Notes on container gardening from a haphazard gardener

Our pot-covered patio table.
People often ask me questions about container gardening and I have to confess right off the bat that I am no expert when it comes to growing plants in pots. I much prefer taking care of in-ground plants. They are much more forgiving. I do admire beautiful containers overflowing with colorful flowers and eye-catching combinations and I admire the people who grew them because I know that they are a lot of work! They require attention and diligence.

"Bonfire" begonia, gomphrena, Euphorbia "Diamond Frost"

Every year I tell myself that I am not going to plant as many containers as I normally do. Then I proceed to not only plant as many as I did the previous year but I usually add more. My intentions are good. Containers fill in areas that need focal points and they add much needed color in the mid-summer when not much is blooming in the garden. When I'm planting the containers on a cool, pleasant spring day, I can easily convince myself that I will be up to the task of caring for them all summer long. No problem! Then the heat sets in and then the drought and when it is 105 outside and I'd rather be on the sofa under the air conditioner instead of sweating outside getting them watered, I'm silently cussing myself out.

So I've learned one thing although I don't stick to it - only plant as many containers as you are capable of caring for. Yeah right. Other things that I have learned and I adhere to:

Choosing a Container

This one is easy - anything can be used as a planting container as long at it will hold the soil and drain well. Drainage is important - there must be an exit for water to leave the container or you will end up with a dead plant. We have all kinds of pots and containers in our garden- terra cotta, concrete, urns, wall planters, statuary, trays, baskets, you name it. An old chandelier that Michael made into a planter always gets comments -

Chandelier planter with Begonia "Dragon Wing" and Sweet Potato Vine "Marguerite"

One of my favorite planters sits above my beloved Pan statue. Believe it or not, the planter did not come with the statue. We lucked out when we found the planter at Home Depot. It not only sits perfectly above Pan's head, it is the same color as the statue.

Impatiens, Million Bells and Fushia "Gartenmeister Bonstedt"
Getting it Planted

It is advisable to buy a professional planting mix (or you can mix your own if you have the time to do that). These soil mixes are light and some come with fertilizer mixed in. Some claim that they are more moisture retentive than others. Whatever the case, don't use regular garden soil that you have dug up from the garden for your containers. Potting soils can be expensive so if you have a huge pot, consider filling the bottom portion with rocks or other type of filler. (For more tips, check out the comments to this post). Most plants (especially annuals) will not have deep roots and the extra soil at the bottom of the container is just a waste of money. Unlike in the ground, plants can be placed close or right next to each other. After planting, place a layer of mulch around the plants. I prefer pine bark but sometimes use pine straw or pea gravel. After planting, water well, preferably with a water soluble plant fertilizer.

Begonia "Dragon Wing", Coleus, Angelonia

How you arrange your plants in the container is strictly up to you. If you are creating a mixed planting, the popular method referred to as "Thriller, Filler, Spiller" is a good rule of thumb. The "thriller" plant will be a taller upright plant that is placed either at the back of the planter or in the center. The "filler" plant is a lower growing plant that fills out the planter (such as Euphorbia "Diamond Frost"). And finally, the "Spiller" is a plant that will cascade over the side, such as Creeping Jenny.

This planter in downtown Florence demonstrates the "Thriller, Filler, Spiller" method
with Arborvitae, coleus and petunias
Of course, there is nothing wrong with using only one plant in a container, especially if it is small.

The location of the planter will affect your plant choices. If you have a planter in a harsh location, such as full sun and surrounded by concrete, you want to choose tough plants. The following planter is at Michael's Salon. He loves portulaca which is a good thing because it is a plant that likes hot weather and can endure the heat and drought. Still, regular watering and fertilizing will keep it looking its best.

Portulaca and Angelonia

Creeping Jenny, Calibrachoa, Spike Plant
The above combination was used two years ago in the same planter. It looked good for most of the summer although the creeping jenny suffered a bit during the really hot weather.

When choosing plant colors, consider what is in the vicinity of the container. If a plant is nearby, try to choose a color for the container that is either complimentary (contrasting colors) or analagous (neighboring colors) with it. The same goes for the colors and textures of walls, furniture or other objects.

The dark purple of the Wishbone Flower (Torenia) is analagous with the blue color of the "Endless Summer" hydrangea in the background.
This urn of purple petunias sits in front of a "Buff Beauty" rose which has yellow and gold blooms.
The two colors contrast nicely together

Calibrachoa and Ribbon Grass

Keep them looking good!

Now here is the hard part - you've got to maintain the darn things! That means regular watering, which can sometimes be daily when the temperatures climb into the 90s and we don't get rain. Test the soil with your finger before watering - if it feels dry, you need to water. You will also learn the needs of individual plants and find that some need more water than others. A pot of impatiens may need watering every day in hot weather whereas a pot of portulaca or sedum can get by on one or two waterings per week. Observe your plants closely, they will tell you what they need!


