10 plant combination ideas for container gardens

plant combination ideas for container gardens
Plant combination ideas for container gardensChiara Benelli - Getty Images

Containers are great for giving all outdoor spaces a chance to bloom. Whether you have a windowsill, balcony, doorstep, front garden, a tiny backyard or a vast sun-lounging patio, containers large and small, single or grouped together, are the ideal quick fix for adding a seasonal flourish to your landscape.

With the floral abundance of the Chelsea Flower Show soon to dominate our gardening consciousness, there's plenty of inspiration, whether you want to refresh existing pots and window boxes, repurpose tins, bins or colanders as quirky containers, or splash out on a new outdoor planter.

If you have existing containers, do refresh the compost – dig out the top layer by about a trowel depth, adding a mix of new growing matter, topsoil and slow release fertiliser before your new season plants go in.

You might want to spruce up old pots with vibrant annuals like reliable lobelia that will flower on repeat through the next few months, or mix up perennials and evergreens for a longer lasting look.

The trick for successful plant combinations is to choose complementary colours, differing heights and contrasting textures – just as you would with a garden border. If space is limited, opt for single pots filled with one colour or a single plant species and group them together. A tablescape of small terracotta pots spilling over with Erigeron karvinskianus is simple and charming, or choose a mix of plants and different sized pots of a similar material and colour and plant them up, combining them in the same way you might put a bouquet of flowers together.

In larger, deeper containers, you can create a mini landscape. Include shrubs or small trees, combined with grasses, evergreens and flowering plants for colour. Use the rule of uneven numbers for a more natural feel, and even numbers for a formal twist.

Planting that tumbles over the edges of containers will soften them. And if you have soil exposed, top it with gravel, pebbles, or crushed seashells from Shell on Earth. This not only looks good, but it will act as a moisture-saving mulch to help reduce watering.

On the subject of watering, if you have a large collection of pots, you might want to look at drip irrigation systems. Try Gardena's solar powered irrigation system for containers.

1. Container ideas for trees

The right tree will grow successfully in larger containers. Fig and olive trees naturally cope with drier growing conditions and restricted roots, but most smaller trees will be fine. Multi-stemmed trees make a real impact in a smaller garden and are a Chelsea Flower Show favourite. Amelanchier lamarckii is a classic choice, bringing interest through the seasons with spring blossom and autumn leaf colour. Pale stemmed birches or bronze cherries add a different level of interest with their coloured bark. To enhance the container look, underplant your tree with a froth of muehlenbeckia spilling over the edges.

2. A meadow in a pot

Combine ornamental grasses for a soft, natural effect. These look great in contemporary galvanised steel planters. Use smaller species such as Stipa tenuissima, Briza media or fluffy tipped pennisetums that will hold their looks through to winter. Add in summer flowering perennials like Gaura lindheimeri, penstemons, or geums for contrasting heights and accents of colour.

3. Vegetable patch container ideas

Growing food in containers can look just as good as any ornamental flower combination. Perfect for smaller gardens, try combining leafy veg such as salads and herbs with edible flowers. Red veined sorrel is the perfect foliage plant – mix with salad leaves and edible flowers such as nigellas, tumbling peppery-leaved nasturtium and golden marigolds. Add in some peas at the centre for height and you'll have a meal at the ready.

plant combination ideas for container gardens
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4. Gourmet herb container ideas

Perfect for the kitchen window or doorstep, a classic terracotta pot planted with a mix of thymes, oregano and rosemary for a Mediterranean feast looks simply beautiful. A mix of purple, green and variegated sages also adds a warm, textural feel. Plant a matching terracotta container with leafy parsley, coriander and basil and you will have a full culinary herb selection. Pick leaves regularly to keep fresh new growth coming but let some of the fast-growing leafy coriander flower go to seed and use these in cooking too.

parsley, sage, savory and oregano on a window sill
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5. Wildlife-friendly container ideas

Naturalistic planting has become a bit of a classic Chelsea Flower Show look. Use a larger planter to hold a relaxed gathering of daisies, umbelliferous, and flat-topped flowers that will feed bees and pollinating insects. Combine red and white valerian with achilleas, buttercups and herb robert, and lure in the butterflies with a colourful, compact and reliable Buddleia davidii from the 'Buzz' series, for wild entertainment all summer long.

6. Pots full of colour

If you like experimenting with colour, loud and proud dahlias are guaranteed to make your garden containers sing. They make a bold and colourful centrepiece for pots. Go for classic dark leaved 'Bishop of Llandaff' or the more muted tones and enormous flowers 'Café au Lait'. But make sure you add in support with canes for some of the taller cultivars. Underplant with a mix of lower growing begonias or velvety, trailing calibrachoas.

7. Container ideas for growing climbers

Annual climbing plants are great for adding eye-level interest in summer containers. Create a wigwam support from coppiced hazel branches or bamboo ready for sweet peas to roam upwards and wow you with delicious scent too. Thunbergia alata and Spanish flag are also great summer flowering annuals to grow in pots.

8. Container ideas for shady corners

There is plenty of scope for lush and lacy textures, even if you only have a shady corner. Using different shades of green can really brighten up darker areas. Create a mini fernery with a mix of Blechnum gibbum 'Silver Lady,' Asplenium scolopendrium and Blechnum spicant, and add in some taller plants such as Thalictrum aquilegiifolium, foxgloves and Alchemilla mollis, hostas or heuchera for contrasting foliage around the edges of the pot.

9. Container ideas for sunny succulents

Fleshy leaved echeveria, sedum and sempervivums are sun lovers and low on watering needs and make great low maintenance container choices. Create a carpet of plants in shallow containers like a repurposed butler sink, where you can admire the intricate geometric patterns. Designer Sarah Price showcased many different succulents in recycled containers in her gold medal-winning Nurture Landscapes Garden at Chelsea Flower Show 2023. While in Camellia Taylor's Natural Affinity Garden for Aspens, small pots of succulents were displayed as a collection on stone shelves. Simple to propagate, you can easily grow your own succulent collection.

miniature succulent plants in a planter
kynny - Getty Images

10. Container ideas for pelargoniums

These tender geraniums are classic summer container plants for sunny spots. Perfectly matched with terracotta pots and windowboxes, they prefer well-drained soil, need limited watering and feeding, and just a little gentle deadheading to keep the flowers coming well into autumn. From the looser tumbling balcony geraniums to smoky green and petite Pelargonium sidioides, rose scented leaves of Pelargonium 'Attar of Roses' or the smouldering dark flowers of Pelargonium 'Lord Bute' there are so many to choose from. They will need sheltering over winter, or you can grow more of your favourites from cuttings as an insurance policy against freezing conditions.

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