container garden design

Container gardening is a design process that works like all art forms, when creativity follows certain guidelines. These aren’t rules, the guidelines are essentially hints on how to create a promising creation that performs well and looks its best. In container gardening, these guidelines are so broad that your imagination is the limit in creating gorgeous, statement-making designs in your own yard.

Containers are the trendsetters of gardening, they’re about creating designs that don’t have any commitments. While trees, perennials or landscaping may be about enduring statements, containers are meant for experimentation and following whatever you dream up each year.

Here are a few guidelines to have your annual statements looking their best:

fiddle-leaf fig plant

Back to the Basics:
A few guidelines to keep your designs gorgeous every year:

  • Choose whatever shape and size of container that works for you, whether that’s short, tall, skinny, or wide. To keep a good sense of scale in your design, your plants should be 1.3x taller than your container (so, the height of the container, plus another third).
  • Place your centerpiece according to how your container is going to be viewed. If you want to look at your container from all directions, the centrepiece should be in the middle, but if it is against a wall, the centrepiece should go at the back. This will drastically change how much room you have at the sides of the container for color and filler plants, so choose the width of your pot or groupings of plants to suit your ideas.
  • Remember to check how big your plants will get when you are buying and designing, so that you keep in mind how your container will mature over the season.

Container Elements:
Well-designed containers tend to abide by a rule of having elements of a centerpiece, plants for body and volume, and trailing plants. How you combine these in your own containers is very flexible, allowing for unique and personalized trendy designs that are guaranteed to work.


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flower baskets

The “Thriller”
These are your centerpiece plants. They provide a focal point and are usually the most bold architectural feature in your design. There are many different varieties of styles to consider here, ranging from straight and vertical grasses, to lush and leafy. The shape and form of your centerpiece plant will have a lot of influence over the shape of your container and the rest of the plants you consider.

container garden design

The “Filler”
Central plants can be either flowering or foliage, but they function as the body and bulk of your container design. They typically have a mounding habit and fill in the shape of your container. This is the ideal element to use for tying everything in your container together to make a statement. Keep proportions in mind to keep your fillers in synchronization with the rest of your design.

container garden design

The “Spiller”
Trailing plants provide cascades of foliage or flowers out of the container and provide an improved sense of height to your container. Including trailing plants with more volume can do double duty as filler plants as well, as they might grow both upwards and down. Good planning can make these robust plants a lush element of the design, instead of competitors for space. If you have a tall container, or a container you don’t like as much as your design, long vines are a great choice to mask parts of it. On the other hand, trailing lengths of vines might not look well-proportioned in a shorter container.

The aspects of a Thriller, Filler, and Spiller are architectural guidelines for anyone to play with in their own containers. Other aspects like texture, color, and scent are also great ways to experiment with new trends each year and craft container designs that are perfect for you and your home, every time.

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Modern Container Gardens

“My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece.” 
– Claude Monet

Gardening trends are their own little paradox. On the one hand, the essentials of how we take care of our gardens and the joy that comes from nurturing life out of soil remain the same each year. But our gardens themselves get a refreshing lift each season with new trends and fashion. The new “it” trends are as seasonal as our gardens themselves.

Container gardening is the best choice for exploring new trends with each summer. They’re creative, dynamic, but also very non-committal, so you are free to explore new ideas as much as you’d like. A few of this year’s top trends are the perfect fit for your own container garden this spring:

Gardening with Succulents

Succulents continue to have an impressive presence in garden trends and on garden center shelves. These adorable plants have a unique aesthetic and add a certain edge to any indoor or outdoor creation. Succulents are the perfect combination of ease of care and contemporary style.

Succulents are a great choice for a chic container. Choose a shallow container (terra-cotta is a great choice) and hunt for your new favorite succulents at our garden center. The most striking container should have a healthy mix of different shapes and colors. Even if one type of succulent catches your eye more than the others, the mixture will help them all to stand out even more once they are planted.

For the creative, it could be a great DIY project to make your own container. Head to the antique mall and take advantage of any improvised vessels you can find. Bird cages, toys, dishware, and even shoes have been inspirations for many succulent crafts.

