All Sorts and Sizes

Containers for Columbia gardens

January and February are sleepy months in the garden, but they are also the perfect months to critically evaluate the elements in the landscape. Containers are an important element in the garden but sometimes need to be replaced, relocated or eliminated as the garden matures. Containers come in all sorts of different shapes, sizes, materials and styles. Replacing an outdated container for a new one might be just what your garden needs for a new look. 

Plants that grow in containers can become root bound and may need to be replanted in a larger container, or they may need to be discarded and replaced. Maybe an area in the garden has become shadier because the trees and shrubbery around it have grown bigger and thicker, or perhaps tree roots have choked out existing plants. Adding a container of variegated ivy may be the only way to add plants to this new shady area. Finding just the right container can allow you to grow a specimen or colorful arrangement where planted shrubs were struggling. Changing the plants and their containers is a quick fix to add a fresh, new element to your landscape.


Container Styles

The style of container should enhance the style of the garden and should match the overall type of garden. Formal containers look more appropriate in a formal garden, while casual or whimsical containers look more at home in an informal garden. The shape of the container usually defines the style. Urn shapes, square boxes, round containers with rolled tops and rectangular troughs all blend well with the elements found in a formal garden. One of my favorite looks is to use inexpensive blue and white Chinese urns. Most of these are not frost-proof, so it may be a wise idea to plant the plants in a plastic garden container and then place that container in the blue and white urn. If a container is not frost proof and the soil is moist, the container will crack if the temperatures are below freezing. 

Glazed containers of different shapes and sizes look more at home in contemporary or modern gardens. Bark-clad, rough wooden containers or haywire baskets look best in a woody, farm or woodland setting. Unusual, re-purposed items, such as non-functioning wheelbarrows, chairs without their seats or old watering cans look more appropriate in a cottage or eclectic style garden.

Urns With or Without Pedestals

 A classic urn on a tailored pedestal can be a strong focal point in the garden design or a destination in a garden at the end of an allee of trees or shrubs. Urns and their matching pedestals come in all types of materials and sizes. If your front entrance is narrow, a slim, metal urn on a simple pedestal might be the perfect choice to add welcoming plants to the entrance of your house. A conical shaped boxwood or holly with trailing ivy is a great combination to consider if your entrance is shady. A lush fern with vinca would be a winning choice if the area gets hot, summer sun.


Square Basket Weave

This type of container is my absolute favorite. They are usually fabricated out of cement or fiberglass. I particularly like them because they are usually a perfect square and have a large open area to accommodate a plant with a large root-ball. These planters are a perfect choice to use in pairs on both sides of a large, inviting, front door, at the four corners of a pool terrace or on each side of the garage doors. One way to dress up a formal entrance is to plant a twin pair of ligustrum, under planted with impatiens and trailing variegated ivy. On the evening of a party, add two to three strands of white lights. This makes for a festive statement at the front door and sets the mood for a great event.


Versailles Planters

These containers are absolutely at the top of my list of favorites. The original Versailles boxes were made at Versailles and were used to grow and transport the citrus trees that were so valued by the French monarchy. The citrus trees were moved back into the orangerie for the cold winters. The boxes have a removable panel so that any trees that outgrew their containers could easily be removed and replanted in a larger box. Some Versailles boxes are outfitted with wheels and handles that resemble a wheelbarrow. This set up makes moving a large tree or shrub very easy!


Round Basket Weave

This type of container can be found in many different sizes and materials. The best ones are poured concrete that can be left in a natural state or painted in the color of one’s choice. My favorite treatment is to paint them flat black and raise them on three or four pot feet. Adding the pot feet makes the container look more important and more custom. It also helps with drainage, and this is particularly important if they are residing on a wooden deck.



This style of container is hard to find. Most containers that are rectangular in shape are too narrow to be much good! Troughs are many times the only shaped container that will work. Troughs are very effective to use in groups of three or four on a long, wide front porch that doesn’t have a railing. The troughs can be positioned between each column or support and can act as a protective barrier so that visitors don’t fall off of the porch. If used in this way, it is best to plant all of the troughs with the same combination of plants. If the planters are used in a formal setting, a group of lined up Dwarf English Boxwoods are a simple and elegant combination. If the containers are planted in a more informal setting, use Giant Liriope as the foundation plant in each trough and add seasonal, annual color.


