Containers Unlimited

Imaginative choices make all the difference


WHEN YOU ENTER A ROOM that is empty except for a single chair, that chair demands to be noticed. To achieve the same effect with a container planting, you need to be able to define what it is that catches your eye and separates it from just another plant or group of plants in a pot.

There are two basic components to a container planting: the plants and the container. The strongest visual impact conies about when these two components complement each other, or are combined in a way that generates greater visual interest than either would possess separately.


A container can be anything that will hold either soil or water without creating a potentially toxic environment for the plants it will hold. Often, it is the unexpected objects that make the most interesting containers. Several years ago, for instance, while I was cleaning out my barn, I discovered an old, rusty iron pig-feeding trough. It had a wonderfully long, low, horizontal shape, but absolutely no drainage.

I didn’t want to ruin the trough’s character by riddling it with drainage holes. The solution lay in choosing plants to grow in it that wouldn’t require drainage, in this case Oryza sativa ‘Red Dragon’, commonly known as red-leaved rice. This Asian native, which I grow as an annual in my USDA Zone 6b garden and nursery, is perfectly suited to shallow water of four to six inches or less. Its narrow, arched, red leaves were also a perfect complement to the rusted color of the container.

For a finishing touch, I covered the surface of the soil with green river-bottom stones, which I purchased from a well-stocked garden shop. By filling the trough with just enough water to cover the stones, I was able to emphasize the water as another element that distinguished the trough planting from just another potted plant.

This brings up a valuable point: containers that hold water offer a welcome break from the expected. Thanks to the popularity of water gardening, there is a rich and ever-expanding palette of aquatic plants from which to choose. Another of my container water plantings—a marble font purchased from an antique shop—has become an attractive home to corkscrew rush (Juncus effusus f. spiralis) and floating azolla (Azolla filiculoides), a fast-growing aquatic fern. With its leafless, spiraling stems that grow from 18 to 24 inches long, the corkscrew rush is hard to miss. The azolla, which ranges in color from soft green to greenish red, depending on how much sun it receives, so completely covers the surface of the water that it looks like emerald-green moss. This container has a wonderful tactile dimension as well—visitors who touch the azolla are delighted to find that it jiggles like a water bed.

Sean Conway’s

Favorite Water Plants for Containers


A floating water fern that lays flat on the surface of water-the perfect surface covering for still water in any container. Pairs of tiny, delicate fronds are supported by single strands of fine roots. Ranges from emerald green in the shade to deep burgundy in full sun. Zones 7-10.

Distinctive container plantings can be as much about situatingj the cqntain-ers as planting them; on a stone wail, against a green background, this red-leaved rice (Oryza sativa ‘Red Dragon’) is impossible to miss. Previous page/left: A marble font makesan irrev-erent, watery home for corkscrew rush (Juncus ef-fusus f. spiralis) and spongy Azolla liliculoides, Right: Coppery Libertia peregrinans, displayed at its best in a tail terra-cotta pot.


Upright, rushlike, and dark green, with beautiful, brown, bractlike coverings at each node. An excellent accent plant. Plant in a clay pot, submerging the bottom of the pot in three to four inches of water, so that it will wick up moisture. Height: 2 to 3 feet. Width: 2 to 3 feet. Zones 9-10.


The spectacular, black-leaved elephant-ear leaves are a dark, dusky purple with reddish stems. Plant in a container where it can wick up moisture; try placing the bottom of the container in three to four inches of water. Height: 36 to 48 inches. Width: will quickly fill large containers, Zones 7b-10.


The white-banded, red-veined pitcher plant. Best planted in containers without drainage, in live sphagnum peat moss or sand. Maintain water level two to three inches below the crown of the plant, Needs full sun and a winter dormancy period. Height 24 to 30 inches. Zones 7-9.

This dwarf golden larch (Pseudolarix amabilis ‘Annesleyana’) is undcrplant-ed with golden Sagina subulata; both are an intense lemon yellow in the spring.

Sean Conway’s

Favorite Woody Plants for Containers



Most upright and weeping forms do well in containers, provided they aren’t allowed to dry out. Atrolineare’, the willow-leaved maple, has long, narrow leaves that will add an interesting texture to any container. Height: 15 to 25 feet. Zones 5/6-8.


A beautiful, purple-leaved birch that holds its color throughout the season. Use as a specimen tree, or as an anchor for other pots. Plant in the ground after one season. Height: 45 feet. Width: 35 feet (in 15 years.) Zones 4-7.



Beautiful, full, dark green foliage is excellent for brightening up a winter entryway. Plant in frost-resistant pots if you plan on leaving them outside for the winter, and water when winter temperatures are above freezing. Height: 3 feet. Width: 3 feet Zones 5-8.


A variegated form of the yellow-twig dogwood, with creamy, irregular margins around its leaf borders. This full, leafy shrub will adapt well to a container for one season. Height 7 to 9 feet. Zones 2-7



Use in mixed plantings or as a specimen. For best dark purple leaf color, plant in full sun. Height: 10 to 15 feet. Width 10 to 15 feet (less when kept in a container). Zones 4-8.



