The Well-Dressed Garden

Flowerpots That Perform

Put flowerpots to work in your garden this summer. Pretty pots, bursting with flowers and foliage, are a great way to put the spotlight on favorite plants and flash some of your style.

No garden is too large or too small for a few well-placed flowerpots. A handsome container perched on a pedestal right in a flower bed or a cluster of pots by the garden gate capture your attention and draw your eye into the garden. Pots full of fresh herbs near the kitchen door are handy for snipping, and their fragrance will follow you into the house. Flowerpots can be placed strategically to direct traffic in the garden, to screen views or to fill in bare spots. They demand a little more attention than plants in flower beds, but they reward the extra work.

Pots are "a way to pull people in -- if you're looking to highlight a delicate, interesting or fragrant plant, try it in a pot," says Erin Presley, a horticulturist at Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin. Olbrich is a 16-acre botanical treasure in the heart of Madison, bursting with inspiration. Every year, the gardeners plant about 500 containers, displaying them all around among the lush and exuberant display gardens. Each horticulturist is encouraged to design containers with new plants and interesting combinations, and they all develop and contribute their own individual motifs and styles to the garden.

Thoughtful design and great plants turn ordinary flowerpots into exceptional accents in a garden, Presley says. In the winter, she and the other horticulturists pore over plant catalogs, make digital inspiration boards with possible combinations, and collaborate to refine their ideas. Coming up with a theme -- which may simply be a color choice or combination -- helps focus your intentions, she says. Presley is in her second year of exploring the color red in her flowerpots.

"People are hesitant to use red," she says. "Mixing different reds can be difficult." She's experimenting with a red-and-purple color scheme, adding silver and tan accents with ornamental grasses and other plants with textural foliage. Her pots in the courtyard of Olbrich's herb garden will feature a dozen plants, including red-flowering dahlias, red-leaf ornamental cotton, silver sage, and red gladiolus. She's using a wispy, bronze-leaf carex to "knit the look together and give your eye a rest," she says.

Putting together combinations for pots is fun, and that's the whole idea behind Olbrich's Pro Potting Bench, staffed by garden horticulturists, at the garden's annual spring plant sale. Visitors shopping for plants can ask the pros for advice on combinations, refine their ideas and take home a lot of confidence, along with their plant purchases. Even experts need encouragement, Presley says, which is why the staff members bounce ideas off each other in the winter, as they are developing their designs for pots.

"If something doesn't work the first time, revamp your idea instead of trying something completely different," Presley suggests. Even after putting a lot of work into a combination, it may still need just a few refinements. She is taking her own advice in a design for plants near Olbrich's entrance, making use of her traffic-stopping red palette but adding even more texture and bright splashes of contrasting colors.

"We always try to expand on things we have done in the past and get new ideas going," Presley says.

She recommends using glazed pots in shade gardens, where a shiny color adds sparkle in the dappled light. In clusters of pots, she suggests one bold, attention-grabbing combination in a dominant container, and smaller pots full of plants with interesting flowers, foliage and textures worthy of closer inspection.

When you're planning your pots for this summer, "think about where they will go, what their role is in the garden," Presley says. "Will you see the pot from one side, or from all sides? Will it be in sun or shade?"

You can start to plan your combinations for each container simply by picking out two flowering plants that complement each other and then looking for foliage plants to fill in. Annual and perennial grasses, coleus, alternanthera, iresine, haloragis and other foliage plants add volume to pots and look good all summer long.

Presley also loves using herbs in pots, including various basil plants.

"It's a great plant, and it constantly needs to be harvested so it encourages you to groom your pots," she says. "You're putting more effort into your containers, so you might as well get a benefit -- something extra -- like an edible plant or a wonderful fragrance."

Don't be afraid to grow perennial plants in pots, or even to use small shrubs or trees to give height and structure to your designs. You can use flowerpots almost like a nursery for perennials and small trees, growing them for a season in containers displayed around the garden: Each plant can be placed to the greatest ornamental effect and in the most favorable growing conditions.

"Things that are too vulnerable to go into a flower bed right away -- try them in a pot for the summer, before you put them out into the hurly-burly of the garden," Presley says.

The professional horticulturists at Olbrich and other botanical gardens have the time and resources that home gardeners may envy, but when it comes to flowerpots, we can all have plenty of fun. Take inspiration from the pros and start experimenting with plants in pots this summer. Give your good ideas a chance to grow.


-- Olbrich Botanical Gardens,


Plotting Out Your Pots

Here are some ideas and recommendations from Erin Presley and the staff at Olbrich Gardens to help you plan your flowerpots and keep them looking great from spring through fall:

-- Plan ahead: Flip through catalogs and magazines, and prowl the internet for inspiration, and make a design board with clippings or drag and drop your own photographs or internet images onto a document to experiment with combinations.

-- Develop a unifying theme.

-- Include perennials in striking combination with annual flowers and foliage plants.

-- Plant in a lightweight, moisture-retentive, soil-less potting mix. Add coir (coconut fiber) to help retain moisture. At planting time, supplement the potting mix with slow-release fertilizer.

-- Fertilize once a month with water-soluble fertilizer. Follow directions on the label: Don't over-fertilize.

-- Groom your plants in pots. Keep vines from growing out of control. Prune to encourage branching and flowering. Remove spent flowers.

-- Structural elements -- an obelisk, an artful arrangement of twigs or unexpected additions such as palm fronds give pots a lot of pop.

-- Be realistic: Plants in pots will need more attention than plants in the ground. Large pots may only need to be watered two or three times a week. Smaller pots may need water every day. If you're not going to be able to water regularly, use large pots and drought-tolerant plants.

-- The most interesting combinations have it all: color, texture, fragrance, flowers and foliage.

-- If a plant dies or does not perform, replace it.

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