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A Simple Trick for Extraordinary Container Gardens

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Container gardening offers a creative outlet for many of us every year. It's the chance to mix and match plants by color, shape and habit without a long-term commitment. Here's one way to approach container design that will keep your creative juices flowing all summer while your pots can continue to evolve.

At the botanic garden Wave Hill, containers hold just one type of plant, as seen in this grouping at the Pergola.

At the botanic garden Wave Hill, containers hold just one type of plant, as seen in this grouping at the Pergola.

You can make gorgeous mixed containers by combining different kinds of plants within one pot, but there are a handful of drawbacks to this approach:

1. The plants you combine in one pot need to have the same requirements for sunlight, watering, drainage and fertilizing.

2. The plants you combine should have roughly the same rate of growth and vigor, or else one plant may quickly overwhelm the other(s).

3. If one plant fails at any point in the season, you need to find a way to fill the void.

4. You need to choose plants that will remain beautiful from planting time until frost, or be willing to replace them in summer and autumn, which adds cost. On the other hand, if you do select plants that appeal from spring through fall, you enjoy the fun and creativity of designing your container garden just once a year.

For some, the beauty and challenge of a mixed container outweighs these complications. However, there is an approach that resolves these and it is demonstrated to great effect at Wave Hill, a public garden in the Bronx, N.Y. 

In the book Nature into Art: The Gardens of Wave Hill (Timber Press, 2019), author Thomas Christopher explains that the gardeners there generally devote single pots to single plants, and then artfully arrange groups of these pots together.  

Here's the Wave Hill reasoning behind single-plant pots, as reported by Christopher:

1. Maintenance is simplified, with single pots making it easy to cater to the subject's food and water preferences.

2. The visual appeal of each plant is magnified when it is potted singly; it's not competing with companions in its container.

3. Groups of pots can play up contrasts between the plants while holding a thread of similarity.

Another key advantage? The components are moveable. It's easy to rearrange, add or subtract plants throughout the growing season when they each have their own container.

It's important to note that the containers at Wave Hill are different shapes, sizes and heights, so they accommodate a wide range of plants and they contribute to dynamic groupings that show each individual to its best advantage. However, all the pots are made of terra cotta. There are practical reasons for this, but the uniformity also keeps each grouping's emphasis on the plants. If you try potting your container plants singly, stick to containers of one color and material to avoid complicating your arrangements.

Image credit: proteinbiochemist/CC BY-NC 2.0