Overwhelmed by all the choices when it comes to designing container flower gardens? Maybe I can provide a little help.

Thousands of people come through our land-based nursery and garden center every year who want us to TELL them exactly what to plant in their container gardens. We enjoy helping folks out with our ideas but sometimes feel we are robbing them the joy of designing their own container flower gardens. Caring for and watching plants grow is one thing but, as with many other adventures, a big part of the fun in container gardening is in the "getting there"...and that means the design.

I wrote this article to provide some basic design tips and instructions for those who would like to start designing their own beautiful container gardens. And this isn't really difficult to do when you follow a few basic guidelines. So, if you came here looking for garden designs or pictures to copy, you won't find them:-) This article was written with the intention to provide you with basic tips and rules of thumb for doing your own container garden designs.

So, starting with the first thing you need to consider when designing a container garden...


Choosing A Container

The choice of container you'll use for your garden might also set the theme that helps determine what purpose or what type of plants you'll use in your design. There are endless choices of containers. Any type of container that provides drainage can be used, from store-bought classic to colorful containers to an old washtub or wheelbarrow. At my last home, when a piano tuner told me my piano was hopeless and could not be tuned, I hauled it out into the back yard and turned it into a garden...seriously! I filled the top with soil and planted vining annuals and perennials in it that spilled all over the exterior of the piano. It was really quite attractive and, needless to say, served as a great conversation piece. When it comes to selecting a container there are endless choices. Just make sure the container provides adequate drainage. If there are no drainage holes drill them.


What purpose?

Will your container garden serve to be enjoyed for its colorful flowers or foliage that draw attention to a certain spot or area of your home or gardens? Or will it serve to attract and feed butterflies and hummingbirds? Maybe you want to use container gardens to dress up or formalize an entryway, or dress up a porch or deck? Maybe you just want a low maintenance garden that rarely if ever needs water or care? Give yourself a little time to think about the purpose and make note of it. This will help you decide on both the container style and the type of plants you'll grow.


Container Garden Themes

Color gardens usually involve the use of annual or perennial flowers or foliage plants that have a long flowering season and serve to draw attention or create a mood.

Mono-variety - If you're one who doesn't have the time to be choosy, this is the perfect container garden for you. It simply involves choosing a single variety/cultivar of plant and using whatever number of these it will take to fill the size container you have. Mono-variety gardens are great for highlighting an intricately designed piece of pottery or creating a solid pop of color.


Mono-color - The next of simple designs is what I call the mono-color design. These designs can use several different types of plants in various shades of the same color. For example, you might choose white. If so, you could plant white petunia, white salvia, white verbena, and dusty miller in the same container. Since no flowers are identical in color, you'll end up with an array of white shades that are very appealing to the eye. 


You can use mono-color designs to set a mood. White, blue and pink shades are very soothing while yellow, orange and red shades are hot and exciting. When putting together a mono-color design you want to choose a pot that is either a neutral color (white, brown, terra cotta, black, silver, etc) or a color that contrasts nicely with your color scheme. You'll also want to make sure that the various types of plants in the garden share similar needs for sun, soil type and moisture.


Bi-color - These designs use two colors. There are as many ways to combine color as there are gardeners planting flower gardens. If you are happy with the colors you've used, then other opinions don't really matter. However, there are some rules of thumb that can help you put together good color combinations.

Colors tend to come in two different categories: hot colors and cool colors. 

Hot colors, such as red, orange and yellow express action and excitement. Place hot colors by doors, walkways and in far corners of the garden to draw attention to spots that might otherwise be overlooked. Cool colors, such as blue, pink and purple tend to calm and provide tranquility. They are great to use in spaces where you want to relax.

Color can also be used to visually change distance perspective. Warm colors and light tints, such as red, orange, yellow and white, advance an object or area toward the observer. These colors and tints placed near the foundation of a house would make the house appear closer to the street. Cool colors and deep shades like blue, green and black recede and can be used to make the house appear farther from the street.

