A Native Garden

Container Gardening

Gardening in containers is a way to expand your cultivation areas and experience.  By placing a beautifully planted container on a hardscaped location it will transform a sterile environment into a welcoming area.  A delicate plant can be grown by placing it where the conditions are agreeable and then if the conditions change, the plant can be relocated.  You can re-decorate your patio, entry or garden by changing your containers or the plants in them.  Containers allow you to visually combine plants which wouldn’t grow well together in the ground.


Key elements of a successful container


Most plants are not aquatic so therefore your container must be able to drain.  Most plants like the soil to de damp around roots but will drown if left in standing water. 


The container must be large enough to contain it’s roots and allow for some future growth.  However it also shouldn’t be too large for the plant.  The container should be at least as large as what the plant is currently growing in but only about 1/3 larger if you are moving to a different container.   If you are combining several plants they can be neighborly but leave some room to fill in.


A successful container will have plants with all the key design elements.  Shape, texture, color, form and scale are vital.  Think thrill, fill and spill.  Use your color wheel and remember to think in odd numbers.  One, threes or fives of plants in a pot or the number of pots grouped together are most pleasing.


Opposite growing conditions do not attract wows.  It’s like planning a successful party. Combine plants that have similar interests.  Shade lovers might look pretty next to the sun crowd but unless you can provide some shelter it won’t be happy for long.  The same is true for watering conditions.  If you were to think that the dry loving cactus looked interesting surrounded by the moisture loving moss, sooner or later one will revolt.  You can however group pots of water lovers next to containers of arid loving plants for a wonderful effect.


Pots will get hotter and dry more quickly than plants in the ground and there is also often more reflected light which can intensify how much sun the plant is receiving.  The time of year will also affect how much sun or rain a container will receive.  You may need to re-locate your containers with the time of year to give them the best growing situation.



Good design practices will improve your success with containers.  Remember to look at the scale of the container and the plants you want to use.  If your plant is spectacular do you need anything else?  What accessories will enhance this plant?  The addition of supporting plants, rocks and twigs can be quite lovely so have some on hand to audition your arrangement.  Start with either a plant or pot that you want to feature.  Do not try to have too many elements together.  A simple pot with a spectacular plant display or a fabulous container with a simple plant, are usually more successful than trying to pair both in one container.  Think bonsai the pots are very simple allowing the viewer to focus on the plant.  A powerful plant combination looks best in a sleek vase giving the observer the opportunity to study the plants without being distracted by the container.  When you have a container and you know where you want to display it.  Study the environment around the location.  Will the sun beat down on it all summer?  Is it in shade most of the day?   Choose a plant pallet that will embrace these conditions.


graphics1Focal point

Clearly identify your star and make sure the rest of your elements are in supporting roles.  Give the viewer a specific thing to look at, a tall pot, a bright color or amazing texture.  Then you can embellish with contrasting colors, textures and shapes.  



native plantsFountain and fan shapes – look for plants which make a fountain or fireworks shape they are quite lovely and can be used alone or in a bouquet arrangement.  Many grasses are available like Muhlenbergia rigens and capillaris, Nassella tenuissima, Nolina, festuca glauca and Ophiopogon planiscapus 'nigrescens' are all lovely.  You can also find many Yuccas and agaves like yucca palida and agave tequilana and attenuate Hesperaloe.  Dietes Iridaceae and phormiums provide a fountain shape with a softer appearance than the grasses or agave. Russelia equisetiformis is also quite lovely

For fan shapes think palms or bearded iris. native bushes

Rosette – Look for plants which form a rosette, they are always interesting and can often be used alone.  Several succulents fit the bill nicely, dudleya pulverulenta has a beautiful shape and is also strikingly white.  If you are going for a larger scale the agave parryii is quite interesting.


Rosette2 Rosette3 Rosette1



triangleTriangle – Arrange your plants to create a triangle shape.  Tall or pyramidal plants in the back with bushier plants on the side and trailers on the side or in the front.  Three similar or identical elements or plants create lovely triangles.  The triangle can be vertical, horizontal and three dimensional.

Thrill, fill and spill – Arrange plants so that you have a tall element, a stick or plant, a bushier or fountain shaped element and a trailing element.


Color – There are volumes written about color so here is just a short list to consider.

Monochromatic – all elements have similar coloring.  All grey foliage, lime green or maroon can look interesting when the foliage textures are different or the scale of the plants varies. 

Some successful combinations are:

Grey – Artemisia tridentate, Artemisia David’s choice or epilobium Wayne’s silver and Dudlea pulverulenta.  Artemisia tridentate and Salvia Electric blue

Yellow – Potentilla, Heuchera key lime with calylophus

Blue – Sisyrinchium bellum and linum lewsii

Red – Galvezia Gran Canyon with epilobium Californicia

Purple – Leucophyllum Texas Ranger and Penstemon foothill.

colorsComplementary – get out the color wheel.   If you have a wonderful plant with dark maroon leaves what color is on the opposite side of the wheel?  Yellow green!  Eureka you are the artist!  Other great opposites are Yellow & blue, Red and green.  You get the idea.  Consider both the foliage and flower colors to make your selections. 


