What follows is all about preventing container failure – and by that I don’t mean how to prevent your pot plants from dying. No, this is all about how to fill pots with plants in a way that ends up looking fabulous. Gorgeous. So perfect strangers knock on your door to compliment you on your potted horticultural visions of beauty.
Because that’s what we all want to be able to do: to fill a large container with an arrangement of living plants in a way that makes us sigh with satisfaction and pleasure.
This may be a shot in the dark, but I’m guessing at some point you’ve had a go at it, and were underwhelmed by the results. But it’s not just you – it’s the same for most people. I might be good at it now, but I can still remember my first effort. (I found this photo (above) of someone else’s effort at potting up some marigolds and laughed because it could have been a photo of mine. It’s sad, but also really comforting – because we clearly start off like this and once we’ve picked up a few tips, we know how to get it right. At least that’s what happened for me. So let’s get scrolling and I’ll use some pics to share what I think works and what doesn’t, and most importantly why. Let’s start with a series of what-went-wrongs . . .
You almost have to love this one, and to be honest, with time it may bush up and out, and tumble over the lip of the pot, but really, at this moment, it’s a little pathetic. Verdict: the pot is too small for more than one plant. The Fix: gather a series of these pots and fill each one with the same plant, one with better proportions (a small daisy or gardenia or miniature rose).
This shot is a great example of how the proportion of a pot makes it impossible to plant out and look good. Verdict: This pot is too tall and despite the fantastic collection of plants growing in it, it looks awkward. The Fix: Plant the same arrangement of plants in a bowl shaped container that sits lower to the ground. (If someone gave me this amphora-style pot, instead of planting it I’d let it stand empty as a piece of garden sculpture.)
This is a good illustration of the one plant-in-the-middle and a ring of others around the edge approach. Which is fine for a classic garden look, but in this case a decision was made to break up the ring with different plants to create alternating moments of pink and blue. Maybe it would have worked better if the container was larger but really, it just looks too fiddly. Verdict: It’s too symmetrical and meddled with. The Fix: choose a single plant type to form the doughnut around the centre plant (in this case maybe alyssum or white lobelia), or loosen the whole thing up by planting the feature plant off to one side and then wedge the pinks together to one side and the blues together in the space remaining.
This example is so weird. The pot shape is fine, but the strong colour makes it tricky to select plants to suit. Then there’s the plant selection – boldy coloured and boldly textured, with a confusingly symmetrical addition (the strappy foliaged plant) sitting at the centre. Verdict: there is just too much going on and too many components fighting for attention. The Fix: keep the pot and start again, allowing the pot’s bold colour to be the primary feature. Fill with a complimentary plant – maybe something with grey foliage and white flowers like Convolvulus cneorum.
And now for some success stories. Here’s an example of something that I think works really well. The container (well, shopping bag) is bright and dominant. The two plants are equally colourful and manage to hold their own but not fight the equally bold container. Why it Works: it’s playful, which helps carry off (sorry about the pun) the bright colours. The loose plant arrangement looks honest and functional, i.e.someone went to the garden centre, grabbed what looked good, shoved it in the bag and then went home and plonked it down beside the front door.
Here’s another winner. Why it Works: the proportion of this pot to plant mass is perfect, i.e. there’s the right amount of stuff growing in this sized pot; the colours are bold but they co-ordinate brilliantly with the outdoor upholstery. This is a good example of getting both the pot shape right and the selection of plants. In other words, if the pot had been small, there wouldn’t have been room to fit enough plants into it to pick up the colours of the striped pillow. And undersized pot would also have let the bench seat dominate and it wouldn’t have felt so decadently outdoors-y.
And one last tip, consider the pot in the bigger setting. Here’s one of our landscapes where the pot is a feature in its own right, but it also functions to link the garden and the deck space. In other words, don’t just create a great pot then wonder where you are going to put it. If you know where you’ll be placing it, and why, you’ll be able to make good decisions about the pot size and shape and about the plants to go in it.