Excerpted from Deckscaping by Barbara W. Ellis
Designing Container Combinations
Spectacular containers overflowing with plants are all the rage these days. Although in books and magazines you can find step-by-step plans for exact combinations to copy, it's much more fun -- and satisfying to experiment on your own. Fortunately, creating great container combinations is easy, and if you plant one that doesn't do well or isn't to your liking, it's not a disaster. Either replant with another mix next year or clump out the container right away, move plants to the garden (or discard them), and try again. It's a fun, creative way to learn about designing combinations, using color, and growing plants. With experience, you'll learn what you like.
The Mix-and-Match System
I use a simple mix-and-match system to design combinations. It roughly divides container plants into four general categories: "flags," "fillers," "contrast and accent plants," and "trailers and weavers". When I design my containers, every pot includes plants from each category -- the exact number depends on the size of the container. In the largest ones, I usually include one or two flags, two or three fillers, one or two contrast and accent plants, and two or three trailers and weavers. (Yes, my favorite combinations really pack in the plants!) For a small container, I often plant just one from each category or eliminate one of the categories.
by Barbara W. Ellis
When surrounded by shrubs and small trees, perennials and annuals, ornamental grasses and vines, your deck becomes an appealing link between your home and yard. In this book, you'll find everything you need to know to create your dream deck environment.
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To design container combinations, I look for plants that fit into each category as I wander through a garden center. At the same time, I try to keep in mind seeds I've started at home, plants I've overwintered, and ones I've ordered by mail, so I can include them come planting time. While shopping, I pick up plants I've used (or seen) before and want to try again, and I'm likely to end up with one or two plants in hand as 1 continue looking for likely companions. Gradually, I gather together candidates for a particular container, striving for an interesting mix of flowers and foliage. My final choices are guided by many of the same design principles that I use to create an effective bed or border. Once you understand the basic design functions that each category fills in container gardens, you can use the lists of great container plants here and on the following pages to get started (see chapter 6 for detailed information on many of them). Unless otherwise noted, all these plants require full sun.
Flags. These have an upright, vertical habit and add height to plant combinations. They also add a bannerlike flair to any design. Flags can contribute foliage and/or flowers. Ornamental grasses primarily provide foliage; dwarf cannas add both bold foliage and flowers.
Fillers. The best plants to use as fillers have handsome, fine-textured foliage age and/or small flowers. As their name suggests, these plants fill in the combination, but more important, they add texture and set off the foliage and flowers of bolder participants in the combination.
Contrast and accent plants. Essential for adding surprise and color to your combinations, contrast and accent plants often feature bold foliage. Leaves that are variegated or exhibit unusual color, such as burgundy or chartreuse, are especially effective. Large flowers can also be the main accents in a container garden.
Trailers and weavers. These plants, which provide much of the charm to a plant combination, are at their best trailing over the edges of containers, spilling out of hanging baskets, or mingling among other container inhabitants. They can feature ornamental Foliage or handsome flowers, as well.
Vines as Flags
Vines trained on a handsome trellis at the back or center of a container function as flags, because they add height and flair to a combination. For this reason, they can be used like cannas, ornamental grasses, and other flags. Keep in mind that all the branches of a vine don't have to be trained onto the trellis. Let them wander among the other plants, acting as fillers or trailers. Pinch the stem tips, if you like, to increase branching on these wanderers. (See chapter 4 for more information on vines to use in containers.)
Designing with Foliage and Flowers
Many people think of flowers as the central Feature of container gardens, but foliage is usually the most important element in many of the best combinations. Instead of starting your selection with flower color, look at foliage first. Plants with attractive leaves all season long can echo or complement the color scheme you want. Foliage in a planting combination should set off the flowers, but it should also be interesting and handsome in its own right. In fact, it's not hard to create fabulous combinations based entirely on foliage, with no flowers at all. Try it sometime as a design exercise!
