Whether you've got one pot or a dozen, these care and design rules apply.
succulents in terra cotta pots on bench
Credit: Caitlin Atkinson

You've got a pretty new planter and some potting soil, and now you're ready to buy the plants. But with so many choices available, it's hard to know which to pick. Take a look at some of the tips below, and you'll go to your local garden-supply store confident and ready to start creating singular containers that work well with your patio, deck, backyard, or wherever you want a touch of nature.

Choose the perfect pots for your space

Approach selecting containers like shopping for a sofa. What you grow may change (think throw pillows), but your pots should be sound investments that last for seasons. Start with a palette, like varying shades of warm terra-cotta or cool, steely grays, then assemble a variety of heights and shapes to keep things visually interesting, like the vignette of clay vessels shown above.

If you live in a cold climate, you'll need to move clay or ceramic pieces inside in winter (or empty and wrap them in a waterproof tarp or plastic), as the freeze-and-thaw cycle will cause cracks or breaks. One exception is pots made from Italian Impruneta clay, which are frost-resistant.

Additionally, make sure the pots you choose have drainage holes. To prevent soil from pouring out, loosely cover each hole with pottery shards or a square of screening material, and clear out any debris annually so it doesn't get clogged.

container garden with thriller, filler, and spiller plants
Credit: Noe DeWitt

Pick your plants wisely

Now, decide what to grow. Consult tags to determine species and cultivars that will flourish in your space, such as moisture lovers or sun worshippers. Within the proper cohort, pick a color scheme—and consider the hue and texture of the foliage, not just flowers, which may only appear for a short time. For a showstopping composition, try this foolproof formula: Cast a "thriller," or standout variety, as your focal point, like the bold elephant ear, seen here. Then add "filler," something that will occupy gaps and round out the space (in the above case, lavender scaevola). Last, pick a "spiller"—the trailing or vining types that cascade over the pot's edge (here, golden creeping Jenny and silvery dichondra). Once you've chosen your trio at the nursery, view it in a sunny or shady spot, depending on where you plan to display it, before buying.

Space your plants correctly

How you space the plants in a single container differs from planting in a garden—keep plants much closer together in planters. In fact, the New York Botanical Garden says that you can grow twice as many plants in the same amount of garden space.

Pay attention to proportion

Small containers call for small plants, just as larger containers call for larger plants—you'd never plant a huge tree in a tiny pot, right? A plant in a too-small container will become root-bound and will eventually dry out; in a too-big pot, the plant may get root rot. When you need to transfer a plant to a larger container, use one that is two to four inches wider in diameter.

Use the right soil for your plants

Choose an organic potting blend geared to what you're growing. If you're planting cacti, for instance, use a well-draining mix designed for succulents so the roots don't get soggy and rot. Post-planting, water thoroughly and regularly, typically when the top one to two inches of soil are dry. Since container-grown plants don't get nutrients from the ground, feed them every few weeks with organic fertilizer, like fish emulsion. And at least once a year, replenish containers with more potting soil and top-dress them with nourishing compost.


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