Pot bound plants need more fertilizer than plants in the ground because potting mixes loose their nutrients faster. Even if I'm using a potting mix with fertilizer already mixed in, I always water with a liquid fertilizer like Miracle Gro about once per week. Some people use liquid fertilizers at half the strength and use them every time they water. This is okay too but if you have lots of containers, boy is it a lot of work! I try to fertilize on the same day every week, the way I water houseplants. This helps me to remember to do it.

Pinching spent blooms and general grooming and upkeep will keep your container plants looking good.

Impatiens, Begonia, Dracena Spike Plant
I have learned what plants do relatively well in containers and I use the same ones year after year. I will usually experiment with a new plant or two as well. Some of my favorites:

Begonia "Bonfire"
Begonia "Dragon Wing"
Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia)
Dicondra "Silver Falls"

Mexican Heather (Cuphea hyssopifolia)
Million Bells (Calibrachoa)
Periwinkle (Vinca)
Purple Heart (Tradescantia pallida)
Purslane and Portulaca
Sweet Potato Vine

Good luck with your containers this year and let me know if you have any tips to share.

Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy


  1. Great post! I have a "thing" for Pan and I'm wondering who makes/where you got that wonderful statue of him? It certainly was your lucky day when you got the matching planter!

  2. Great post, Phillip. And I love those photos you've added, especially that repurposed chandelier. I've got a garden lamp planted with orchids (just took the glass off the sides and popped the plant in). Now it has grown so much that none of the metal-work can be seen at all. spectacular in bloom!

  3. I just love these containers, Phillip!!
    They are like works of art with the added bonus of beautiful flowers or plants.
    I would love to have some around my house.

    gerri XXX

  4. A good tutorial about pots Phillip. I like your examples. Pan is a handsome dude. How lucky was that to find a matching pot.

  5. Yours are all so beautiful Phillip! I hear ya!!! Lots of work but if you can keep them going they are such a joy. For the container fillers I use things like upside down plastic single pots that the flowers came in, soda cans or even plastic grocery bags (although they sometimes sink so you really have to mush them down). I'm no expert either but so far so good. Sometimes keeping them close to each other is a good way when it's really hot to keep them all watered...but where's the beauty in that!! hahaha! A wonderful and informative post!! Thanks Phillip!

  6. A good way to use up space in the bottom of a large container of annuals (and some perennials depending on roots) is to collect empty milk jugs and water bottles, don't collapse them and put them up to about 8" from the top. I put the milk jugs in first and then fill up with the smaller bottles until I'm satisfied. Then I put a piece of plastic or garden cloth with drainage holes in it and then the potting soil. Helps the dirt stay in and helps moisture retention. The container is light and easy to move wherever the plants are needing to be. Happy gardening!

  7. I have learned by the trial and death method of which plants I personally can successfully keep in pots. I agree that in the ground is waaaay easier, but pots definitely make a garden look a lot better when in the mix.

  8. Thanks for all the great tips! I love how container plants can brighten up the deep green of summer, but you are right about the watering and upkeep! I have two, smallish concrete urns that belonged to my parents. I like the look of where they are located, but I have had a hard time finding anything that will survive the intense heat of the concrete in summer sun. I'm not a portulaca fan, but maybe that is the plant to try.

  9. I love the 'Bonfire' begonia; the flowers remind me of fuchsias. I have so many baby plants and divisions on the front porch that I never plant containers although they can be such great additions.

  10. Thanks for all the interesting tips!

  11. This is super-helpful, though I wish I'd known this BEFORE I'd killed a lot of plants! Ah well.

    That Pan planter really is terrific.

  12. I like the post, Phillip, and appreciate the information. Paul keeps warning me that if I want container plants, I must stay at home to take care of them. I plant
    several and then leave the country for about a month!

  13. Those are amazing containers to start with and you've planted them very well. I wish I could use smaller containers throughout the garden, but they dry out too easily here with our wind. I have to go bigger for most containers. Thank you for a great post.

  14. I use the moisture crystals which can be hard to find around here in all of my containers. One that I bury I'll poke a hole in the planting mix and drop some in. Mary

  15. Great post! I use a lot of containers on my deck to try and make it more garden-like. A few years ago Dale installed a pot watering system I bought at Lowes. The main tube runs under the deck, and there are smaller tubes that connect to tiny sprinklers in the pots. I added an automatic timer, and now all my plants get watered every morning while I'm still in bed.

  16. Beautiful and inspirational!

  17. Thanks, lot's of useful information and your pictures are beautiful by the way!

  18. Wow! I would use your list of plants and start incorporating some of them in my containers. I pretty much have uniform containers that I think I should vary them as well for the effect. Thanks for the GREAT tips!


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