Using a variety of leaf and flower sizes adds excitement and interest to a planting combination. A container filled with plants that all have small, fine-textured leaves and flowers will look bland and uninteresting. On the other hand, a planting that combines large, tropical-looking leaves with fine-textured, ferny foliage will have pizzazz. Combining bold flowers with tiny, lacy-looking ones creates a similar effect. When it comes to contrast, don't stop with size. Look for contrasting shapes, textures, and other characteristics you can use to bring life to your designs.
The use of repeating elements in a container, just as in a garden, helps integrate a design visually, making it look like a well-defined entity. Mirror colors by combining a plant with purple-flushed leaves with another that picks up the same shade of purple in its flowers. Or include two different purple-foliage plants with one as a flag and one as a contrast or accent plant. (This is where wandering around a garden center with pots in hand comes into play. I like to hold plants against one another.) Also, select other plants for the container that repeat or echo leaf or flower shapes and textures.
Combinations with exceptionally tall or bold flags that are not balanced by an adequate number of lower-growing plants tend to seem top-heavy and are unsettling to look at. Be sure to include enough plants in the combination to balance out the tallest specimens, then pinch and train the plants to encourage bushy growth. On the other hand, a combination that contains lots of low-growing plants without a bold upright specimen toward the center may look just fine, especially if you are trying to achieve a rounded mound of flowers and foliage.
Plants to Use as Flags
Red-hot-cat's tail, Acalypha spp.
Copperleaf, Jacob's-coat, A. wilkesiana
Giant hyssops, Agastache hybrids
Angelonia, Angelonia angustifolia
Rose mallow, Anisodontea x hypomandarum
Swiss chard, Beta vulgaris
Dwarf cannas, Canna x generalis hybrids
Lion's ear, Leonotis leonurus
Purple fountain grass, Penniserum setaceum 'Purpureum'
New Zealand flax, Phormiurn tenax
Cape fuchsias, Phygelius spp.
Salvias, Sages, Salvia spp.
Coleus, Solenostemon scutellarioides
Plants to Use as Fillers
Joseph's coat, Parrot leaf, Alternanthera Jcoidea
Cushionbush, Calocephalus brownii
Dusty millers, Centaurea cineraria and Senecio cineraria
Cupheas, Cuphea spp.
Persian violet Exacum affine
Blue daisy, Felicia amelloides
Gomphrenas, Gornphrena spp.
Curry plants, Helichrysum italicurn spp. serotinum
Polka-dot plant, Hypoestes phyllostachya
Beefsteak plant, Painted blood leaf, Iresine herbstii
Flowering tobacco, Nicotiana alata
Scented geraniums, Pelargoniurn spp.
Plectranthus, Plectranthus spp.
Persian shield, Strobilanthes dyeranus
Contrast and Accent Plants
Begonias, Begonia spp.
Caladium, Caladium bicolor
Ornamental peppers, Capsicum annuurn
Madagascar periwinkle, Catharanthus roseus
Coreopsis, Coreopsis grandi, fiora
Cosmos, Cosmos spp.
Dwarf dahlias, Dahlia spp.
Fuchsias, Fuchsia spp.
Transvaal or Barberton daisy, Gerbera ]arnesonii
Heliotrope, Heliotropiurn arborescens
Garden impatiens, Impatiens wallerana
Zonal geraniums, Pelargoniurn spp.
Egyptian star-cluster, Pentas lanceolata
Coleus, Solenosternon scotellarioides
Black-eyed Susan, Rudbeckia hirta
Marigolds, Tagetes spp.
Plants to Use as Trailers and Weavers
Bacopas, Bacopa spp.
Licorice plant, Helichrysum petiolare
Ornamental sweet potato, Ipomea bataras
Weeping lantana, Lantana montevidensis
Edging lobelia, Lobelia erinus
Parrot's beak, Lotus vine, Lotus berthelotii
Petunias, Petunia spp.
Creeping zinnia, Sanvitaha procurebens
Fan flower, Scaevola aemula
Purple heart, Tradescantia pallida 'Purpurea'
Common nasturtium, Tropaeolum majus
Greater periwinkle, Vinca major 'Variegata'