Glazed Vessels

Glazed pots have certainly made a strong appearance in the garden industry. They are my least favorite type of container. However, if used in the right setting and planted the right way, they can be very pleasing and appropriate. Glazed containers look best in a new or more modern garden. They look especially nice when used against a light colored stucco wall. Glazed containers make very pretty fountain-heads with a gentle trickle of water spilling into a catch basin. When buying glazed containers, make sure that they are frost proof if they are going to be in an exposed area. Glazed containers that are not frost proof are usually safe if they are used on a covered porch or entrance. When choosing a glazed vessel, choose a darker color rather than a brighter color so that they blend into the landscape a little more naturally.


Whiskey and Wine Barrels

This is the ultimate re-purposing! Whiskey and wine barrels can be great containers in the garden. They are particularly well suited to use in a woodland setting or a less formal garden. One of my favorite combinations for a wine barrel, placed in a shady spot in the garden, is to fill it with two to three large hostas, such as ‘Sum and Substance’ or ‘Blue Standard.’ These types of hostas are virtually care-free if given enough moisture and will be a low maintenance member of your shady landscape for many years. Whiskey and wine barrels can start to fall apart if not maintained properly. It is a good idea to gently lift the plants every five or six years. Clean the barrel completely and let it dry thoroughly before treating it with some type of water sealant. In my opinion, it is worth doing this because the older they get, the better they look in the garden.


Found Objects

This is not on the top of my list for planting containers. I have never understood why someone would want to fill an old, rusty, falling apart wheelbarrow with expensive plants and park it in the front garden. But, I have seen many wheelbarrows planted this way, and it does bring a smile to this old gardener’s face! If you choose to plant in a found object, keep the planting choices whimsical and informal. I don’t think a formal English Boxwood would look at home sitting in the ripped cane seat of a wooden chair. A better choice for that type of planting would be an Abelia or Euonymous that could grow freely and obscure the planter!

Planters are a very important part of the garden, and, if chosen carefully and planted appropriately, they can enhance the beauty of the garden. Make sure the container plants are cared for in the same way that your landscape plants are. When they grow too big and become root bound, they may need to be planted in the ground and new plants planted in the containers. 

Make sure that the containers are also maintained. They need to be brushed off or rinsed off every now and then. Metal and concrete containers that have been painted will need a fresh coat of paint every five to six years. Include the containers in your irrigation plan and outfit them with drip lines so that you don’t have to worry about them during our dry spells. Edit your garden every year. It is better to have a fewer number of large containers than too many smaller containers. Larger containers are easier to maintain and the plants usually do better because they have more room to grow. Less is more!


Garden Chores For January and February

• Review your garden journal. Make plans to move plants that did not thrive. Now is the time to start root pruning any large shrubs that will be moved in the next few months.

• Inspect your lighting and irrigation system and make any repairs that need to be done.

• Clean up and clean out your garage or gardening shed. Discard any unused tools or old containers. 

• Sharpen and oil your favorite gardening tools. Reorganize them so that they are easy to reach and always at hand.

• Inspect your grass. If a particular area has become too shady to support healthy grass, consider making the planting areas bigger.

• Redefine any garden beds that look sloppy.

Add mulch to areas that need it.

• If the narcissus have bloomed early, do not be temped to cut the green leaves. They must die naturally to feed the bulbs for next year. If they are unsightly, you may add a light layer of pine straw or mulch.

• Cut branches of forsythia or quince to bring inside to force.

• Critically inspect all areas of the garden. Make notes about successes and failures. • Make an outline of improvements to be carried out this spring.

• Visit our local nurseries and garden centers. Most will have good sales in anticipation of new merchandise arriving for the spring. This is a great time to shop for new containers.

• In late February, do any hard pruning of shrubbery that has outgrown its space. Be careful not to prune any spring flowering shrubs such as azaleas.

• Late February is also the optimum time to prune roses.


Blooms to Look For in January and February

Camellia japonica, Mahonia, Daphne, Pieris, Hellebores, Winter Jasmine, Witch Hazel, Edgeworthia, Hardy cyclamen, Pansies, Violas and Crocus