Look for varieties that stay small and offer resistance to fire blight and rust. ‘Canary’ has tiny yellow fruits, and ‘Fireburst’ has showy, quarter-inch, bright red fruits. Height: 15-25 feet. Zones 4-7.

Container Know-How


When you’re deciding what to plant in a container, start with the container’s form. A long narrow container, for instance, is best paired with narrow-leaved plants that will emphasize the container’s shape. Conversely, low, squat, bowl-shaped containers work best with plants of similar shapes, so that the container will accentuate the roundness of a plant, or emphasize a certain feature, such as horizontal branching. This is certainly the case with dwarf golden larch (Pseudolarix amabilis ‘Annesleyana’; Zones 4-7). Under-planting the larch with golden pearlwort (Sagina subulata ‘Aurea’) also helps to emphasize the yellow color of the larch’s spring leaves. Container shape alone, however, shouldn’t be your only consideration. When a container is extremely large, the issue of what to plant in it can become clouded. In the case of large, bowl-shaped urns, for example, you sometimes need strong, tall vertical plants in order for the scale of the planter to feel right. If the shape calls out for low, mounding plants, but the size of the container calls for ones with pronounced verticality, what should you do? In this case, the best solution is to use both types of plants. Place the vertical plants in the center for the needed height, and the low, mounding plants along the edge to complement the planter.

Container color, too, is important in determining the overall effect. The color of the container can either contrast with the plants or match them. In either case, if the container color is to play an important role in the final composition, take care to choose plants that don’t obscure the container, either immediately after you plant it or after the plants have grown in. (This is especially important if you have selected a container for color or its decorative motif.) On the other hand, if softening the look of the container or its edges is what’s needed, incorporating trailing plants or vines into the planting will accomplish this. By the time the trailing plants have grown down over the sides of the pot, the container will be visible only through a veil of stems and flowers.


When it comes to choosing plants for container gardening, don’t limit yourself to the plants in four-inch pots or six-packs of annuals at your local garden center. Think of it this way: if a plant is growing in a container at a nursery or garden center—whether it’s a tree, shrub, perennial, or annual—you should be able to grow it in a container on your patio, at least for a period of time.

I have found that I can comfortably use trees and shrubs bought in containers as large as 15 or even 20 gallons. (Remember: the larger the container, the heavier it is, and the heavier the container, the greater the need for a back brace!) Placed as single specimens in large pots, trees and shrubs make wonderful anchors for groupings of potted plants. I have successfully grown trees and shrubs such as birches, crab apples, smoke bushes, Japanese maples, chamaecy-paris, yews, and shrubby dogwoods this way. I have one weeping Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Filigree’), for instance, that has been in the same container for years, needing only occasional root pruning. Most trees and shrubs, however, do not like to be container-bound for too many years. For these, it’s best to display them in containers for one growing season and then move them into the garden at the season’s end.

Potted trees and shrubs aren’t the only way to make a bold statement. Smaller plants can be equally dramatic, providing they have eye-catching features. The striking, swordlike foliage of Libertia peregrinans, an upright-growing plant from New Zealand popular on the West Coast, grows to only 14 inches tall and is well suited for container culture. While it would be lost among its neighbors in a mixed planting, it shines when planted alone in a cylindrical pot. Its coppery orange leaves also blend beautifully with the warm tones of terra-cotta.


Most container gardeners look for flowers to create a bold effect. Why not give foliage a try instead? Relying on foliage instead of flowers makes sense from several standpoints. To begin with, lush foliage makes a newly planted container look full and finished immediately. In contrast, plants that depend on flowers for their looks will need several weeks of growth before they start to look like anything. Having to depend on a floral display also means that when flowering plants are taking a rest, because of adverse conditions like too much rain or high temperatures, your containers won’t look like much. Interesting foliage, on the other hand, will allow you to bridge those gaps.

If I use flowering plants in containers, I tend to use them as accents. As a rule of thumb, I plant two-thirds of a mixed container with foliage plants and one-third with flowering plants. This ensures that there will always be something interesting to look at.

The key to creating eye-catching containers is figuring out how to make them interesting. Whether you’re using containers with bold color or shape or plants with interesting foliage, keep in mind that the combination of the two is what will set your container apart. If your finished product is as eye-catching as that chair in the middle of an empty room, you’ll know you’re on the right track.

When planting a container, start with something interesting, like this painted antique sap bucket (1).

Then, assemble the plants, selecting a variety of complementary shapes, leaf forms, habits, and colors (2).

After filling the container with potting soil, you can begin to plant. For a round container, it’s best to position the center plant first, in this case a spiky Elymus glaucus. Then, working outward, add foliage plants, such as ‘Swinging Linda’ coleus and trailing Dichondra argentea. Finally, backfill with flowering plants like pink Petunia integnfolia, aiming for a balanced arrangement with a final ratio of two-thirds foliage plants to one-third flowering plants (3]. When planting a container that will be viewed only from one side, it’s a good idea to start in the back with the tallest plants and work your way forward to the shortest.

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