How to Create a Spectacular Container Garden in 7 Easy Steps

Looking for drama on a shady front porch? If the answer is yes, here’s something easy and fun to do—create a shade-tolerant container garden that combines long-blooming flowers with bold-textured foliage plants. If you’re not sure how to begin, follow these tips.

1. Choose a container

Select a container that suits your taste and your home. I’ve seen gorgeous plantings in both grand cast-stone Campania urns and in lightweight fiberglass or composite containers—I use both types at home. Note that the heavier your container, the harder it will be to move the final planting. Take care when lifting, particularly when the container is made of cast stone or concrete.

2. Check for drainage 

Ensure there is at least one hole in the bottom of the container before buying it. If there’s no hole, you can drill one. Worried that soil will come out of the pot when you water it? Place a paper towel or paper filter over the hole before adding the potting soil.

3. Choose a potting soil

I prefer Coast of Maine’s Bar Harbor Blend, which contains compost, lobster shells, peat, seaweed, old bark, and perlite. This relatively light, compost-based mixture, which contains no actual soil, is rich in organic matter, which helps root systems thrive.

4. Buy your plants

Mother’s Day weekend is a popular time to fill planters in much of New England, although the last frost date is typically in mid-May. If frost is predicted, move planted containers into the garage. Choose sun-loving plants for a sunny open deck and shade lovers for containers in darker areas. Check the plant tags or ask your local nursery expert if you’re not sure.

Spectacular container garden
This bold, classic planting will be a focal point on a shady deck or patio. To create this design at home, select Canary Wings Begonia, Kong Jr Scarlet Coleus, Jurassic Silver Swirl Rex Begonia, dracaena or spike plant, and a tropical bromeliad. Photo courtesy of Ball Horticultural Company.

5. Design your planting

If you’re not sure what to do, you can start with the classic formula of thriller, filler, and spiller. The number of plants depends upon the size of your container. A thriller is typically a tall plant such as a dracaena spike placed in the center of the pot. If you’re setting the container against a wall, the thriller may be more effective set in the center towards the back of the container.

Fillers are plants grown at midlevel around the thriller; they add substance and bulk to the design. Spillers are visually the lowest level of the planting and typically have a spreading habit. As they grow, they drape over the edge of the pot, softening the appearance of the rim and hiding the soil.

6. Start planting 

Fill the container about halfway with potting soil, tamping gently. Take plants out of their nursery pots and set on the potting medium so the top of the rootballs are about 1 inch below the rim of the container. Fill in spaces around the rootballs with more potting soil, tamping lightly as you go.

7. Water slowly and gradually

Using a hose or watering can, moisten the potting mix until water starts to drain out the bottom of the pot. To avoid damaging tender plants and ruining the top layer of soil, it’s best to drip the water gently, pausing and then repeating the process until water runs out the drainage hole. Use an organic liquid fertilizer with regularity to feed your container garden. Follow package directions, and you’ll be rewarded with healthy, handsome, disease-resistant plants to enjoy throughout the growing season.

Penny O’Sullivan is the author of numerous books on gardening topics that serve to educate gardeners—both novice and seasoned—on various garden and landscape design challenges. Her most recent book, The Homeowner’s Complete Tree & Shrub Handbook: the Essential Guide to Choosing, Planting, and Maintaining Perfect Landscape Plants can be found on Amazon.


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