Container Gardening 101

Plant Form

  • Vary the form of material you use.
  • Tall to add height, mounded to add mass and low cascading to fill in, add depth and soften edges of container.
  • Use coarse, medium and fine textured in same container for interest.
  • Three to five species should be adequate.


Symmetrical – formal and geometric, of almost identical materials on each side of a central axis, with highest point over the center of the container.

Asymmetrical – informal, relaxing and somewhat abstract. The two sides are not mirror images but have the same visual weight. Asymmetrical designs are often L-shaped or at right angles.


The point or area where eye is first drawn. Use one large leafed or coarse textured or vibrant colored plant. Place below the tallest point in the container garden to achieve balance. In symmetrical balance, focus is in the center of the design. In asymmetrical balance, the focus if off center but still underneath the highest point, which is visually balanced by placing a cascading species to form a vertical line out from the focus.

Focus is also developed by making it appear as though all the plant material is radiating out from the center of the container garden like the fronds on a a fern.


Keep the size and quantity of plants in proportion to the pot.
Rule of thumb – The height of the tallest plant shouldn’t exceed one to two times the height of a tall container or the width of a low bowl. When the container has a pedestal, it’s usually not necessary to include it in the overall container measurement.


Rhythm is what gives a work of art flow and harmony. Repetition and gradation of plant form, texture, and color develop rhythm. Repeating color of plant cultivar at regular intervals around the outside of a round container of along the length of a long rectangular container gives rhythm to symmetrically balanced container gardens. Graceful lines of linear plant leaves and cascading foliage also add rhythm to container gardens.


Color theory involves creating color harmonies using the color wheel.

Monochromatic – only one color is used with a variety of darkness or strength. These harmonies are quiet and soothing.

Analogous – closely related colors next to each other on the color wheel. These combination create more drama.

Complementary – colors opposite each other on the color wheel. These designs command attention.

Neutral colors – black, gray and white-aren’t on the color wheel but can have visual impact in a container garden. Gray and dark-leafed plants add depth. Gray foliage makes all other colors of foliage or flowers look brighter and deeper. And you can use a neutral color to separate colors that clash or are too strong.

This information was shared with Grower Talks magazine by container gardening wizard Kathy Pufahl of Bed and Borders, Laurel, New York.

I can’t explain design elements any better than the masters. For those of us with little professional training there are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. Read the tags!! They will tell you if you are considering a full sun or shade loving plant. Plants in containers have to tolerate more stress than their counterparts planted in the ground. Full sun plants will usually do fine in full sun if given adequate amounts of water on hot or windy days. When considering a plant that says Full sun to part sun, it is usually wise to position this container or basket where it will receive some afternoon shade.
  2. During very hot spells such as the July of 1999, full sun containers should probably be moved to a cooler area until the weather moderates.
  3. Take down your hanging baskets on very windy days. There is not enough soil in the basket to hold enough moisture to support the plant. The wind will also break trailing plants.
  4. Fertilize containers about twice a month with a balanced fertilizer such as Miracle Gro. A granular slow release will also keep containers looking good and will reduce the number of times you have to fertilize while watering.
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