Cluster Your Containers
More is better
By: P. Allen Smith
Are you looking for an easy way to add an instant touch of warmth and charm to your house, deck, or patio? Cluster several containers of colorful flowers and foliage near your entrance and in your outdoor living areas to make a dramatic difference. Here’s how:
Choose the right container for your setting. Containers are available in every size, shape, and color. When making your selection, think about where they’ll be displayed and choose planters that complement the colors and style in the setting. For instance, bright orange terra-cotta pots may clash with a red brick house, while a gray concrete container would be harmonious.
Choose the right size. Make sure your pots are the right scale for where you intend to use them. Three 6-inch pots on a large front porch will go unnoticed and won’t make much impact, but those same pots might look perfectly at home in a rock-garden setting. Play the numbers game. Groups of containers tend to look better when clustered in odd numbers, such as three, five, or seven. But in some cases, a pair of stately pots at an entrance may be all you need.
Unify the collection. Select similar containers in similar colors to help the collection appear more unified. That doesn’t mean every pot needs to be identical, though—clusters of containers look best when pots share a similar style but have different diameters and heights. If you plan to use small pots in your collection, be aware that they’ll dry out faster than larger containers and may need to be watered several times a day in hot-summer climates.
Set the stage. Use clustered containers as design elements around your home. Next to steps, they can signal a change in elevation. Around entrances, they serve as focal points to draw you into a garden or onto a deck. They can dress up bare walls, conceal unsightly views, or soften empty corners. Placed rhythmically through a flower border or along the edge of a pool or patio, they offer a sense of cadence to your garden design. You can create a tiered arrangement by placing containers on top of sturdy overturned pots. The varying heights will add more dimension to the display.
Select the plants. As you choose flowers and foliage for the containers, keep in mind that small trees, shrubs, and perennials require tall containers for their deep roots. Annuals, on the other hand, often have fairly shallow roots and can thrive in smaller containers. Take note of the light conditions in the area and choose plants that grow best in those settings.
Think about color. Avoid creating a “botanical zoo” by assembling lots of individual specimens that don’t go together. Too many shades and shapes will appear chaotic and cluttered. It’s more effective to repeat a color or plant in the group to tie the composition together. Choose a color theme that works with the setting and stick with it. If the grouping is close to a garden, echo the garden’s color theme in your container design.
Keep in mind the color of the background behind the containers. White blooms in front of a white house won’t show up. For the boldest impact, use dark foliage and bright flowers against a light-colored house, and use light foliage and pastel flowers against a dark house.
Prepare your pots. Before you plant, make sure your containers have unobstructed drainage holes in the bottom. If they don’t, use a drill with a masonry bit to make new holes or expand existing ones. To keep soil from falling through the holes, place a small piece of window screen, a coffee filter, or broken pot shards over them. This will hold in the soil and still allow the water to drain out. If you need to place a saucer under your containers to protect decks and other surfaces, make sure you empty water from saucers to prevent roots from rotting and eliminate mosquito breeding grounds.
Keep the containers beautiful. Here’s how to get the most from your container plantings:
• If possible, place containers within reach of a hose. If they are in a sunny location, water at least once a day during the hot summer months.
• Assemble your pots where they’ll be displayed. That way, you won’t have to move them from one end of your garden to the other.
• Use a potting mix designed for containers. Don’t fill the pots with just garden soil or compost. Check the label for ingredients. The best mixes include lime to balance the pH, controlled-release fertilizer, and water-retaining polymers. If these aren’t part of the mix, you can buy them separately and mix them into the soil before filling pots.
• Mulch the top of the containers with shredded bark, gravel, or even small pinecones to dress up the pots and reduce moisture loss.
• When you select several different types of plants for one pot, make sure they all have the same sun and water requirements.
• No time to water? Investigate self-watering containers with built-in reservoirs, or find a drip irrigation system with emitters that water each container automatically when connected to a faucet with a timer.
• Check the plants regularly to nip problems in the bud. If a plant or container is harboring pests or disease, remove it immediately.
For a unified look, select containers that have the same style, but are different sizes.
P. Allen Smith (www.pallensmith.com) is a professional garden designer, host of two national TV programs, garden reporter for The Weather Channel, and author of P. Allen Smith’s Container Gardens (Clarkson Potter, 2005) and other books.