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Potting Up Profits

Looking to expand your landscape design services? Need to offer more "instant" garden options? Easy-to-create and colorful containers can fill the value-added niche in your plans, and two container-garden experts show you how to make the most of pots and plants.



"Echoing" colors in a container arrangement can give a sense of balance and harmony.
Photos courtesy of Tesselaar Plants

You know what they say about the best-laid plans, and sometimes even the best-trained planners need to fill in the gaps. Landing that big contract or filling an epic order is what we all strive for, but the smaller-scale jobs can mean the difference between success and Success.

Helping customers and clients "finish" a landscape with a variety of container gardens adds to their properties' curb appeal as well as to your profit margin. So with the aid of the good folks at Tesselaar Plants, who sought the sage advice of a couple of crack container pros, we offer here a few tricks to enhance your portable gardening program. And thanks to Ball Horticultural Co., we're tossing in some tasty tips, as well.

"Sometimes we need easy - and that's container gardening," says Barbara Wise, author of the new book Container Gardening for All Seasons: Enjoy Year-Round Color with 101 Designs. Designer Todd Holloway, owner of Pot Incorporated, an award-winning container and landscaping company in Vancouver, British Columbia, adds, "With the use of these basics, you'll gain the ability to create your own dazzling container designs that last the entire season."

"Echo" colors

"I like to echo colors," says Wise. This means looking for hues in one plant that can be reflected in another plant used in the same container. For example, she likes pairing Strobilanthes 'Persian Shield' with Torenia 'Golden Moon', because the purple throat of the torenia echoes the purple of the strobilanthes.

This strategy works well with nearly every color, provided a pleasing, complimentary tone is included to help the "echoing" colors pop. Think of the basics of the color wheel and select plants that encourage each other to shine.

Careful placement of colors, however, is key to a balanced echo effect. Too much purple on one side, say, or all the orange and yellow in the middle, can present a blocky look.

Contrast textures

Wise and Holloway both recommend mixing different textures. Fine or delicate foliage contrasts nicely with straight, narrow stalks and broad tropical leaves. Similarly, long, skinny, linear leaves or strappy, arch-type formations look great when paired with full, rounded or oval shapes. "I focus on the foliage contrast with one or two complementary flower varieties," says Holloway.

Keep it simple and let the plants take care of each other.


No one appreciates a maintenance challenge, so easy-to-care-for plants are the way to go. Even roses, such as this Flower Carpet selection, can be outstanding, low-maintenance container candidates.

Choose proven, easy-care plants

Especially if your pots can't be placed close to your water source and you're limited on time, says Wise, choose plants that aren't as needy. Succulents, of course, require little care, but the same can be said for tropical plants like mandevilla, cannas like the colorful Tropicanna line and cordylines like Festival Burgundy.

Ornamental grasses, such as red or purple fountain grass, often thrive in containers and provide a graceful backdrop for willing companions all season long. Once frost arrives, they'll continue to offer texture, movement and sound.

Even roses can be used in containers, says Wise, if they're disease-resistant and drought- and heat-tolerant. "Flower Carpet® roses, for instance, look fabulous trailing over the sides of containers." If your clients have a particular out-of-zone favorite, they can still enjoy the blooms if the rose is the highlight of a container arrangement. Much like tropicals that are used as patio plants in Northern climes, many shrub roses do well in containers.


Architectural plants like cordyline make a bold statement.

Use the right pot

Some plants, like cannas and grasses, will grow up to 6 feet high by the end of the season and enlarge their root size so much, they break through the pot. So Wise recommends making sure all the plants you plan to put in the pot will remain in scale, and that your pot size is one-half to one-third the size of the tallest plant when mature.

In fact, if Holloway had to recommend just one tip for successful containers, it would be to make sure the pot is large enough. "It must have enough volume to accommodate the roots of the plants' ultimate size," he explains. At minimum, it must have at least half the volume of the size of the mature plants.

