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Breathe New Life into Your Patio with a Group of Container Gardens

A gardening expert shares her tips and tricks for an eye-catching combination of pots and plants.

Features Editor
container plants grevillea plicatilis portulacaria afra
Photography by: Caitlin Atkinson

Plants in containers have small footprints but make a big, beautiful impression. They’re a welcome sight at a front door, bring life to a back patio, and can even serve as a lush centerpiece on an outdoor table. Flora Grubb, owner of the eponymous nursery in San Francisco, shares her tips on creating and caring for potted displays, from choosing striking plant combinations to keeping them hydrated and happy.


[LEARN: How to make a container kitchen garden]


Three’s a Charm

Grubb chose a trio of plants that are interesting on their own -- feathery Grevillea ‘Peaches and Cream’, sculptural Aloe plicatilis, and Portulacaria afra ‘Variegata’ -- and potted them in complementary rust-colored and white containers to make a cohesive group.

container plant aloe striata
Photography by: Caitlin Atkinson

A Soft Palette

Aloe striata, with its peach edges and single bloom, sets the color scheme for this tabletop arrangement. Pencil-like Rhipsalis teres f. heteroclada, a chartreuse mat of Sedum ‘Fine Gold Leaf’, and rosettes of burgundy and sage echeveria complete the picture.

container plant filifera aurea
Photography by: Caitlin Atkinson

Easy Evergreens

Housed in an all-weather pot, these hardy dwarf conifers -- stately Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Habari’, yellow-green Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Filifera Aurea’, and light-green Cryptomeria japonica ‘Little Diamond’ -- can withstand even freezing temperatures.


[DISCOVER: 11 creative container garden ideas]

Contain Your Excitement

“A grouping of pots is a focal point -- a part of the landscape that you want to look good all the time,” says Grubb. Here’s how to create a dazzling display.


Choose a vessel

“Select your pot first,” says Grubb. “It’s your investment, and you’ll have it even as plants come and go.” Take a photo of where you want to set your containers and bring it to the nursery. “Put something in the picture for scale, like a measuring tape set to the size you’d like the pot to be,” she says. Don’t be afraid to go big. Large pots make a statement, and most plants are happier in them in the long run. Plus, a small container will need more frequent watering. Also consider color, shape, and material (most ceramics, for example, can’t handle frost). And make sure it has at least one good hole for drainage.


Pick plants

Go for varieties that will work with your conditions. Flowers are fleeting, so Grubb prefers plants like acacia and cotinus for their foliage. Nurseries are full of an amazing array of colors and textures, “but show restraint -- not everything is beautiful together,” she says. “Choose one plant that speaks to you.” Then build the rest of the pot around its colors and textures. Also think about how the light will hit them at home: “Plants can look different in sun or shade.” If your pots will be under a porch, for instance, move your picks to a shady spot to see how they look before buying.


Help them thrive

Use organic potting soil when planting. Top-dress containers with compost or more soil at least annually, and water thoroughly. To promote deep root growth, place a hose on a very slow trickle in the pot, and let the water be slowly absorbed until it starts running out the bottom. For lush and robust plants, Grubb pinches back new growth frequently. “It’s an unsung gardening technique,” she says, that keeps them from getting leggy. Every year, clear the drainage hole by tipping back the planter and poking through it with a screwdriver.


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