A Beginner’s Guide to No-Fuss Container Gardens


Succulents like the ones shown above are easy to care for and interesting to look at. Photo by akos kokai via flickr CC BY 2.0.

Containers are a given for raising plants indoors – they’re great for kitchen herbs, ferns, and succulents – but they’re also a quick and simple way to add color and life to your outdoor spaces. It’s easy to create container plantings to enclose your porch, cozy up your patio, or add some color to your deck .

Or at least that’s what I’ve been told. Since I have possibly the world’s worst gardening instincts, it’s never seemed that easy to me. But now I also have an extremely bare-looking front porch, so I’m counting on these three simple steps for growing healthy, gorgeous container gardens that even I can’t ruin.

Step 1: Pick a pot, but not any pot


Photo by jo-marshall via flickr CC BY 2.0

The color and shape of the container may be the first thing you’re drawn to, but before you snag that pretty pot, remember that its hue isn’t going to help your plants grow. The first thing you need to consider is functionality. Planters need to have drainage holes at the bottom so that water doesn’t collect and rot plant roots. So if you’re repurposing an old can, jar, crate, or some other vessel, you’ll need to drill a few holes in it. You’ll want to toss in some pebbles to cover the bottom of your container to help with drainage, too.

Also, consider how many plants you want to include, which will help you determine the container size you need. At the nursery, look at each plant’s tag to see how how it should be spaced. Typically, you’ll use a larger planter if you want to cluster more than one of the same plant for dramatic effect. Or, think about using smaller containers to draw attention to individual plants with more interesting leaf shapes or patterns.

Step 2: Choose a thriller, a filler, and a spiller


Photo by ranti via flickr CC BY 2.0.

To create full, lush container gardens, the experts have a simple but effective mantra: thrill, fill, and spill. Translation: Pick three kinds of plants to go in your container. Start by choosing the tallest and most visually striking variety — this is your “thriller” — and plant that toward the back or in the center of the pot. Next, choose a shorter, fuller plant — your “filler.” (You may need more than one of these depending on the size of your pot and how the plantings should be spaced.) Finally, select a trailing plant — the “spiller” — such as an ivy that will grow over the edges of the pot. (Again, you may need more than one of these.)

When you’re ready to plant, remember this: Dirt matters. We won’t go into the myriad types of potting soil there are to choose from, but do use potting soil. A common beginner’s mistake is using backyard dirt, but it lacks the nutrients and density your plants will need to thrive.

Step 3: Choose the right place


Photo by lizard10979 via flickr CC BY 2.0.

Don’t fret too much about coordinating blooms and leaves (they’re flowers, they’re going to look pretty!); just pick plants and colors you like. However, you do need to select and organize plantings according to how much sun or shade they need (This Old House has some great suggestions for plant combinations.) Container planting gives you tons of flexibility when it comes to choosing native or exotic plants, and annuals and some perennials alike will do well in pots. Lots of shade? No problem — add some color with bright begonias, sweet potato vine, and oxalis. Full sun? Try delphinium, salvia, and madwort.

Finally, do yourself a favor and think about your water source: Most containers dry out quickly — especially in full sun — and you’ll need to water these every day. (No, really. Every day.) Keep containers within easy reach of a hose, set a timer on a sprinkler, or a put a reminder on your calendar. Keep it simple, keep it watered, and before you know it, you’ll be enjoying your own DIY outdoor oasis.

Blythe Copeland is a writer, editor, and blogger who's covered everything from style and weddings to parenting and the environment. She lives outside Philadelphia with her family.

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