Daniel Keeley is an award-winning exterior designer and a regular contributor to numerous publications. He is an Arkansas native and works on diverse projects throughout Arkansas and across the country.

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Contained Expression
by Daniel Keeley       #Advice   #Containers   #Design


A pair of lipstick-red planters, planted with dome-shaped boxwood, adds height, color and a bold sense of style to this outdoor living space, while also creating a cozy nook for the sofa and framing the view to the green space beyond. The rectangular planters are planted with sheared boxwood hedges and help divide this space from another adjacent seating area, lending intimacy to both rooms.

The practice of container gardening has been around for hundreds, even thousands of years, with containers traditionally being used to house rare and exotic plant specimens, to allow tropical or cold-sensitive plants to be moved indoors for the winter, or to display arrangements of brightly colored, botanical overachievers. In any case, the plants they contained tended to be the emphasis rather than the containers themselves. In today’s modern gardening world, however, there are all kinds of different and exciting options when it comes to containers. Modern materials combine with bright colors and new, inventive designs to give us garden containers that can truly make a statement on their own, regardless of what is planted in them. This rising trend of using bold, architectural planters is the perfect way to express yourself and to add a stimulating new dimension to your garden and outdoor living spaces.

The texture and unique shape of this tall planter, along with a dramatic yucca plant, are the perfect finishing touches for the empty corner of an outdoor living space.

Pick It
The first step is to choose the perfect container. As with any project in the garden, I recommend first considering your home’s style and choosing a container to complement it. That is not to say that your planter selection necessarily has to match the style of your house. By design, modern-day architectural containers tend to be on the contemporary side, but they can still be right at home in a traditional setting. In fact, some of the most compelling design statements are made by contrasting different styles, for example, a sleek, brightly colored planter in an otherwise subdued, formal setting. In addition to complementing the style of your house, your container should also complement your own personal style and personality. After all, it is your statement we are making here!

Next, consider the size, shape and color of your container. In terms of size, you should err on the side of larger versus smaller since objects tend to appear smaller outdoors. Plus, a larger planter will be easier to keep watered, will give plants more room to grow and will make a bolder statement, and that is what we are trying to achieve! As a practical matter, you should also consider where your container will be located and choose one that is appropriately sized.

The same reasoning applies to choosing a particular shape. First and foremost, your planter should fit into the space it will occupy. Some other shape guidelines to keep in mind are that tall planters will add drama to a space and are good for flanking an entrance or framing a distant view. By contrast, shorter containers may allow for an uninterrupted view of something desirable and evoke a feeling of serenity. Similarly, planters with hard lines and sharp angles can make a particularly strong statement and are good for defining spaces, while round or curved containers may be more versatile and seem more inviting.

This sleek, oxblood red planter and variegated yucca plant add color, texture and excitement to a white-walled modern entry that is otherwise devoid of color.

When it comes to color, the matter is mostly one of personal preference, but also keep in mind any surrounding elements, such as flowering plants and building materials, and avoid any colors that might clash. To make a more powerful statement, pass on muted colors and earth tones and instead go for more powerful hues, such as primary colors, black or white. You might also consider the lightness or darkness of where your container will go. For example, a bright yellow planter will stand out and lighten up a dark, shady area, whereas a black or dark blue container may have little to no impact there.

Finally, think about the material choices available for your container. From resin and fiberglass, to modern metals, to stone and stone aggregates such as terrazzo, the material your container is made of will affect its texture, weight and durability in the face of exposure to the elements, as well as normal wear and tear.

Bronze-colored jars add to this home’s main entry. The metallic finish and waffle texture propel the jars’ impact beyond their relatively subtle color. Creeping juniper add an understated touch of greenery.

Place It
Closely connected to the process of choosing the perfect container is the process of determining where it will go and, therefore, where you will make your grand statement. The most important factor to remember here is prominence. To have the proper impact, your planter needs to be in a prominent location where it will not be overlooked. Some of my favorite ways to use architectural containers include the following:

Entryway: A pair or grouping of containers is a great way to add interest and a sense of importance to any entry, whether it is to your home, office or garden. You can even create an instant point of entry simply by placing a pair of matching containers at the outer edge of any given space.Focal Point: It is hard to get much more prominent than a singular focal point, and a compelling container makes a great one indeed. For the most impact, place yours in the middle of a space, at the end of a walkway or in line with a strong line of site from within your home.


Boundary: To be appealing and to function properly, every space needs boundaries, and architectural planters (particularly squares and rectangles) are perfect for defining spaces.


A series of strong-lined rectangular planters helps define a patio boundary, drawing a distinct line between living space and landscape. The contrast of the planters’ form to the rolling hills of the pastoral scene beyond adds to their impact.


A sleek, bowl-shaped planter filled with a sculptural yucca and seasonal flowers reinforces the architectural statement made by this home’s pergola-covered entry.

Plant It
Many of you are avid plant lovers, I know, and are probably saying, “Can we get to the plant in planter already?” Well, don’t worry; we are here! And not to burst your bubble, but one of the best things about bold, architectural containers is that almost doesn’t matter what plant or plants you choose, since the container makes such a statement all by itself. But this also means that you can choose any number of plants that might interest you and the impact your container has will be just as powerful regardless of your area’s climate or gardening zone. Here are just a few things to keep in mind: As always, choose plants that are appropriate for the amount of sunlight or shade to which they will be exposed. Also consider a plant’s form and decide whether you want to ramp up the drama of your architectural planter with an equally structural planting or tone it down with something soft and subtle. Finally, go back to the color you chose for your container and pick plants that will be complementary.


A version of this article appeared in a March 2012 print edition of State-by-State Gardening.
Photography courtesy of Daniel Keeley.


Posted: 12/19/16   RSS | Print


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