Skip to Content

Planting above ground containers affords gardening aficionados tremendous flexibility in what can be grown verses in the ground garden beds that may be limited by location and light exposure. Anything that grows in the earth can be grown in containers of suitable size. You have endless site selection; in most cases you can easily move containers around, from shady to sunny locations, following the sun so to speak. This is especially useful for growing vegetables when sunny locations are scarce in your yard. Conversely, you can make terrific shady garden motifs to beautify entrances, decks, and patios not blessed with a lot of sunshine. Many folks plant up lettuce and herb bowls to keep outside their kitchen doors for easy daily harvesting of fresh leafy greens. Others grow smaller tomato varieties in nearby containers; cherry tomato varieties being a favorite, the possibilities are virtually endless.

Container Selection:

When planting container gardens, your first concern should be the pots. You want to select something attractive that’s large enough to accommodate what you’re thinking about planting; Color, shape, and size are important. Let’s say you’re selecting a decorative pair of urns or matching pots for your front entrance; you want the containers to be proportional, not too large and not too tall. On the other hand, deck and patio planters may be as varied as your imagination. Tying them together visually creates an attractive, well thought-out theme that blends nicely with your house.

You will find containers available in many different materials such as wood, metal, plastic, ceramic, clay, and concrete.  Based on your needs, you may want to consider if they can withstand the vigor’s of being moved around and support the size and type of the plants chosen for them. Make sure you select containers that have good drainage. Once planted, they should never sit on a flat surface because a “water seal” can form. Their bases should be elevated so that water can easily escape out the drainage holes and allow air (oxygen) to penetrate up into their base. This can be accomplished by purchasing decorative “feet” that hold planters up and in place. A couple of bricks strategically placed works fine too. Outdoors, I do not recommend using saucers, without feet elevating the pot, because they fill with water creating a waterlogged situation. Oxygen can’t get in, the soil goes anaerobic and root rot sets in.

Potting Medium:

Generally speaking, you want to use a good quality potting mixture when planting container gardens. It‘s important that the one you select is light and airy enough to breathe while providing support for the roots and have sufficient moisture retention to sustain your plants during the summer months. There’s a balance you want to achieve; you don’t want to water too frequently because that leaches out nutrients. It can also prevent air from penetrating down into the roots and the release of carbon dioxide which is critical. You want the potting mix to dry at reasonable intervals.  We offer our own Van Putte Gardens Premium Potting Mix. It’s a complete mix with moisture control and fertilizer for an exceptional “all-in-one” potting medium that’s great for virtually any container planting job you may have.

Tricks for Planting:

Let’s say you have a favorite set of concrete urns that drain, but not well as you’d like; plant your flowers into plastic “grower’s pots” sized to fit down into the urns. This allows them to drain while allowing air to get into their roots. Very large pots or containers like ½ whiskey barrels with drainage holes can be partially filled with Styrofoam packing peanuts which are then covered with a disk of landscape fabric. This lightens the load while holding potting medium in place, allowing for good drainage and aeration.

Another trick to avoid having to fill large containers with potting soil (making them very heavy) is to set several inverted grower’s pots into them prior to filling. This displaces soil volume while allowing for good drainage and aeration. This will lighten them considerably and makes it easier to move them at will. Smaller containers should have the soil column extend to the bottom of the pot. Use a piece of screen repair or other permeable material over the drainage holes to prevent soil from washing out.  Do not plant into containers that have no drainage holes because they’ll fill with water after a typical summer rain and their soil will become putrefied.

Compatible Neighbors:

Once you’ve selected the appropriate containers and potting mixture, it’s time to look at what kind of plants you’ll need based upon your design. Mixing sizes, textures, shapes, and colors can be challenging and fun. The first thing I’d recommend is determining the direction your creation is going to be viewed from. Remember that you’re working in 3 dimensions so think of creating a pyramid shape above your container. Its orientation can be centered, skewed to the left, to the right, or low in front and taller in the rear. Eye movement from point to point in an arrangement is a central theme in floral designs; this creates interest and excitement in container gardens. Knowing how much sunlight the area receives is critical for your plant selection, you’ll want compatible ones that have similar light and water requirements. Make sure that the plants you select for your containers will get along, that they won’t crowd each other out.


A typical example might be of a matching pair of round containers for a sunny “front stoop” that are seen from the street. They’d look great planted with the emphasis moving from front to rear. Start with something cascading like alyssum inter-mixed with other flowing specimens like ivy, potato vine, periwinkle, or creeping jenny, for the front and sides.  This breaks up the plain top of the container. Then follow-up inside the middle with taller, intermediate sized plants, like begonias, marigolds, sun-patients, geraniums or celosia. Taller plants should be centered toward the back of your planters like a Cordyline, Dracaena spike, Canna, or an ornamental grass. This will make for a stunning display that’s attractive, nicely fills the containers, and draws the viewer’s eye from bottom (front and sides) up towards the center and rear of your planters.

CenterIn between Circumference

Remember that symmetry and balance are important so matching planters should look alike. Depending upon your container size and location, you could use a small hibiscus tree, tree peony, or tree rose as the central point of interest in each container and then work down and out with descending heights. If the planters are being viewed from all sides, like those placed on either side of a front walkway, then you might plant in concentric circles with the taller plant in the center surrounded by intermediate height plants which are, in turn, surrounded with the lower cascading flowers or vines.

Endless Color possibilities:

The possibilities are endless when it comes to the colors and textures you select. Selecting colors that are analogous (next to each on the color wheel) helps to draw the viewer’s eye in a particular direction from the lighter hues toward darker ones. Complementary colors (those opposite each other on a color wheel) tend to “pop” and evoke a sense of good structure and design in arrangements. Warm colors evoke excitement and energy where as cooler colors give a sense of serenity and calm. Textures such as larger flowers and leaves tend to be louder and more forceful where smaller ones appear softer and more delicate.

I personally enjoy playing with the viewer’s perspective by planting with a height gradient that spirals upward, either clockwise or counter clockwise, using varying heights of similar plants within a analogous color scheme. I also like to use transitional color gradients within the same color family or hue. I may start along the bottom with a dark purple potato vine or dark green myrtle with purple flowers and move up to a burgundy colored sedum or ageratum, transitioning up to dark pink Sun patients and pink dahlias, up to pink cosmos and then up to a taller light pink celosia in the center. This draws the viewer’s eye in a particular direction while coordinating the color hues and patterns; the container planter “tells a story” if you will.

Container gardens and planters afford gardeners tremendous flexibility and variation in design. They can be effectively used alone, in pairs or groupings; and placed in, on or around existing “in the ground” garden beds to add dimension, additional space opportunities or punctuation. Remember; if you like your creation, chances are good

your neighbors will too!

Success with your Gardening, Naturally!

Written by Rick Stecher, Garden Center Manager

Resource Center

Custom Potting

Bring in your favorite container or purchase one from our store, and we can assist you with creating your own unique seasonal container.

Custom Potting
Disease & Pest ID

Our experienced Green Thumb staff have got you covered to provide disease and pest identification and solutions

Disease & Pest ID
Soil pH Testing

We provide FREE soil testing at our garden center. Testing your soil for the proper pH levels will help you grow healthier lawns and gardens all year round.

Soil pH Testing
Delivery & Planting

We’ll bring it to you! Take advantage of our delivery and planting services.

Delivery & Planting
Van Putte Gardens Blog

Let’s talk gardening! Our seasoned green thumb staff love to share gardening tips, tricks and industry trends.

Visit the Blog