Container rules are meant to follow, bend, or break

I love this shape for smaller pots.

In a recent column, Washington Post gardening columnist Adrian Higgins addressed the long-hallowed “thriller/filler/spiller” theory of container gardening. He defended it and debunked it at the same time, which seems right to me. While it’s true that the drama of a tall plant is heightened by contrasting plants that spill over the sides and fill in the middle, there are plenty of other ways to create great containers. One big beautiful plant—papyrus, coleus, colocasia, banana—or a colorful array of dense annuals can be glorious in a good container. Ordinarily, however, I do like color contrast. My favorite contrasts are various permutations of yellow/purple/white, and green (light green). It tends to work better if the contrasting plants have different forms and textures, so you find yourself following t/f/s almost by default.

There are other elements where I agree and disagree with the how-tos.

The recommendations are always to provide brand-new potting soil with every planting; problems such as disease, compaction, and too many fertilizer salts are cited. Often I have no choice, because when I take old plants out, their roots have completely taken over and there’s no soil left. But if there is soil, I compromise, mixing in some new, but keeping the old, and fluffing it up a bit. I’ve never seen a problem. I always use some type of potting mix.

This (the little black one) is the smallest container I’ve ever planted. Probably not in there for the long haul.

My personal rule is the bigger the better, in most cases, and I hate plastic. So that lands me with some heavy containers. I’ve tried to use fewer and better pots over the years; I’ve also found that if I cover them with tarps, I don’t have to store them over the winter. They survived Buffalo’s recent winter with no problem. That helped when it came time to set them up.

Please note: the whole idea of putting shards, gravel, packing peanuts etc. in the bottom of pots for drainage has been thoroughly debunked by our friends, the Garden Professors, many times. Just google it.

Milk delivery box

Goofy containers
It’s fun to have a few of these, but not too many. Every Garden Walk, I get comments on the old metal milk delivery box I use for a big shade plant or summering house plant and the old coffee pot that holds … whatever it holds that year. It’s as close as I get to the dreaded garden “whimsy.” (Hate this word.)

I know that some gardeners think of containers as high maintenance or otherwise troublesome. Not me. They’re excellent vehicles for experimenting with new annuals, enjoying tropicals outside, and having fun with color. Agree?

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. When repotting my perennial herbs, I pull the whole thing out of the pot and hack off the bottom couple of inches of the root ball. New potting soil goes into the bottom of the pot (I use coffee filters to keep soil from leaking out the drainage hole), then I may top dress with fresh potting soil as well. Re a well established potted plant, like my Meyer lemon “tree”, I periodically top dress with granulated compost. For annuals, I throw the spent potting soil into the raised beds and use fresh. I’m experimenting with growing crocosmia and penstemon in containers this year.

  2. Could you expand a bit about using tarps over your containers therefore not having to move them to a shelter for the winter? A particular kind of tarp? Raise the container off the ground? Any other detail? TY!

    • We just threw a tarp to stop water from getting in and freezing and had them all in a group. On the ground.

  3. I have a customer who has two beautiful ceramic containers at her front door with a hinoki cypress in each one. They need to be taken out and I think root pruned. Have you ever done this?

    • Hi Deborah,

      You are above my pay grade now. I have never been that interested in evergreens in containers, as it seems to difficult to keep them going. None of my containers have permanent residents, in any case, mainly because I need them for bulbs in the fall. Good luck!

    • Sounds like bonsai at a larger scale.

      I would suggest also lining large pots with bubble wrap, which helps insulate the roots and more importantly helps prevent cracking of the pots.

  4. Thanks for the article. I really want to do more container gardening, but am a little clueless. What kind of pots do you use? I love the idea of using easy care natives in containers and leaving them out all winter, but haven’t been able to figure out what kind container to use. Wooden boxes or metal maybe?

    • I have been using various types of ceramic/pottery containers, BUT I saw some amazing COR-TEN enclosures recently, which kind of a steel hybrid and if there were containers made of that, it would be very modern looking and totally impervious to weather.

  5. I agree with you too much. Every year I vow to not do too many containers, and every year I seem to add more. A move saved me last year, but this year, they are being potted up once again. I’ve been adding blown glass pieces, bamboo and other objects to my containers, and now I am inspired to do more!

    I’m with you on the plastic. For the whimsical (sorry are you wincing?) I go to thrift stores and such and look for unusual objects to plant in for fun. It is a creative outlet so yes!

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