Containing edibles

Caught container fever? You can expand your offerings even further with ready-made - or ready-to-make - kitchen gardens. There's no need to limit container choices to ornamentals, especially when the selection of voluptuous, vitamin-packed veggies is nearly limitless. Lush, lustrous lettuce leaves in all forms and colors can fill a decorative pot with irresistible foliage that's easy to grow and good enough to eat. A portable container can make it easier to protect crops from bands of marauding rabbits, too.


A small pot filled to the brim with crunchy greens and strawberries makes for a ready-made salad.

For a quick and easy side dish, combine the ingredients for a strawberry salad, or plant several types of tomatoes for attraction - and antioxidants. Herbs that provide the zest to a meal needn't take up ground space, when several varieties can be combined for palate-pleasing combo. Or plant one selection that serves both texture and taste.


The dreamy texture of fernleaf dill also adds a pleasing fragrance to the container garden.

Easy to design, easy to sell and ever growing in popularity, edible gardens provide the perfect complement to a container program.


For an unusual addition to a patio garden, offer your clients plants with interesting foliage and bold veggies-like this black eggplant.
Photos courtesy of Ball Horticultural Co. and Burpee Home Gardens

"Your planter must be large enough to accommodate the plants throughout their life in the container," he explains. "At the very least, your container's volume should be roughly a third to half the size of the eventual volume of the mature plants. If your mature plants are expected to grow to 3 feet tall by 3 feet wide, your plants should be no smaller than 1 to 1.5 feet tall by 1 to 1.5 feet wide."

And remember, the pot's style, material, color and texture are just as important an element in container design as the plants themselves, says Holloway.

Think "thriller-filler-spiller"

There are many schools of thought on this tried-and-true design trick: Some designers consider it a classic; others believe it's passé. Nevertheless, it's a good way to make sure your container gardens have the right scale, proportions and mix of shapes and textures.

"For your thriller, try a tall or upright focal point plant such as cannas or cordylines," suggests Wise. "For your filler, you'll want a plant that's bushier or fuller, like a daylily or caladium." The spiller, she explains, is any plant that will trail or cascade over the edge of the pot, like petunias or lysimachia (creeping Jenny). "Remember to mix in fine foliage with your big leaves and to add a little repetition or color among the plants. This makes for a more cohesive, unified piece."

Same needs, same pot

"Know the difference between full sun, partial shade and full shade, and choose plants with like cultural requirements in one pot," says Holloway. Or, as Wise likes to put it: "Know who your plants' friends are." This not only ensures healthy plants, but cuts way down on your maintenance routine.

"Keeping light exposure in mind while considering plants is extremely important," says Holloway. "Knowing whether your plants do best in full sun, part sun, part shade or full shade is a good starting point once you've determined the location of where your planter will live. Always make sure all the plants in the pot are tolerant of the light conditions of your location."

Container care 101

Plants in containers have different needs than those in the landscape. Here, Wise and Holloway provide a few basics:

Think of the bigger picture

"The container and the plants must always complement their location," says Holloway. In her book, Wise devotes a whole chapter to the concept of "container-scaping," or using container gardens year-round as landscaping supplements, garden focal points or décor accents in your client's "outdoor room."


Container plantings should be designed to complement their location, using the appropriate proportions and presenting a unified picture.

You can also treat containers as constantly evolving props, moving them to perhaps cover a hole in the landscape or changing out spent plants as new seasons arrive. "You can create a lush container-scape, maybe even a paved paradise, when you fill it with potted plants," she says. "The options are endless."

Add some architecture

Just as a landscape needs good garden "bones" to give it three-dimensional interest and character, containers can always use a beginning structure or skeleton. So give it to them, says Wise, with manmade materials, trees and shrubs or architectural plants like agapanthus, cordylines, phormiums or succulents. "A pyramidal trellis in the center of the container, for instance, adds height and can showcase stunning annual vines like mandevilla and passion flower."

A topiary hibiscus is also striking, she adds, especially with a thick grouping of daylilies below. "And I love shrub roses in containers underplanted with Purple Queen setcresia and lantana."