3 designers share their container garden secrets

Designers share their secrets for unforgettable containers
Sharon Cohoon and Jim McCausland

Like a canvas waiting for paint, an empty garden pot can become anything you desire: a meditation in violet, a carnival of oranges and limes, or a quiet study of leaf shapes and textures.

You have more control with containers than anywhere else in the garden, and because you're planting for a season instead of a lifetime, you have more freedom to experiment. Still, you want to create a successful container planting each and every time.

To help make that happen, we turned to three of the best container designers we know:

  • Marsha Davis-Thomsen, Seattle, an artist who turned her flair for color and shapes to container gardening in 1995. (206) 914-6263
  • Mark Bartos, Pasadena, formerly the principal designer for Hortus Nursery in Pasadena and now a garden designer under his own name. (626) 791-2040
  • Kristen Erchinger, Santa Fe, a horticulturist with a floral-design background at Clemens & Associates. (505) 982-4005

All shared their secrets for putting together dramatic container plantings. You can either re-create their plans, featured here or let them inspire your own compositions.

Davis-Thomsen relies on plants with visual punch that can survive wind, strong sun, and other environmental challenges over a long season. "But I'm also a risk taker―in my own garden, not my clients'―and I experiment a lot with bold, eclectic, and unusual plants," she says.

Erchinger starts with a plant that makes a strong statement, then builds her composition around it. "I select a plant that moves me, and I allow it to set the tone," she says. Bartos relies heavily on foliage. "For me, flowers are almost incidental," he says. Instead, texture is his passion: "I aim for a balance of yin and yang."

What else makes a great planting? 

Because it's concentrated, color is more intense in pots. That's part of the pleasure, but there's a potential pitfall. If you put a whole rainbow of hues into a pot, the result is chaos. To restrain yourself, start with one plant you've fallen in love with, suggests Erchinger, then pick the remaining plants to flatter it, not compete with it. Or select one color but vary everything else―flower and leaf shape, color intensity, texture. Monochromatic schemes are very contemporary and always soothing, says Erchinger. If you prefer hotter contrasting colors, separate them with white or blue. Or use lime-colored foliage.

Next: How to plant a container like a pro

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