Plant Palette

Plant Palette

Not the Same Old Container Garden

Photo of Jennifer Schultz Nelson

Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture

This Mother's Day weekend, chances are that you or someone you know will be spending time on something related to gardening. The typical frost-free date in central Illinois is approximately Mother's Day through May 15th. Even so, no one can predict the weather with 100% accuracy— patchy frost is in the forecast this weekend. But considering Mother's Day as the starting gun for some full-blown gardening is generally a good rule of thumb.

A container garden is a great option for a Mother's Day gift. Cut flowers only last a week or so, while a container garden will last the entire growing season.

It's easy to get stuck creating the same container gardens year after year. My husband and I plant my mom's flowers outside for her each year for Mother's Day. It's become a sort of joke with her when I ask what she wants to plant this year—she always thinks a minute, and then says "red impatiens". If she is feeling especially wild she might say "red and white impatiens".

My mom's response is simply because she knows what works well in her yard. She is hesitant to try new things because they might not work as well. That's where I come in. I made her a container of plants that are new to her, so maybe she'll find some new favorites. Trying new plants in a container is a way to "test drive" plants before committing to using them in other areas of the garden.

It's extremely easy to plant the same things in the same pots each year. At my house this year, I have told myself that I can use the same pots, but not in the same locations. So far I'm really pleased with the results. It's a new look, but without having to spend money on new pots.

One of my favorite tips in designing container gardens is that there are three types of plants in a container garden: the thriller, the filler and the spiller. I wish I knew who originally coined these terms, as I think they are a great guideline in choosing plants.

The thriller is the tallest plant in the bunch. It grabs your attention in how it stands above the other plants. The filler is a medium sized plant that dominates the center area of the pot. The spiller cascades down the side of the pot, drawing attention downward.

In my experience, container gardens look best when you have at least one of each of these plants in the mix. Also, odd numbers of plants tend to look best.

But just because you have a thriller, filler and spiller doesn't mean they look good together. You still have to pay attention to color. This is where many people get frustrated. In my opinion you will have the best results if you keep your color choices simple.

The simplest method is to choose different shades of one color, such as red. Another choice could be a palette of warm colors, which includes red, orange, and yellow. Green, blue, and purple are the cool colors. Warm colors suggest excitement and energy, cool colors evoke peaceful and calm feelings. Choose your favorite.

Complementary colors are colors which lie directly across from each other on the color wheel. These colors bring out the best in each other, and they "pop". Red/green, orange/blue, and yellow/purple are the basic complementary color pairs. Choose plants with these color pairings and you will be very pleased with the results.

When choosing plants for containers, it is perfectly acceptable to blur the lines of what you consider to be a "container plant". Traditionally, annual bedding plants would be the only thing seen planted in containers outdoors. But it is possible to use houseplants, perennials and even small trees and shrubs in containers.

Houseplants are easily used outdoors in containers. Most houseplants are tropical plants that thrive in the heat and humidity of central Illinois summers. Consider the following ideas for houseplants in containers:

  • Snake plant (Sanseveria sp.)—upright vertical plant is a great alternative to using a Dracaena spike as the thriller in your pot.
  • Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)—another alternative to using a Dracaena spike as a thriller plant
  • Philodendron sp. and Pothos (Epipremnum aureum)— attractive as spiller plants cascading over the sides of a container
  • Inch plant or Wandering Jew (Tradescantia sp.)—also a nice spiller plant. Purple leaved species add color in shade/part shade areas.
  • Be creative. If you have a houseplant that needs dividing or produces a lot of offshoots, it is a great opportunity for free plants to use in your containers.

Perennials and small trees and shrubs are also candidates for containers, but they need some extra attention if you intend for them to live more than one growing season. Perennial plants, or trees and shrubs planted in pots will not survive the winter months if their roots are allowed to freeze. Move these plants, pot and all, into an unheated shed or garage for the winter and water sparingly once a month. Some of these plants will eventually grow too big for a pot and will need to be transplanted to the garden, or discarded. Use perennials that need dividing or produce abundant seedlings for a ready source of free plants.

No matter which plants you use in your containers, keep the plants' preferred needs in mind. Choose sun loving plants for sunny locations, shade lovers for shady spots. Do not mix shade loving plants with sun loving plants in the same pot, or one or the other plant will be unhappy no matter where you place it.

Trying new plants will not always produce a new favorite, but you don't know unless you try. Consider it an experiment. Nothing says you have to throw out all your "old standbys" at once, but why not try one pot with new plants or new uses of old plants this year?

View Article Archive >>