Containers – Sassy or Classy?


The peachy toned Heucherella 'Sweet tea' becomes more playful when combined with 'Orange rocket' barberry

When it comes to color schemes for container gardens the only limitation is your imagination. To avoid the mad professor look it does help to have a plan before you hit the nurseries, however. In my last post we looked at ‘happy’ colors and a romantic theme. Here are another couple of options my clients and I love.

Make it sassy!

On its own this 'Million kisses – Elegance' begonia could suggest a pastel scheme. Add in deeper shades with 'Spitfire' coleus, rust colored 'kangaroo paws' and 'Copper spoons' kalanchoa and it's gone from subtle to sassy!

Where does happy end and sassy begin? Perhaps sassy could be described as having something of a ‘naughty but nice’ attitude! Orange is a real hot little number this year with plenty of sassiness. It can pretend to be a soft peach then throw on some richer shades to become quite the dazzler. Gentle starting points might be apricot begonias or soft, caramel coral bells (Heuchera) but when partnered with  richer ruby shades their personality changes!





Softer shades of apricot dahlias are already providing drama with their dark foliage. When combined with the jewel toned mirror plant they take on a whole new look

Several varieties of mirror plant (Coprosma ) are perfect for adding a little naughtiness. With its reflective surface and jewel like foliage this aptly named tender shrub can quickly enliven quieter partners. The cultivar 'Tequila sunrise’ emerges emerald green with a gold margin, gradually becoming marbled with brilliant orange and gold hues. In mild areas it lasts through winter and the leaf color intensifies to brilliant orange and red. ‘Roy’s red’ is a deeper bronze at first but a deep purple-red later in the season . Either one will transform the quieter shades of orange to party goers.


There are many shades of coleus to choose from – 'Spitfire' is one of my favorites this year and revels in sun



Orange flowers and foliage are really popular again this year so look for annuals such as coleus, lantana, million bells (Calibrachoa), and African daisies (Osteospermum). Perennials, shrubs and grasses include cultivars of coral bells (Heuchera), heathers with colorful foliage (e.g. Calluna v. ‘Winter chocolate’), barberries (Berberis) and sedges (e. g. orange hair sedge (Carex testacea)).


Keep it Classy

Truly elegant – chartreuse and black foliage with just a hint of white from Impatiens

For something completely different consider the ‘little black dress’ look- chic, modern and elegant. Begin with a curvaceous black container perhaps, adding shades of green with white accents.


If you prefer a more contemporary vibe select a container with clean lines and keep planting to a minimum so the focus is crisp. The classy look is about form not flowers so foliage is the key component. Bright chartreuse looks fabulous in a black container and there are plenty of options from the annual ‘Marguerite’ sweet potato vine (Ipomoea) and assorted coleus to perennial coral bells (Heuchera) such as key lime pie to the stunning golden full moon maple (Acer shirasawanum 'Aureum').

It's all about the leaves – black, silver and bright green sets the color theme

If fragrance is important to you look no further than citrus scented ‘Goldcrest’ Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa 'Wilma Goldcrest'). Repeat the container color with black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’); great in sun or shade, and you're off to a good start.


Stylish jewelry completes any outfit so what about adding a little silver – wormwood (Artemisia), licorice plant (Helichrysum) and silver bush (Convolvulus cneorum) would all bring a little sparkle. Or add few metallic glass pebbles to dress things up.


A little silver or other metallic 'jewelry' can give that final flourish

Other black foliage options include ‘Blackie’ sweet potato vine (Ipomoea) ‘Black lace’ elderberry (Sambucus nigra) , ‘Hillside black beauty’ bugbane (Cimifuga simplex), and ‘Obsidian’ coral bells (Heuchera).


A little planning before your nursery visit will help you pull together a great design rather than a jumble of plants. What look are you going for this year?



A special thank you to my friend and co-author Christina Salwitz   for sharing her talent and photographs



UPDATE! Both my books Fine Foliage (St. Lynn's Press, 2013) and Gardening with Foliage First (Timber Press, 2017) feature a WEALTH of ideas for combining foliage to either a create classy or sassy framework for your designs. Even better, those ideas translate to the landscape design too! Check them out using my affiliate links. These save YOU money – and earn me a few pennies towards my next sassy factor 'must-have'!


Container Gardening to Suit Your Style, filmed for Garden Gate magazine. Check out the  a trailer video and full details here then use my code KCHAPMAN to get 20% off!

Designing Abundant Containers: learn to plan, shop, and design with confidence. Details here




  1. Carolyn @ Carolyns Shade Gardens on June 27, 2012 at 8:58 am

    I like sassy an classy and usually have a container or two for each. I must admit though I go to the nursery and impulse buy the plants containers. For me that's the fun of it, I guess because I own a nursery and never get to shop. I haven't been able to get on your blog for a while—kept getting an error message—so I am glad to be back. Thanks for visiting mine.

    • Karen Chapman on June 27, 2012 at 5:11 pm

      Hi Carolyn – certainly when you're in 'the business' it does take the edge off buying plants as you're selling them or buying them every day for others. I like to buy a 'challenge plant' – an idea started by my husband. It's not so much of an impulse buy as it is an excuse to stretch my design abilities and try something new. I've found some great plants that way!
      PS Glad you're back – always enjoy hearing from you

  2. Stacy on June 27, 2012 at 12:12 pm

    Beautiful combinations, Karen, and I love the description of silvers as the "jewelry" in the containers. (By that standard, NM has nothing BUT jewelry!) 😉 Just saw the side-bar about your forthcoming book — that's wonderful!

    • Karen Chapman on June 27, 2012 at 5:13 pm

      Maybe NM is way ahead of the curve Stacy!!
      Thanks for the comment about the book. It's an exciting and scary project all at the same time. There always seems to be a deadline that was yesterday! The combinations we have found and photographed are stunning though – thanks in no small part to the professional photographer who is working with us.

  3. Shirley Bovshow "edenmaker" on June 27, 2012 at 7:32 pm

    Beautiful combinations. I like the apricot/orange tones they are both bright and classy.

    • Karen Chapman on June 28, 2012 at 9:24 pm

      You got lost in the spam – sorry about that!Yes I love orange, coral, apricot tones too and have lots of fun using them. I hope I can post 'mature' photos in a month or twos time

  4. Jennifer on June 28, 2012 at 7:40 pm

    I see you have a book in the works. That is so exciting! And with it only a year away, I bet you are super busy Karen. I love the way you use foliage particularly. That way even when there is nothing in flower you are bound to still have a beautiful container.
    P.S. I have taken your idea of adding herbs to my containers and put it into action. I am really pleased with the results.

    • Karen Chapman on June 28, 2012 at 7:48 pm

      Thanks Jennifer – it IS exciting but also a little daunting as everything has to be finished by October! So glad you have found my ideas helpful – we all need a little fresh inspiration from time to time.