Lynda Heavrin is the manager of landscape and horticulture at the Fort Wayne Parks and Recreation in Fort Wayne. She can be reached at

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Colorful Containers for Sun and Shade
by Lynda Heavrin    

Container plantings are so much fun to design because they give you much more flexibility. You can put them in areas where it is difficult to plant a flower bed, you can make a bold statement with only one container or you can place several as accents throughout your landscape.

Photo courtesy of Proven winners
A spring container filled with pansies, primroses and more.

It is wonderful to be a plant and gardening addict. I love to spend my vacation days traveling to gardens learning about new plants, seeing new designs and finding creative ways to use plants. So as I discuss containers it will be a culmination of what I have found in my travels. As a true plant geek I get most excited when I find a container planting that makes me say “Wow!” Sometimes it is the mix of plants, sometimes the colors used and other times it is the setting.

As I designed annual flower beds and container plantings for commercial properties my questions to prospective clients were:

•  What are you trying to achieve?
•  Why do you want a floral display?
•  How are people going to view the flowers?
•  Who is responsible for care?

The answers to these questions determined the placement and type of container and the color and types of plants chosen. 

Although I am discussing containers and not large floral displays, the design principals of function, proportion, form, style, color and texture, are just as important. So answer the above questions and let’s get started. 

Photo courtesy of Lynda Heavrin
Shade also creates limits and invites you to be more creative. Take advantage of tropical and attractive foliage plants such as the Alocasia sp. and Lamiastrum sp. in this container. You will never have to worry about deadheading in this container.

Start with the Potting Mix

Planting a container seems simple—find a nice-looking pot, put some plants in it and voila, you have a beautiful container. But to be successful a beautiful container is a healthy container and success begins with good soil. You need a soil that holds water but is light enough that it will drain. My favorite soil for containers is a mix of one-half of any inexpensive topsoil and one-half of a peat-based mix.

Fertilize Regularly

Often the limiting factor for the health of the plants in a container is the soil—there is actually very little of it and as the plants grow, there is less and less. There are some nutrients in soil, and usually some with the plants you’ve purchased, but those nutrients are soon used up. Container plantings must be fertilized and the type of fertilizer you use is less important than just remembering to use it. A slow-release fertilizer added to the potting mix at the time of planting is the easiest method. Or you can use a water-soluble fertilizer. The brand of water-soluble fertilizer is less important than remembering to feed every two weeks.

Choose the Right Vessel

The type and style of container you choose is as important as the plants. Containers do not have to be expensive or excessively decorative, but they must be clean and in good shape. They can be any shape or size and made of many possible materials but the material affects the care needed. Clay allows the passage of air to the root zone and will dry out the soil sooner than glazed, plastic or fiberglass pots. If you are one to skimp on watering, clay pots are not for you. 

Left: The large container in this photo illustrates a principal of floral design where the material used should be at least one-third the height of the container. The tall blue salvia and Angelonia sp. in this container provide the height while the Ageratum sp. fills in the center and the petunia spills over the edge. The one-third rule also applies to white in a floral display where white should be only one-third of the total color used. Below: A large area can also be accented by groups of containers. The brick is a perfect backdrop for a grouping of multiple-sized clay pots planted in a monochromatic scheme. Here the only flower color is white but it is very striking.
Photos by Lynda Heavrin

Photo courtesy of Lynda Heavrin
The decorative lettuce in these containers will be short-lived through the heat of summer but worth the effort. I do not know the size of this lettuce when it was first planted but no one wants to wait all summer for containers to look finished. So plan on using larger plants when planting your containers and fill it up.

Go Big 

The area you want to accent will determine the size, quantity and decoration of the containers. If you are placing a container in a large space you may use one large container or several smaller containers of varying sizes. A mistake I’ve seen, and one that I have made myself, is to skimp in container size. Containers can be expensive and purchasing a smaller one seems practical and cost-effective. However, to have that “Wow” effect the container must stand out. It is almost impossible to get a container too large for any particular space. 

Point of View

How will your containers be viewed? Will you be looking at the container from a distance or walking up to it every time you enter your home? If it is from a distance you will want to use bold, bright colors with less variation in texture which will stand out in the distance. If you will be viewing your containers up close you have the freedom of using more subtle colors and more textures because you will be able to discern the differences. 

Plants Galore

I could include a long list of plants I have observed used successfully in containers but I do not want any plant list to be limiting. Instead I suggest you experiment. Take these suggestions and design principals to create your own “Wow” containers.

From Indiana Gardening Volume II Issue II.


Posted: 04/24/13   RSS | Print


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