Bill Shores is a garden designer specializing in space-efficient edible/ornamental gardens. He can be reached at

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Designing Mini-gardens Using Potted Plants
by Bill Shores       #Containers

Container gardening is so enjoyable because of its possibilities for creative expression. There is an almost endless variety of ways to design and use containers. For example, in a classic design, a container is filled with a pleasing arrangement of plants with differing heights, textures and colors. This method can result in stunning arrangements; however, it does have limitations.

Red and orange ornamental peppers spice up this arrangement, surrounded by yellow French marigolds, red geraniums, Swiss chard and the perennial pink-flowering turtlehead (Chelone).

Why not expand on the classic container method and make a larger ensemble of plants? Something we could call a “mini-garden” made up of any number of potted plants arranged in a pleasing way. These mini-gardens offer the same creative potential as the single classic container but with added advantages: a more natural, cohesive feel, greatly increased visual impact and the option to rearrange the mini-garden as the season progresses.

Another advantage is that plants in a mini-garden  have plenty of room to grow in their own container, which allows for larger and lusher growth. In addition, plants that are placed together in a cluster will create their own microclimate, protecting each other from wind and extreme heat or cold.

To make a mini-garden, start by choosing an existing feature to serve as a backdrop. Good features include a wall or corner, a large potted plant such as a tree, a column or perhaps a shelf mounted on a wall. Potted plants of different heights are arranged to form a base or backdrop. Adding potted plants around the base mimics the way that living systems build up in nature around base with features such as ponds, boulders and trees.

Choose plants with different heights, placing the larger plants towards the back with medium plants in the middle and smaller ones along the front. However, avoid rigidity in placing plants by height. Using layered plants of different types will make for a casual, naturalistic arrangement. As needed, add several containers of the same or similar plant for more cohesion and order, and to avoid an overly busy arrangement.

For a more formal look, use deliberate repetition such as a ring of potted specimens of the same plant around a larger pot. If space allows, this formal center could be flanked by more casually placed plants around the sides. Feel free to change it up, move things around or switch out plants as needed until you get the desired effect.

Pay attention to the design and colors of the containers as these will form part of the design. It can be fun to make a mini-garden using pots of the same colors. Plants that have attractive tops but long, leggy stems such as dracaena work well in mini-gardens as mid-sized plants can be placed in the arrangement to hide the bare stem. Another way to provide a pleasing layer is to place some of the mid-to-small size pots on bricks to achieve the desired height.

Be sure to pay attention to light conditions. Generally, it is best to use plants with similar light needs. For example, make a shade mini-garden using a variety of shade-tolerant plants. That said, some of the plants in the back of the mini-garden may be in partial to full shade when they’re part of larger, more complex arrangements that are ostensibly in the full sun.

Once you get started on using container designs, you will discover the many advantages and delights they provide. You may then decide to make mini-gardens a key part of your container gardening toolkit.


Photo Gallery

With a touch of red against a collection of chartreuse-leaved houseplants, this shady back porch comes alive. The tall striped dracaena ‘Song of India’ anchors the display, surrounded by caladiums, a wood fern, syngonium, calathea and ‘Gartenmeister’, a red-orange blooming fuchsiasu. The ever-invasive mint is kept under control in a blue pot on the left.

A large container grouping needs a large plant as an anchor or center  of attention. Here  that role is played by the giant banana plant (Musa spp.)  that towers over  an assortment of red-leaved caladiums, snake plant (Sanseviera spp.)  and others.

A collection of cascading greens is transformed into a living sculpture against by a nondescript beige wall, accented by simple rough-hewn stone shelving.


A version of this article appeared in print in Chicagoland Gardening Volume XXII Issue I. Photography by Bill Shores.


Posted: 02/19/16   RSS | Print


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