10 Container Gardening Ideas for Any Outdoor Space

Katy Willis
Written by Katy Willis
Updated June 29, 2021
A container garden filled with a variety of plants
Rei Kastrati/EyeEm via Getty Images

Whether you want to brighten up your window sills or rejuvenate your whole yard, these container gardening ideas will help you give your outdoor space a real makeover

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1. Vary Plant Height: Thriller, Filler, Spiller

Thriller, filler, spiller refers to the optimal plant height variance in a container. And it's more than just for aesthetic appeal. Having plants of varying heights creates an attractive arrangement that draws the eye and reduces competition for light and space. 

The thriller is the tallest plant. Examples include an upright like love-lies-bleeding amaranth with its bold red flowers or an eye-catching tri-color buddleia. 

Next is your filler. These are mounding or medium-height flowers like a nice impatiens mix, snapdragons, or cosmos. 

Then comes your spiller—something low-growing that spreads or trails like lobelia, sweet alyssum, or creeping zinnia.

2. Multi-Tier Containers

Multi-tiered containers are an excellent choice for creating showy spills of trailing flowers, creating a floral waterfall effect. They're also ideal for small yards, letting you take advantage of a little vertical space. You can even use multi-tier planters for growing edibles like salad leaves and strawberries.

3. Upcycle Old Stuff

If you remodel your bathroom, salvage the bathtub and maybe even the sink basin and repurpose them as containers. Antique bathtubs, in particular, are roomy enough to accommodate many plants—both annuals and perennials—and they make a quirky, one-of-a-kind permanent garden display. You can divert other furniture from landfills and create unique floral displays with chairs, chests of drawers, bed frames, old pallets, and more.

4. Group Small Pots

Small pots often look oddly lost when dotted around the garden, so group multiple small pots together for a more eye-catching arrangement. Create changing seasonal displays using many small pots. Put them in and out of rotation as the plants they contain bloom and die off throughout the year, so you've always got a fresh, bright display.

5. Use Containers of Different Heights

Planting plants of different heights in a single pot is smart, but it's limited. Applying this same planting style with containers of differing sizes lets you put together a much larger display with many more colors and textures. 

For example, a large, tall pot with something boldly showy could be the focal point of your design, bracketed by a pair of stately topiaries to draw the eye. This type of arrangement can be softened and made cohesive by using the thriller, filler, spiller method.

teracotta container plants lining walkway steps to home
Garden Guru - stock.adobe.com

6. Consider a Repeating Layout

Repeating layouts help to define a space. A series of identical pots with the same plants spaced equidistantly around the patio, for example, can help create a cohesive look and color palette. They can also highlight a linear feature, like a set of steps or the edge of a pool.

7. Create Your Color Palette

Now, what you might think of as complimentary of cohesive colors is very subjective. You may like purple and orange, while your partner might think that's the most obnoxious color combination they've ever seen. There's really no right or wrong here, but you should consider what you like in terms of colors and brightness. Here are some surefire color combinations:

  • Pink, blue, purple

  • Bright yellow, bold orange, deep red to brown

  • White and pastel yellow go with anything

8. Use Containers to Direct Visitors

If you want to keep kids or guests away from a particular part of your garden, such as where you're reseeding your lawn, use containers to create a visual but aesthetically pleasing boundary. You can also use pots, particularly long ones, to line a pathway to direct visitors towards the patio, a seating area, or other garden focal point.

9. Use Window Boxes Wisely

Window boxes can create the illusion of wild outdoor space, even if you live in a 6th-floor apartment. Add a little dramatic flare by filling them with long trailing plants or extend your green thumb to the kitchen and grow things you can eat. Window boxes are an excellent option for growing herbs and salad vegetables in a small space.

10. Make the Most of Your Vertical Space

If you've got a small outdoor space or you want to create more privacy or visual interest, get creative by maximizing vertical space. You can use obvious choices for climbing plants like honeysuckle, jasmine, or clematis to create a dramatic and fragrant wall of flowers, but you can think outside the average pot, too. Consider mounting containers to the wall or fence at different heights, then filling them with your favorite flowers, herbs, or foliage. A local handyperson can take care of this for you. 

You can even recycle containers to use in vertical gardens if you're feeling crafty. Just clean them, paint them, add drainage holes, mount them securely, then fill them with good-quality potting compost and your favorite plants. 

If you need some help creating your ideal container garden, hiring a local garden designer is a smart move, particularly if you have a large space or plan to make permanent or semi-permanent container features. 

Remember that container gardens need more water, feeding, and maintenance than plants growing directly in the earth. That's because those in containers have fewer and finite resources available. But you can always hire a gardener near you to manage the upkeep for you.

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