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Container Style



Last month, we dug into the use of containers and accessories in garden designs and discussed ways in which they add interest, depth and dimension to almost any setting. This time, we’ll get more specific and look at ways in which the same containers and accessories can be adapted to fit a particular environment and used with various design styles.

To do so, let’s start with long, rectangular pools (15 by 40 feet), place them in the yards of clients with different desires and see how we can blend planters into several popular styles:

[ ] Contemporary: If you have a very contemporary setting with no planting beds, containers can be used to create a backdrop behind the pool. Planting them with grasses or other linear foliage (such as Agapanthus, Irises or Fescue) will soften the containers slightly while adding interest to an otherwise sterile design.

I would avoid adding color or soft-textured foliage in this setting: It could become a focal point and detract from the contemporary nature of the environment.

[ ] Cottage: With a cottage garden, a rectangular pool would need considerable softening. To do so, you could place pots and containers in front of and behind the pool or in planter beds – or wherever you might need to break up lines from the watershape or other design elements.

In this landscape, using a variety of plants – particularly those with medium textures (including Lavenders, Roses and various annuals) – can work well to tie all the elements of the yard together and soften the linear nature of the pool.

[ ] Tropical: Large-leaf plants work well to soften a linear watershape. In this case, unusual pots (and especially large ones that aren’t overwhelmed by the large-leaf plants) can be strategically placed throughout a yard.

One approach would be to create a “jungle” look by softening up the front corners of the watershape with large containers underplanted by smaller containers – all filled with tropical-style plants such as Birds of Paradise, Cast Iron Plants or Agapanthus.

As this demonstrates, planter beds can be designed into any setting’s style – and the use of containers is an easy and inexpensive way to add further interest, depth and dimension by creating new lines or softening up hard ones as needed. And remember: Containers are mobile, so if you or your clients don’t like the spots you’ve chosen, most are easily moved to a better location. (It’s not quite as easy to move a planter bed.)

It’s also true that the plants within a container are easily changed. If they grow out of balance or a color change is needed, it’s a simple matter to bring in new plants and give the scene a whole new look, no matter which style you have.


As a designer, you have many choices when it comes to containers and plants.

Materials of construction, for example, are as varied as the shapes and sizes of the containers and accessories themselves. From concrete, wood and lightweight composites to mixed materials, glass and other creative options, the sky really is the limit.

In one “Surprise Gardener” episode (as discussed in my August 2000 column), for example, we turned an old rusted truck chassis into a pond and inserted an oak barrel to house roses and other perennials. The only limitation is that your choices need to work within the style you and your clients have chosen.

The same holds true with plant selections: You’re generally limited only by the characteristics of the plants as they relate to style.

I say “generally” because you also need to think about how well a given plant will do in a container. I’m all for experimentation and suggest trying out a specimen or two before investing in large quantities of any given plant. But I also want to be helpful, so let me give you a head start by listing a few of my successful selections.

Before I begin and as always, these recommendations apply best in my specific climate and plant zone. It’s always a good idea to check with your local nursery to find out what container plants work best in your area.

[ ] Grasses: Almost any grasses work well in containers. What I’ve typically found is that when they become overgrown in their containers, it’s easy to pull them out and replace them with fresh plants. Some good selections are Pennisetum setaceum (Fountain Grass), Festuca ovina ‘Glauca’ (Blue Fescue), Cortaderia selloiana (Pampas Grass) and Ophiopogon (Mondo Grasses).

[ ] Ferns: These temperamental growers have a few hearty specimens that work well in containers. Microlepia ferns, Dicksonia (Tree Ferns) and Polystichum (Sword Ferns) are good choices. In some areas, however, they may need to be brought indoors for the winter.

[ ] Vines: If you’re looking to cover an arbor or the side of a house with vines, avoid planting them in containers. Vines in containers work best as small accents, because the container creates a barrier to mature root growth and limits the plant’s overall growth. If you want to use vines, choose those that have greater size to start with, such as Distictis buccinatoria (Blood Red Trumpet Vine), the larger Climbing Roses or Wisteria. They will never reach their mature potential in a container, but if they are well watered and fertilized, they can soften small walls or hardscape and offer nice accents.

[ ] Shrubs: Your choices here are limitless. Just choose a plant that blends with the rest of the landscape and fits with the style. Some good choices include Lavenders, Roses and Gardenias.

[ ] Annuals: Most people are familiar with using annuals in containers. They make the best display of color and offer a rotating palette so a garden can change with the seasons. The biggest problem with annuals is that they typically last from two to four months. If your clients are avid gardeners, they will pay attention to plants that look like they need changing out. Otherwise, they’ll end up with a container filled with dead plants.

[ ] Perennials: Although perennials for the most part don’t look great during their off months, they have the advantage over annuals of coming back year after year. If that’s what’s called for, Digitalis, Yarrows, Rudbeckias, Lupines and Chrysanthemums are all good picks. I also think that underplanting perennials with annuals is great for creating focal points.

[ ] Bulbs: These are easy to plant in any container and can be combined with any other plants. Containerizing actually makes growing bulbs easier, especially those that require digging up at the end of the season: You have a limited plot of soil in which to search for the spent bulbs and avoid having to hunt for those you might scatter in a garden.

[ ] Trees: As a rule, I avoid using trees in containers – but containers are great for trees whose growth you want to minimize. If you have an area where you need a small tree to make a statement, for example – and you want it to stay small – a large container (at least 15 gallons) will serve the purpose.

Stephanie Rose wrote her Natural Companions column for WaterShapes for eight years and also served as editor of LandShapes magazine. She may be reached at [email protected].

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