Container Planting
Ornamental pots with campanula and petunias in a simple but elegant combination

In the heat of the summer, it’s daunting to take on a large-scale landscape.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t make transformative changes to your outdoor living space during this time!  If you need to create a point of interest, a cooling sense of lush foliage or a splash of color on your patio or in your garden, container plantings are a perfect solution.  The subject of containers is discussed in every garden magazine, with many spectacular examples out there, but we like to think we have a few of our own insights to share!  Here we share some concepts and combinations for elegant summer containers that are sure to enliven your outdoor living.

“Thrill, Fill, Spill?”

If you read garden theory, you know what we’re talking about, if not you may think we are crazy!  But hang on… This catchy idea, first introduced by Better Homes and Gardens in 2010, has surely been used by designers for centuries, though perhaps without the catch-phrase. But what does it mean?

In our interpretation, this cute phrase refers to the idea that there are three points of interest in a dynamic container planting- a tall element, a central body, and a low element.  Interestingly enough, once you start looking, this type of 3-part composition is used in many designed things, from paintings to floral arrangements.  There is clearly something behind it!

Ikebana lines

Ikebana, or Japanese flower arranging, uses a 3-part composition very similar to this concept!

Elements placed in a vase at these three points are naturally in balance.

heuchera, black mondo grass and variegated ajuga in a layered planting composition

The ‘Thrill, Fill, Spill” technique is used in this simple shade planting.  Note the energy of the upright flowers (Heuchera ‘Shanghai’), the full central body of Black Mondo grass (Ophiopogon p. ‘nigrescens’), and the casual elegance of draping Ajuga ‘Burgundy Glow’.  Having these elements in balance is crucial.  Too tall, and the design becomes awkward.  Lacking body, it feels empty and sparse.  Too thin of a ‘spiller’ and the entire arrangement looks unhealthy!  Of course it’s not always necessary to follow this formula, but it does seem to have quite the effect.  Try it out and see what you think.

If The Pot Fits
J. Montgomery Studio door with planted container and fern in antique metal milk jug

In container planting, the vessel you choose can make all the difference.  Containers should always match your personal style.  If you have an eclectic style, you can think outside the box!  Antique stores have endless options for things that make elegant containers for planting… here at the J. Montgomery Studio, we use found objects like the antique milk jug (shown above) as vessels for succulents, ferns, and flowers.  If something doesn’t have a drainage hole, you can create one or use the container as a Cache-pot (French, pronounced cash-poe), by placing a draining pot inside of it.

Why It Needs to Drain

terra cotta pots in different style, one showing a drainage hole

Almost every plant requires or at least benefits from a container that drains.  There are a few reasons for this.  Believe it or not, waterlogged plants may be unable to breathe correctly (in other words drown), and may be at higher risk for disease.  Water that runs through organic material (like soil) can harbor bacteria, algae or fungi that will harm the plant if they proliferate in high numbers.  When you provide drainage, you allow the soil to maintain a natural balance and prevent dreaded root rot.  If you have a draining pot inside a Cache-pot, you may occasionally need to remove the pot and drain the water that collects.

Grouping Containers

One of our favorite techniques to enliven a patio corner is a container grouping.  A well-chosen and thoughtfully planted collection of pots can feel like a miniature garden vignette!  Varying sizes and levels can give the collection interest, while cohesive planting (continuing colors or themes) between containers can make them read as a unit.

shade container plantings with light pink flowers and lush ferns

This sweet grouping for shade also creates interest around the tea table in this traditional garden.  Similar pots at three levels make for a complex layered effect, while matching pink, white, and green plantings tie the design together as a whole.

(Double Impatiens (Pink), Dwarf Hosta, Maidenhair fern and Bacopa ‘Gulliver’s White’)


Just as in fashion, color coordination can make for container plantings that wow.  Infinite possibilities surround the world of color in planting… here we offer just a few combinations that we have been really pleased with.  We try to keep it exciting and unusual!  Try them out or borrow a plant idea or two for your own inspiration.

container planting in pink, rust-red and burgundy summer colors for sun

Strawberry Rhubarb Summer

We love dessert!  This luscious combination was inspired by summer colors and looks good enough to eat!  For full to partial sun with regular water:

Pentas lanceolata ‘Light Pink’*

Pennisetum ‘Fireworks’*

Diascia ‘Apple Blossom’

Coleus ‘Wizard Velvet Red’*

Heuchera ‘Fire Chief’

Alyssum ‘Snow Crystal White’

*Note: Pentas and Coleus will not make it through the winter in zones 8 and 9.  Pennisetum ‘Fireworks’ will get large in its second year, and makes for a great ‘Thrill’ plant for next summer’s arrangement!

Shade plantings in terra cotta pots include lime heuchera, blue dianella, and carex grass

Shining in Shade

Nothing brightens up a shady corner like a collection of planted pots.  The bright color and energy in these pots graces the entrance of our Alamo studio for summer.

Ipomaea ‘Margarita’

Heuchera ‘Lime Rickey’

Dianella ‘Cassa Blue’

Hosta ‘Francee’ 

Carex ‘Everest’

Glechoma variegata

black rex begonias, flowering begonias and silver bromeliad in a modern tropical arrangement

Black & White

Who says black and white is boring?  Flowering fibrous and tuberous Begonias are spectacular in shade or partial sun, and Rex Begonias’ incredible leaf patterns never disappoint!  Here our designer pairs her favorite Rex begonia ‘Little Brother Montgomery’ (of course we love this one!) with begoniaMocha Series White.’ In the summer, she also brings her houseplants, including this silver-leaved bromeliad, outside to join in this unusual tropical combination.

Potted begonias also have to come inside for the winter in our zone, but they make lovely houseplants for a bright spot!  Tuberous begonias will die to the ground and can be kept in a dry location through the winter.  Follow this link for tips on overwintering:

We hope these ideas help you spice up your outdoor living space!  If you’re feeling adventurous, head down to your local nursery and try some combinations of your own.  Or if you’re in need of container design for a special place or an event, contact our Design Team for container planting ideas and on-site consultation.