Every spring, I’ve been putting the same tired geraniums on the porch near the front door. This year I decided I needed something different – I mean, don’t we all? – and I’ve chosen to go all-in on a mixed container planting to bring a shot of color to the doorstep. And while I have my own thoughts about what I like in a container, I wanted to get some fresh ideas and pointers that I can pass along. I called on Dana Stein, Gardens of Babylon’s procurement director, who was more than eager to share her knowledge of how to put together successful containers.
Before you begin
You may already have a container, or you may be in the market for a new one. Check out this article for suggestions on how to choose the best container, then fill it with good, high quality planting mix. “Don’t skimp on the soil,” Dana suggests. “Remember that you get what you pay for.” Then let the fun begin.
“The first thing to consider is if your planter will be in sun or shade,” Dana says. That, of course, will determine what you will put in it. A pot on a porch that receives sunshine all day will need sun- and heat-tolerant plants; a porch in dappled or full shade needs plants that don’t need as much sun to thrive. It’s important to know the conditions on your doorstep.
“Go to a good garden center and you’ll find sun-loving plants in one location, shade plants in another,” Dana says. Walk around and think about what you like: “Think about colors. Do you like warm colors? Bright? That will help you narrow it down.” And think about how to put them together for the best look, and what excites you: “Just do a gut check – what makes you happy?”
Thriller, filler, spiller
It’s an old but valid rule for putting together successful container plantings: Start with something tall and bold – a “thriller” plant. Add a mid-size “filler” or two, something that is eye-catching, adds color and texture, and fills the bulk of the garden space. Finally, finish with a “spiller,” something that will trail over the sides to add softness, more texture, and more interest.
“Everyone knows about this; all the pros know it,” Dana says. “Use this formula, and that’s going to make you look like a professional.”
When you plant, begin with the thriller, and consider the angles from which the garden will be seen; if it’s out in the open, place the tall plant in the center of the container and fill in all around it. If the container will be against a wall or other backdrop – as mine will be – place the tallest plant at the back of the pot, and let the fillers and spillers take front and center.
What’s the ideal number of plants to use? As many as it takes. “Pack them in!” Dana suggests. “Make it instant gratification. You want the end result to look like it’s already grown and spilling over, even after it’s just been planted.”
Care and maintenance
Plants are growing, living things, so you have to be attentive to their needs, Dana says. A container garden needs frequent watering, sometimes daily during extremely hot weather. “Put your finger in the soil two inches deep, just to check. Every day,” Dana says. “If it’s over 90 degrees, definitely containers will need to be watered every day.” Ideally, the pot is lifted a bit off the ground with pot feet or risers, she suggests. “When you water, you want to see water come out the bottom of the pot.”
The garden will also need nourishment. “Plants in containers are heavy feeders,” she says. When you water, the nutrients will leach out the bottom.” A good organic fertilizer is a must-have part of the regimen. “It’s like a healthy diet for the plants. They’ll look better if they’re being fed well.”
A bit of cosmetic attention is also necessary. “Just like we need to get haircuts and trim our fingernails. Every so often they need to be deadheaded, clipped and trimmed, especially if things start to get leggy. Get a good pair of pruners and tidy things up a little bit.”
What’s trending in container plantings?
“People are getting out of the box with their containers,” Dana says. Tropical selections that we usually think of as houseplants – snake plant, for instance – are showing up in summer container gardens, and make big statements in a planting. “Also, the oldest plant known to man, reed plants, have been really popular.” This upright, architectural bit of greenery can be an excellent “thriller,” and something a little unusual for a container.
Lower-growing annuals, grasses, and plants that provide texture as well as color are also popular choices for mixed containers, she says. Ivies, thyme and other trailing plants are the “spillers” to look for. “Just think about what makes you happy,” Dana says.
For the container at my doorstep, which will be in dappled shade most of the day, I walked around the garden center and remembered how much I like the more unusual varieties of begonias. I’d planned to start with the tall, architectural vibe that a reedy plant provides – in this case, Equisetum hyemal, or horsetail – but was drawn to the tall, sometimes spiraling growth of Juncus ‘Twisted Arrows.’
I chose two different begonias for their large, showy flowers, Hiemalis ‘Amstel Batik Orange’ and a tuberous variety, ‘Nonstop White.’ To those I added cuttings from two pass-along begonias already in my collection, an angel-wing variety and a type with large frilly leaves – official names unknown. A new, purplish creeping Jenny — Lysimachia ‘Midnight Sun’ — and the bright green Lysimachia variety that I dug out of containers I’ve had for years, spill over the rim of the pot in my new begonia garden.
If the spot for your container garden is sunny, Dana suggests a variety of sun-loving plants: container-size sunflowers, black-and-blue salvia, ‘Million Bells’ petunias, dwarf zinnias, a selection of kitchen herbs – the choices and combinations are endless.
“Remember the ‘thriller-spiller-filler’ rule, and go for the look that makes you happy,” Dana suggests.
Click here to watch Dana Stein demonstrate how to plant a container garden in “Container Planting 101.” Browse the Gardens of Babylon Garden Center, 900 Rosa L. Parks Blvd., for containers and for ideas of what to put in them.