Traffic Stopping Container Gardens – April 28, 2012

At Weston Nurseries in Chelmsford, Massachusetts this past Saturday, Deborah Trickett, owner of The Captured Garden, presented ways to create unusual and eye-catching container gardens. With suggestions from plant containers to a wide variety of plants to use, Deborah stretched our conventional ideas about container gardens.

Having done container gardens for my house as well as for our main street here in Wilton, New Hampshire, I know how easy it is to fall back on what’s been done before – the usual geraniums, impatiens, petunias…. well you know. There are many books now on container gardening, but each container garden designer contributes unique ideas that make container gardens an exciting, affordable forum for displaying plants in any setting. Deborah shared with us some of her container garden design ideas.


For containers, Deborah says basically anything that will hold dirt is a candidate as long as you can provide drainage. Scope out hardware, antique, and consignment stores and let your imagination loose. Possibilities can be in your garden shed or basement, such as garden trugs and kid’s sand pails in a rainbow of colors. Tin cans in various sizes with interesting labels make novel containers. Even wooden wine boxes can be used to grow herbs; since they’re not water tight, they don’t need drainage holes. While large ceramic and sandstone pots are often beautiful, there are now lightweight pots made to resemble the heavier pots and are much easier to move.

Of course, soil is very important – it’s food for the plants. Use a high-quality soil designed for use in containers. Also:

  • When filling the container with soil, keep the soil level two to three inches below the rim.
  • If the plants are root bound, scratch the roots to free them up before putting them in the soil.
  • To prevent soil from leaking out of the bottom of the container, place coffee filters or landscape fabric over the drainage holes.
  • Be sure to fertilize container gardens regularly with a slow-release liquid fertilizer at half-strength every other week.

If you have a large container, you don’t have to fill it completely with soil. Instead, fill the bottom with empty soda bottles or small plastic plant pots and cover with newspapers before adding soil. You can also coil nylon stockings filled with styrofoam packing peanuts on the bottom; loose peanuts can be a bit unruly to handle.


If watering is an issue, consider adding pellets to the soil for moisture retention; just be careful how much you use. There’s also a wide variety of self-watering containers now that allow more flexibility in watering. If you have an irrigation system in your lawn or garden, you can have a line go through the bottom of large containers so you don’t have to have someone water them while you’re away.

Plant Choices

When planning a container garden ask yourself two questions: Where’s the container garden going? What’s its purpose?

If the container is in the front of your house near a busy road, you want the container garden to be bold so it can be noticed by those driving by. Use large containers and bold colors. For eye-catching arrangements, use plants in contrasting colors; refer to the color wheel as a guide. For example, mix plants with the contrasting colors of purple and orange and, in the same color range, lavender and peach plants. You could add a white flower plant to set them off.

Here are some additional tips for putting together a container garden:

  • If the design of the container is busy, then use a simple arrangement of plants. Likewise, for an arrangement that requires plants of different colors, sizes, and textures, then use a simple, low-key pot.
  • Make sure your plants are compatible in terms of what they need for sun or shade, watering, and soil quality (loamy or sandy).
  • In general, stick to a color scheme of two or three colors.
  • Include a contrast of leaf shapes, such as round-shaped with heart-shaped, and a contrast of textures, such as shiny leaves with matted leaves.
  • When it comes to container gardens, fewer is sometimes better in terms of the number of different plants. So three or four different plants will have a bigger impact than six or eight.

Also, try to get multiple uses out of the plants as the season progresses. For example, tropical plants can be overwintered when the season is over. You can get double duty from houseplants by using them in arrangements or by themselves when the weather is warm enough. Herbs can go from spring to fall and then come inside for the winter.

You don’t have to have color for a container to be interesting. It can contain an assortment of foliage plants with contrasting leaf shapes, textures, and patterns. Also, you can accessorize an arrangement to add interest with such items as a dragonfly stem, a moss ball, a bird’s nest with eggs, feathers, even a birdhouse.

And for goodness sake – no silk flowers, please! If it’s too cold for plants, use pussy willows, pinecones, evergreen boughs, and other natural materials to fill containers or window boxes.


The arrangement Deborah assembled for her demonstration started with:

  • An evergreen called chamaecyparis. This is a large plant, so in a few years you’ll want to prune the roots and place it in fresh soil.
  • Next, she added a large, dark purple heuchera with its slightly ruffled leaves.
  • Then, to add some color she chose a coleus with green framed burgundy leaves.
  • More texture came in the unexpected form of large swiss chard and small red and green lettuces – I would never think to add vegetable plants to an otherwise decorative mix, but it works!
  • To brighten things up, she added orange gerbera daisies.
  • Next came alternanthera ficoidea ‘Red Threads’, or Joseph’s coat as it is commonly known, to trail over the side of the pot.
  • For a bright contrast, the chartreuse sweet potato vine ‘Marguerite’ could also be added.

It was a beautiful, eye-catching arrangement that would certainly have people looking twice at its novelty.

Besides owning The Captured Garden, Deborah is a Massachusetts Certified Horticulturalist whose work has been featured in The Boston Globe, the magazines Garden Gate and New England Home, and on the TV show “New England Dream Home”. She lectures on container gardening at the Boston Flower & Garden Show and the Philadelphia International Flower Show, as well as teaching at the Arnold Arboretum in Boston.

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