Container Gardening

Harry the Cat in a serene moment with potted Crocosmia and succulents

Today, we'll address a major gardening dilemma. What do you do when you run out of space in the garden? Don't panic ~ just pot up some containers, of course!

Every year, The Big Little Garden experiences some sort of "expansion" in order to accommodate my obsession with plants.  But even after this year's belt-loosening of the "garage bed" and the addition of the "fence bed", there is still a call for plants in containers. Container gardening really helps to extend the life of the garden, getting an earlier start, and providing color until frost. 

My approach to using containers in the garden is a bit different than the typical application of planting annuals in a "thriller, filler & spiller" combination (although I love those, too!)  I love to pot up bulbs and perennials that can be rotated in and out of the garden and outdoor living spaces as my mood and the surrounding gardens change.

Potted bulbs are the perfect solution to the April "drabbies", i.e., those dull days when Winter lingers and Spring seems a million months away. I like to pot tulips, narcissus, allium and lilies in the Fall and store the pots in a protected corner of the garage. The pots will definitely freeze, but they aren't as prone to cracking as they would be if left out in the elements. And, the bulbs come up so much earlier. Here's my patio pot collection in late April:


Pots are uber easy to switch up if you get bored, or when plants are done blooming. Just move them to a discreet area to go dormant, and rotate in the next round. Here's the same patio corner in early July. With the pink astilbe blooming, I limited the container plant color to just the pink caladium to contrast with the earthy hypertufa pots filled with sedum on the left and with hemlock and moss transplanted from our lake home on the right:


Now a few weeks later on July 31st, the astilbe is done blooming and pots become more colorful. The red Crocosmia is strategically located for maximum viewing of the hummingbirds who stop in frequently for a sip of nectar. Can you see her coming in for a landing, just to the right of the red spray of Crocosmia flowers below? I have become enamored with pots that have a verdigris color theme as they can be grouped to compliment one another and do not clash with the plant and bloom color.


Of course, herbs are perfect for container gardening. In fact, my basil grown in pots far out-performs any I plant directly into the ground. For herbs like rosemary and oregano, lettuce and nasturtiums, my horse trough is the solid choice. The horse trough doesn't dry out quickly, and the water faucet just inches away makes it super easy to maintain. Added bonus: the bunnies don't jump up to eat the lettuce! The nasturtiums will continue to "travel" and spill out of the horse trough and clamber over and through the garden, offering glorious yellow, orange and red blooms until frost:


I am all about curb-appeal, and love how the pots of tall spiky perennials help to greet me when I pull into the driveway toward the garage! Plus, they help to wrap the color around the corner of the house,making the garage-side garden appear even larger from this angle. The rain barrel seen at the corner of the garage provides a convenient source of water for these thirsty plants. Driveway pots include:

  • Gaura lindheimerii 'Whirling Butterflies' which continues to grow upward and bloom through September
  • Liatris spicata 'Kobold' grown from inexpensive bulbs purchased on mark-down at Lowe's last Fall
  • Allium 'Millenium' grown from bulbs (this is the second year in this pot which was over-wintered in the garage)
  • Blue lobelia, an annual planted back in early May. Same pot has one Acanthus perennial which is stubbornly refusing to bloom this year, but the foliage is gorgeous.

In addition to providing accents of color in your outdoor living spaces, containers offer an easy way to "fill holes" in the garden. In the following view, the red Crocosmia and yellow Achillea (yarrow) are rotated in after the in-ground planted Baptisia, Evening Primrose, Amsonia and Trollius are done blooming for the season. The Crocosmia pot is obscured by the foliage of the Goldenrod in front and appears as if it's planted in the ground.

I actually plan for the loss of color and strategically install flat stepping stones among the perennials. When it's time for a color infusion, the containers can be easily placed within the garden without damaging or suffocating the surrounding perennials. This approach allows me to experiment with different colors and textures without having to commit to installing the plants directly in the soil.

Without these two pots, there would be nothing but a big green sea of foliage in the middle of this garden bed from late July until the Goldenrod blooms in September:


My sister-in-law (owner of City Garden Guru in Philadelphia and my inspiration to push the limits of container gardening) gave me some Canna bulbs in mid-June. They require some good space and can become quite stately, so instead of trying to cram them into an already tight garden bed, I potted them up and they'll add a tropical flair to the garden until late Fall when they'll be moved into the safety of the garage. The following photo also shows pink Agastache, purple Sedum, and a pot of grapefruit mint each adding texture and interest to the garden:


Of course, containers are an absolute must for doorways and porch stoops. The color and foliage help to soften hard edges and welcome visitors into your home. For the last couple years, I have potted up purple leafed Canna lilies for the front steps. Even though this North-facing exposure offers minimal direct morning sun, the Cannas do bloom through the summer (although not in this particular photo!)


For more ideas on using containers in your garden, I can highly recommend The Layered Garden, one of my favorite books by one of my favorite gardeners and authors, David Culp.

The Layered Garden has been one of the most influential gardening books in my library. It provides amazing tips on how to plant for 4 season interest and long succession blooming. David's "color pots" play a significant role in extending the season in his Brandywine Cottage garden.

David's fun, relaxed "judgement-free" approach to gardening is so refreshing. In his world, there really aren't gardening "rules". Just garden to please yourself and don't be afraid to push the limits of plant combinations!

Click on the link to the left to view it on Amazon!

I hope this post has inspired you to experiment with colorful containers in your garden. If you have any questions or need help with your garden, please contact me for a free, no-obligation phone consultation! Also feel free to email me photos of your container gardens! I would love to see them.