When choosing colors, one very helpful tool is the color wheel. A color wheel is a diagrammatic way of showing relationships between colors. Colors on the right side of the wheel are warm. Colors on the left side are cool. Colors adjacent to one another are analogous. Opposite colors are complementary.


The first way of combining color is utilizing analogous colors. Analogous colors are next to each other on the color wheel and mix together easily. Some examples of analogous colors are yellow-orange, orange-red, yellow-orange-red, violet-red, blue-green, and blue-violet.

Next is complimentary colors. Using these can create more drama in the garden. To design with complimentary colors, simply look at the color wheel and choose the colors that are opposite of each other. Complimentary colors create a lot of contrast and cause both colors to pop. When designing with complimentary colors keep in mind that bright shades of any color look better with bright shades of a complimentary color, and the same for light shades. Also keep in mind that you'll want the color of the flowers to compliment the container.


Multi-color - This is the trickiest of color schemes but is made easier with the use of the color wheel. I usually stick to three colors but more can be used. When using three colors you will select colors that are spaced equidistant on the color wheel - the points of an equilateral triangle, such as yellow, blue, and red.

In addition to the colors on the simple color wheel, there are a number of neutral colors including white, black, grey, silver and shades of brown. Neutral colors can be used with any color scheme to add dimension.


Nectar Gardens

Perhaps my favorite container flower garden theme is one designed to attract butterflies and hummingbirds. These designs not only use color but also provide a source of rich nectar for our winged and feathered friends. Too, it's a joy to watch these flyers as they flutter or buzz around around and feed.

There are many varieties of flowering plants that are useful to attract butterflies and hummingbirds. Keep in mind that hummingbirds prefer tubular flowers that allow their long, needle-like bills to fit inside these tubes. Thus, their tongues can easily lap up the sweet nectar found deep inside the flower tubes.

When designing your container nectar garden you should consider planting a mix of flowering perennials and annuals, and maybe even a flowering vine on a trellis or obelisk that is situated in the container. Make sure to match the plant(s) to the size of the pot. You don't want to plant a large-growing plant such as Black & Blue Salvia in a tiny pot. This hummingbird magnet will need a pot at least 18 inches or more in rim diameter.

Here's a list of some of my favorite flowering plants I use in my own container nectar gardens:

Annual Plants (live for one season)
Abutilon (Flowering Maple), Angelonia, Cleome, Cuphea, Daisies, Geraniums, Impatiens, Lantana, Million Bells (Calibrachoa), Nicotiana (Flowering Tobacco), Pentas, Petunias, Salvia, Torenia, Verbena

Perennial Plants
Agastache, Bee Balm (Monarda), Butterfly Bush (Buddleai), Canna Lily, Daises, Hummingbird Plant (Dicliptera suberecta), Lantana, Pineapple Sage, Salvia (Black & Blue, Hot Lips),Texas Sage

Vines (Perennial and Tropical)
Allamanda, Mandevilla, Morning Glory, Passion Vine, Trumpet Vine (Campsis), Trumpet Honeysuckle

Tropicals
Bird Of Paradise, Browalia, Dipladenia, Fuschia, Hibiscus



Other Container Garden Design Tips

How many plants?
Almost no two types of plants grow to the same size. Keep in mind that healthy plants grow, so you don't want to overcrowd your container with too many plants. Doing so can cause some serious competition among the roots for soil space, and you might end up spending your entire summer standing over your container gardens with a water hose. So, you want to match plants to the size of your container. To know the average mature size of any particular plant refer to the plant tag or seed package.


Arrangement of plants
When arranging the plants in your container garden take note of the mature height they will grow. If the garden will be viewed from all sides, place taller plants toward the center of the container and lower growers around the edge. If it will be viewed from only one angle, such as a pot that will be situated against a wall, plant taller growing plants towards the back and lower growers towards the front.

Many gardeners like to use an evergreen shrub or some type of small tree as the centerpiece in a container garden. I like using a conical or global shape evergreen conifer and Japanese maple as a centerpiece. Keep in mind that if you want to keep these shrubs or trees growing in the same container for a number of years that it's best to start out with a larger container which will provide enough space for the root system to grow over the long term.