Some tips for creating the best statement-making succulent container:

  • Choose a few of your favorite succulents you would like to bring indoors in the fall. By keeping them in their pots when you plant them, you can easily separate them from the container when the weather cools. Give them lots of winter light indoors until next spring and they will eventually become specimen pieces as the seasons go by.
  • If you have the space, you could bring your whole container indoors. Spray it a few times to make sure it is clear of opportunistic pests before taking it inside for the winter.
  • Try blending your succulents with less expensive bedding plants to create a planter full of unique interest. Costly designer annuals will overwhelm and devour your succulents, but sun lovers like marigolds, zinnias, portulaca, and other classics are great choices.
  • Choose soils and containers that have excellent drainage. Try blending a potting mix in a 1:1 ratio with cactus soil for an easy blend that your succulents will thrive in. Consider layering pebbles on the bottom of your container if spacing permits to improve drainage even more.
  • These trends offer a unique take on the normal garden favorites. Choosing any or all of these great seasonal trends offers your backyard and garden a fresh new take on the season that will be catching the eye for the entire summer.

Gardening with Water:

Backyard water features are chic and add a serene calm to your yard, but sometimes you don’t want the full commitment. You can actually take advantage of the backyard water trend without the landscaping hassle. Something as simple as a container can be transformed into a trendy statement for your yard this summer.

Creating a backyard pond only requires a non-permeable container, some water, and a few aquatic plants. Whether you choose to commit to a permanent feature or just retrofit a container, the principle is the same.

To make your own miniature water feature, find a large container without any drainage holes. Add some clay-based soil, some water, and specific water garden plants to complete the look. You may even choose to add fish for an extra aesthetic bonus. Simply provide your miniature garden with 6 or more hours of sunlight a day, and your water garden is ready to impress!

As you build, remember:

  • You can add soothing sound effects with a small pump. The sounds of water will fill your yard, and the ambient humidity will give any surrounding tropicals a healthy boost! As an added bonus, a pump will keep your water moving and help to discourage any mosquitoes from making themselves at home.
  • As beautiful as they are, avoid any repurposed alcohol barrels for your pond, as they could leach harmful chemicals into the water, potentially harming plants (and fish).
  • You’ll need to add water as it evaporates. Water plants and fish are sensitive to chlorine. Let your tap water sit out for a day or two to evaporate some chlorine away before you add it to your container.
  • Maintenance might require cleaning some algae from your container. Once or twice a year is usually enough to keep it at bay unless you have fish in your container.
  • Get creative with this project, and choose a statement container to really make your seasonal water feature pop in your yard.

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Gardening in Ultraviolet:

Pantone is the color authority for all things design. They have an exhaustive library of colors and they are trusted as the leading name in indoor and outdoor decor, as well as fashion and art. Every year they announce which of their colors will be setting the trend for design. After a few years of underwhelming selections, 2018’s choice of Ultra Violet (18-3838) is full of potential.

One of the most complex colors on the spectrum, the intensity of ultraviolet comes down to science. Human eyes can only see some of this color, the rest is filled in as your brain’s best guess. While other creatures like a bee can see the true color with their fuller spectrum of vision, we are treated to the optical illusion of a color that is half real and half imaginary.

Popular ultraviolet blooms take full advantage of this trick for an even more impressive range of beauty. The combination of real and imagined color can make the color of intense violet appear vibrant in full sunlight, but downright brooding in the evening. One set of blooms can transform your outdoor space with color that almost changes to fit the ambient mood of your yard.

Here’s how to make the most out of ultraviolet for the trendiest and most stunning containers this season:

  • Violet contrasts strongly with yellow. Adding a simple and vibrant sunny yellow next to your ultraviolet blooms will spice up your container. The contrast will bring out the best of your violet. You won’t be able to keep your eyes off of this color combination!
  • Violet is so intense that it can be lost in the shade or shadows. Pairing it with a bright companion (like a lighter foliage) will give it the stage that it needs.
  • Purple works extra hard in your containers to keep its appeal even into the fall. The lower angles of sunlight late in the season plays tricks with the light and will bring out yet more dimensions of your ultraviolet flowers.