Some successful combinations are:purple and orange

Purple & orange – Mimulus punicia and Penstemon foothill. Sisyrinchium bellum and Escholzia californica

Blue & yellow – Sisyrinchium bellum and calylophus fendalria Ceanothus and Encelia

Lime green and purple – Heruchera key lime pie and Heuchera burgundy.  greensOphiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens' and yellow sedum.  Phormium platts black with heuchera key lime pie.

Scale – The scale of both the plants and the pots are important. 

Container – Tiny pots are excellent for displaying delicate little plants, which would be lost in a normal planter.  Large plants are stunning and should have a container which visually supports them.  Any companions should work together in scale. 


Location – Consider where the container will be seen.  If you have a cute cottage the pots should reflect that.  An eclectic collection of pots and sizes of pots with colorful flowers spilling from them just says “cottage”.  Several large identical pots give the feeling of formality. 


Texture – Strappy, whispy, trailing, stiff, lacy, bold, rounded, pointy, irregular, smooth, bumpy all describe texture.  A combination of texture gives interest and excitement to your arrangements.  If you want a calm or serene feeling use similar textures

Juxtaposed – Agave tequilana with artemesia david’s choice.  Sisrynchium bellum with Monardella macrantha.  Galvezia Gran canyon with chrysantinia mexicana

Similar – Mulinbergia rigens with Aristidia purpea.  Heuchera and Arctostaphyllos emerald carpet


Planting your container

Potting soil is the key element.  A good soil will support your plants, provide drainage and also retain moisture.  Drainage and moisture retention?  Aren’t they exclusive?  Yes and no.  Clay soil will retain moisture to such an extent that a plant may drown.  Sand will let all the water drain away before the plant can absorb it.  Therefore most potting soils need to provide a balance.  Palms, succulents and cacti need faster draining soils so you should use the Palm and cactus mixes for these plants.  For the rest of your plants any good potting mix will do.  I have been using Micacle gro’s Moisture control potting mix for several years with good results and I use Supersoil’s Palm and cactus mix.  You could also make your own if you have access to plant material and the ability to grind clippings and compost.  There are some good web sites listed at the end of this article which will give you directions.

As you fill the pot tamp down the soil.  Most commercial soil is very fluffy and will compress over time.  Plant your largest plant first and fill in around it tamping down as you bring the soil up to the level for the next largest plant.  Your plants should be even with the top of the container when you are finished.  This will make watering the pot a little difficult for the 1st month, but the soil will compress and everything will sink down and give you about 1” of rim space.  If start with that 1” of space very soon your plants will be so low in the pot that you will have to remove them and add soil to the bottom and replant everything.  Very annoying!

Water your container well.  Put a slowly dripping hose on the container and allow the water to seep in and fully soak the plants.  This makes sure the roots are well watered and reduces any voids where there may not have been enough soil.  After it’s watered, you can gently press down on the soil around the stems of your plants to settle them and even out the soil.  Add decorative rocks, twigs etc.


Watering and feeding


Containers dry faster than plants in the ground.  Overwatering kills more plants than under watering.  Plants also wilt when they are too wet.  The soil needs to dry out to let your plants roots breathe.  You will want to test the container by pushing your finger into the soil about 1” deep.  If the soil is dry below this then water.  Monitor how quickly your pots reach this stage and you will know how often to water.  Be consistant, try to water early in the morning on the same day.  That way your plants will acclimate to your schedule.  Be sure to fully wet the entire pot.  Fill the head space in the pot allow that to drain and then re-fill it at least once.  If a pot becomes too dry it is difficult to re-wet the soil which shrinks and leaves gaps along the sides of the pot.  Then water runs down the inside and out before the soil can absorb it.  When this happens you can let a hose drip on the pot which will give the soil time to accept the water and swell up and replenish the container.  You can also try to submerge the pot into a larger container of water, but do not leave your plants submerged for more than a few minutes or they will drown.


You do not need to feed your new plants.  Most potting soils are fertile and the grower has been feeding the plants.  Too much fertilizer can damage them.  I prefer to use a time release fertilizer which slowly releases the nutrients so that they cannot be over fed.  These fertilizers need only to be applied twice a year so I usually do this at New Years and the 4th of July.


Place your container where you can enjoy and admire it.



Web sites of interest:



Tree of life Nursery http://www.californianativeplants.com/

Make your own organic potting soil http://www.motherearthnews.com/Organic-Gardening/How-To-Make-Your-Own-Potting-Soil.aspx








Categories: Blog

Please leave a comment