• Alison Murray

The Secrets of Container Planting

Updated: Oct 4, 2019

As with all garden design, careful planning is a key factor that leads to a good display. Within this are five fundamental secrets to container planting:

  • Design

  • Colour

  • Texture

  • Layering

  • Timing

Planning ahead saves a whole lot of disappointment later on, think about where you container is to be positioned, its aspect and if it will be in sun, shade, sheltered or exposed. When you want the container to be at its peak, when the plants might flower and when some may die back and how your plants will work together colour and texture wise.


Think: ‘thrillers, fillers and spillers’.

  • Thrillers - The ‘thriller’ is the key player, something with impact and often taller than the rest of the contenders.

  • Fillers - 'fillers’ cover the rest of the container surface and will in the gaps

  • Spillers - the spillers are the cascading plants that will tumble over the side and break up the boundary between the edge of the container add the fillers.

Including two out the the tree is key. If you'r spillers are bulky enough your might miss out on the fillers, and vice -a-versa, particularly if you like the look of your pot.


Colour combinations are crucial, so the spring bulbs and surface planting don't collide colour-wise. Inevitably one person's colour clash is another's joyous vivid display. Too many colours and it might just look a mess, sticking with two or three gives the planting a bit more cohesion.


Texture can really make a display without the need for gaudy blooms, be it a floaty grassy feel, interesting leaf structure and patterns or textured foliage. If you're plumbing for a more floral output you can get away with less consideration for texture.


With flowering plants, then what blooms when is key, so the container has a point of maximum impact and stays appealing throughout the season. With our mild British winters it is possible to stretch out even winter displays right through from autumn to springtime.

Below ground, it is just like making a trifle, layering the bulbs with the later flowering ones lowest down. Then all you need to do is replace the surface planting early summer.

This old Belfast sink is planted first with Allium sphaerocephalon, on top of 10-15cm of compost. They’re covered with a further 10cm and then Narcissus ‘Sailboat’ are placed above.

It's always a good idea to place your plants out on the surface to check the arrangement works and that they have enough room to grow. The thriller is Hebe speciosa ‘Variegata’ with its purple edged leaves and purple flowers late summer. Orange pansies are good doers and makeup the ‘fillers’ and Hedera helix ‘Glacier’ spill over. Trachelospermum jasminoides is the climber.

My winter and early spring theme is a zingy purple and orange and white combo. When it comes to tulips timing is key. Either go all in, with all flowering at once, or a succession of colour. I've gone for purple, Tulipa ‘Negrita’ which will open mid-late April and is teamed with the lily-flowered ‘Ballerina’ which will overlap, blooming late April to early May. Odd numbers are apparently more psychologically appealing than even.

Summer 2020 will be blue and white, so Allium caeruleum went in this container first. These burst with mid blue blooms a bit bigger than a ping pong ball in June and July. The alliums can then stay in the compost for a few years and all I need do is replace the spring flowering bulbs on top.

More compost, then in go the tulip bulbs, leaving a space in the middle so the Cyclamen hederifolium ‘Alba’ isn't forced up when the stems emerge. The cyclamen is surrounded by with Viola x wittrockiana ’Tricolor ‘. Viola’s are daintier than their sister pansies and a little less hardy but they readily survive our warm British winters. As the tulips mature they will take over and I’ll remove the violas if things get too crowded. No spillers here, but some might go in the in the summer.

34 views0 comments