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Container gardens

Make the season spectacular


From urban settings and city streets to pastoral scenic landscapes, containers are at home just about anywhere – and everywhere.

Chives and rosemary; cherry tomatoes and red peppers, banana plant, deep and rich “First Knight” Pennisetum (fountain grass) – even hens and chicks are among the many types of plants that will thrive when grown in containers.

Container planting is a popular way to decorate the landscape.

Add color to your property, lift work-weary spirits, flavor food with fresh herbs and consider growing fresh fruits and vegetables for the dinner table.

Containers come in all shapes and sizes; materials and colors. They’re portable, easy to manage, offer a great introduction to beginning gardeners, youngsters and gentle gardening for seniors.

Tina Sottolano-Cain, a horticulturist and owner of Gardens on the Go in Hartsville, suggests clients think of containers as “the jewelry” in the landscape.

“When folks come to me they want extraordinary,” Sottolano-Cain said of her custom container designs.

For container growing success, take some time to understand how plants grow in containers and what conditions they need to thrive.

Container types

Whether you choose classic stone or iron containers for a grand entrance or statement, a collection of simple clay pots, sturdy and durable high quality resins, or vibrant glazed pottery for eye-catching color, the sky’s the limit when it comes to container gardening.

Andrew Eckhoff, general manager at Bountiful Acres in Buckingham Township, said customers are “still enamored with glazed pottery. Blues and aqua, black cobalt, oxblood red in all sizes” are popular options.

From small to enormous, containers are flexible options.

“From something you could put on a bistro table to something that takes three men to move around, is 30-inches wide and holds about 200 pounds of soil,” Eckhoff said.

A brief history

You might think containers are something new – they’re not.

Growing vegetables, herbs and ornamental plants in containers dates back to ancient times – from the Egyptians to The Hanging Gardens of Babylon Before the Common Era (BCE).

So revered were The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, they were listed among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, according to

Container plant a tree

Many shrubs and trees will grow well in containers, while some types require protection or indoor shelter over the winter months.

Look for dwarf varieties along with those specifically bred for containers or small spaces when sourcing large items like shrubs and trees.

From trees to tropical plant specimens in large pots offer substance and drama in the garden, on a patio, porch, or at a garage or front door.

If you invest in a large container and specimen planting, there are services in Bucks County, including Bountiful Acres, which offer fee-based “hotel” care for your plants during the winter months.

“Plants cost is by the size of the container and the length of the stay,” Eckhoff said.

Thrillers, spillers and fillers

Keep the trio of “thrillers, spillers and fillers” as a mantra, as well as grouping plants based on similar light, feeding and water needs and you have a solid starting recipe for successful container gardening.

Margaret Pickhoff, a commercial horticulture educator in the Bucks County office of Penn State Extension in Wrightstown Township, said when designing professional looking containers – keep the trio top of mind.


Thrillers are the main centerpiece in any impressive container. They will include the most dramatic features, the biggest blossoms or foliage or the brightest colors, Pickhoff said.

“Canna lilies and caladium are nice thrillers, and they both have big tropical foliage,” she said.

Don’t forget about tall ornamental grasses as statement thriller, too.

“A lot of gardeners forget about these, and they are great for adding textures and colors like blues, purples and grays,” she explained.

Ornamental grasses grown in containers will not be as hardy as those grown in the ground, so set expectations for using them as an annual, or decide in advance how you will over winter them when cold temperatures come.

“Dahlias are nice to use as a thriller. They can get tall and the blossoms are big. You can incorporate all sorts of colors into the container,” Pickhoff said.

Dahlia root tubers must be prepared and brought indoors if you expect to use them again next year. They may also be treated as an annual and enjoyed.


Spillers are the plants that cascade over the edges of pots, containers, window boxes and hanging baskets.

They can include creeping Jenny, vinca vines, sweet potato vine and various ivy types, among many others.

Spillers offer contrasting color, texture and interest, especially in tall or large containers. Many spillers are perennials, so keep that in mind during fall clean up in the garden and landscape. Cascading petunias can serve as spillers, too.

Look for Million Bells (calibrachoa) as a pretty floral spiller.

“It’s becoming very popular (calibrachoa), and while we still see a lot of petunias I think they may be starting to be swapped out with calibrachoa,” she said.

Consider hardy pest tolerant varieties, some of which are even pest repellent, Pickhoff said.


Fillers are plants that “fill in” gaps in a container and add depth and texture.

Fillers may be small foliage plants or have smaller flowers. Think of them in the “mid ground” in your container garden, Pickhoff explained.

“My favorite is lantana, as the colors are bright and the flowers are small. Coleus is another good one, and there are so many varieties out there these days with all sorts of colors and increased sun tolerance. Some are bred to do pretty well in full sun, and they add nice texture,” she said.

“Angelonia (summer snapdragon) is a nice filler. The flowers are smaller and have different color combinations,” she said.

Native plants are another trend being incorporated into container gardens, Pickhoff said.

Often associated with Grandma’s flower beds and borders, begonias are another plant enjoying a surge in popularity, thanks to more varieties coming to market.

Look for various begonia types grown specifically for their foliage, as well as varieties bred to tolerate sun.

“Begonias are new with different varieties, especially using them for their unique and intriguing foliage,” Pickhoff said.


Growing plants for their foliage has become an attractive, modern approach to gardening and container gardening.

“People don’t realize foliage needs shade, unless you are using something for flowers, like cannas, and you can cut the flower off. Elephant ears (colocasia) have the big heart shaped leaves, and they prefer part shade, and they do work well in 4 to 6 hours of sun,” Sottolano-Cain said.

She recommends cordylines for containers, as they can adapt to both sun and shade exposures.

“Cordylines make a strong statement with their bold color and wide shaped leaves,” she said.


Many varieties—from beans to corn, tomatoes, peppers and even pickles are easier to grow in containers than ever before, thanks to specialized seed breeding.

“People want to grow food,” Sottolano-Cain.

Considering growing salad greens and spinach in a “salad bowl,” or plant succulent cascading strawberries in a terra cotta jar or strawberry pot.

Pick appropriate varieties and make sure containers are adequate for the mature size of the plant.

To discourage squirrels, consider top dressing containers with pine cones or even oyster shells.

To discourage deer from dining on your tender vegetable plants, think about companion planting.

“You can add lantana, angelonia and alyssum, which are deer resistant. Consider adding a granular and liquid repellent to containers to repel deer, too,” she said.

Go tropical

Tropical plants won’t over winter in Bucks County without winter shelter, but that doesn’t mean you can’t grow them here.

Set realistic expectations and treat these beauties as annuals. Popular container tropicals include hibiscus and mandevilla, with its pure candy apple reds and soft pink tones, Sottolano-Cain said.

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