Pots are the perfect way to bring the color, life and softness of plants to a patio, balcony, steps, walk or porch. But they have a place in the garden too: A container can introduce height or drama to a garden bed.
Containers let you avoid commitment. You can change a container from year to year. You can move it, to bring a new look to a perennial bed or fill in until young perennials grow up. You can try a perennial plant out in a pot to make sure you have enough sun or shade to suit it.
Pots can bring plants to places that need some dressing up. Got an ugly gutter by a concrete sidewalk? Spiral a string around the pipe and set a pot of morning glories at the base. They'll climb up and cloak it for the summer.
Here are some tips for planting attractive ornamental pots.
Bigger is better: A larger container holds more soil and therefore more moisture. Small pots dry out quickly, which is tough on plants and more work for you. Select pots that are at least 10 to 12 inches in diameter. For most plants, the pot should be at least 8 inches deep.
Choose the pot with care: The plants may change annually, but you may live with the container for years. So make sure you like it when it's empty. Choose containers that that go with the style of your home and garden, and make sure groups of pots are pleasing together.
Drainage is essential: Water must be able to flow freely away from the plants' roots, so make sure a pot has a drainage hole in the bottom. Many found objects can be adapted as planters, but only if you can drill that hole. It is not necessary to line the bottom of a pot with gravel or rocks for drainage. But it is a good idea to place a chip of broken pottery or a small piece of window screen over the hole to keep the soil from flowing away with the water.
One-year wonders: Annual flowers play to a pot's strengths: They bloom all season and then they're over, so you can plant something different next year. But foliage plants such as ferns are also classics for containers.
Temporary quarters: Don't plan on keeping perennials in a container over the winter in areas where it freezes. But many northern and Midwestern gardeners use perennials such as hosta or creeping jenny in pots for the summer and then remove them to plant in the ground in early fall. With a couple of months to settle in before the ground freezes, they will live on as garden plants.
Big three. The classic approach to designing a mixed container calls for combining three different plants: a "thriller" that stands tall as the focal point (dracaena "spikes" are especially common); a mounding "chiller" plant to fill out at the feet of your star; and a "spiller" that will trail over the pot's edge. Just make sure your three plants have compatible light, water and fertilizer needs.
One punch. For more flash, fill a pot with a mound of a single colorful annual flower, such as impatiens or petunias. Such a diva pot will be most dramatic on stage alone or with a chorus line of supporting players. So it might be most effective to set your hot pot by itself or offset it with pots of soothing green ferns or silvery-leaved lamium, rather than forcing several colorful pots to fight for attention.
Group with gusto: A group of containers can be as artistic as a combination of plants in a single pot. Try for a balance of variety and coordination. For example, having pots in the same material -- terra-cotta, say -- can pull together a collection of plants with widely varied colors, shapes and textures. A grouping of containers also is handier to water than a pot here and a pot there.
Form and function. The shape, position and purpose of your pot affects the plants you choose. A tall container probably needs a plant that will trail over the side -- unless it's intended to screen a view, in which case you might want something upright. A hanging basket needs a trailer, but a porch pot probably calls for a mound. There are plenty of options: For example, you can find both trailing and mounding varieties of petunias.
Guests in the garden: Containers can spend summers in garden beds. But make sure the plants are in the right spot. Most houseplants, for example, need a shady place such as under a tree. Many flowering plants, though, need full sun.
Set them up right: Use light, moisture-retaining soilless potting mix for best results. Some plants, such as cacti, may need a special growing medium. Since you will be watering regularly, you can space plants more closely than you would in the ground. But allow at least an inch between the top of the soil and the rim of the pot to allow water to collect and soak in. A layer of mulch, such as cotton burr compost, will conserve moisture in the potting mix.
Plan for care: Even large containers will dry out more quickly than the soil in the ground, especially in high summer. So at the start of the season, plan for your watering, choosing an arrangement of pots that isn't all spread out or too far from the tap. Check plants daily and water when the top inch or so of soil feels dry to the touch. You also will need to supply nutrients to your potted plants. Add a slow-release fertilizer to the potting mix at planting time or use a water-soluble fertilizer according to the directions on the package.