Easy, Budget-Conscious Containers

When it comes to gardening, I'm nothing if not tenacious (although my husband calls it "stubborn…."), and right now that quality is coming in especially handy. Usually at this time of year I'd be anticipating leisurely visits to my favorite nurseries to carefully select an exciting array of shrubs, perennials, annuals, tropicals, and edibles to fill my containers to their usual overflowing lushness. I never go with a hard shopping list – rather just guidelines in terms of color schemes, design styles, and notes on my container sizes to I come home with plenty to choose from. I love the creative challenge, the opportunity for spontaneity, and the excitement as I watch the designs fill in over the season.

This year, like many of you, I'm faced with a significant lack of budget, closed nurseries, and/or limited online plant availability; all a result of the current pandemic. Yet I refuse to be thwarted and I'm determined to still plant up some beautiful container gardens this summer. It's going to take a little more ingenuity than usual but I've got lots of ideas to make it happen, and I'm happy to share them with you.

Note that although I can't plant out annuals until the night time temperatures are 50' or higher (typically mid-May/Mother's Day for the Seattle area), I can certainly start planning now and in many instances can get a jump start.

Keep it Simple

This is going to be my over-riding mantra this year. Typically my pots are seriously squished with all sorts of exciting treasures in a veritable tapestry of gorgeousness. Yet surprisingly,  I can still create that full, lush look using fewer plants and the final designs will also cost me significantly less money. This approach also makes shopping faster, easier, and safer; important for those of us who need to shop online this year or at least need to keep our browsing time to a minimum.

Here's how to keep it simple – but still sensational:

One plant per pot

Design by Pam Penick featuring foxtail fern and Frazzle Dazzle dyckia

Choose a single specimen plant that will completely fill out your pot. For this to work your plant needs to have gorgeous, colorful foliage  and/or an exceptionally long bloom time, whether shrubs, perennials or annuals. This also works best for plants that have a wide mounding habit as the aim is to have no soil visible after a couple of weeks thereby giving the illusion of fullness. These pots can then be grouped together or stand alone.


Plants to re-purpose:

Before you spend any money, look in your garden to see if you have something suitable that can be dug up now and transplanted to your container before the weather gets too warm. For example;

Pheasant tail grass can be "borrowed" from the garden. On this occasion it was surrounded by Bonfire begonia and sweet potato vine but would stand equally well solo. Design by Le jardinet

Ornamental grasses; larger varieties can be split so as to still leave some in the garden yet yield a small clump for a pot e.g. Karl Foerster feather reed grass and maiden grasses (Miscanthus). Or perhaps you have some smaller clump-forming grasses and sedges such as the colorful Carex in your garden – can you spare a couple from the landscape and use them to fill pots this season? Remember you can always put them back into the garden again in fall.

Young shrubs; will still have root systems that are easy to dig and can be transplanted safely while the weather is still cool. Look around your garden for colorful varieties of spirea, weigela, Osmanthus 'Goshiki', Leocothoe 'Rainbow', and variegated hibiscus e.g. Summer Ruffle and Sugar Tip

Dwarf shrubs; will be easier to transplant and more suitable for containers than their full-sized counterparts. Hunt for dwarf conifers, smaller varieties of abelia, lavender or dwarf ninebark e.g. Little Devil.

Perennials to 'borrow':

Rozanne geranium blooms non-stop from June until a hard frost

A single Geranium 'Rozanne' will fill a 3' x 3' space in the garden and bloom all summer long – dig one up to cascade over the sides of a tall pot and fill it out completely.  Heuchera, Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla varieties e.g. Jack Frost), hosta, and ferns all make exceptional container candidates. Remember you can put them back into the garden in fall.

Houseplants to take on vacation:

Croton and bromeliads take a summer vacation, joined here by golden creeping Jenny – a groundcover that you may already have in your shade garden

Tender ferns, Alocasia, Bromeliad, palms, and Croton can all go onto a shady patio in early June – just take them back inside before the first fall frosts. You can also order Caladium bulbs now and get those started – they are stunning in shade containers.

Plants worth buying:

Avalon is one of the beautifully color-cordinated Flower Pillows that you can order from Proven Winners

Annuals.  If you prefer to use annuals, choose just one type of plant to fill your pot – either all the same color or in a color blend e.g. purple, pale lavender and white or yellow, cream, and blue. You may need 3 or 5 of the same plant to completely fill a container. Choose trailing forms of million bells, petunias, and geraniums for taller pots or baskets and compact forms for shorter pots. If placing your order online or by phone I suggest you simplify things and  ask for "three trailing pink petunias – same variety (e.g. Proven Winners Vista Bubblegum Pink petunias) " rather than specifically requesting " 3 Proven Winners Vista Bubblegum Pink petunias" so that that the nursery can easily substitute a variety if necessary, understanding your criteria. This may save you frustration and disappointment.

Diamond Mountain euphorbia is an outstanding performer. Photo courtesy; Proven Winners

Recommended annuals for their ability to both fill and spill: million bells, petunias, wishbone flower (Torenia) geraniums, annual Euphorbia e.g. 'Diamond Frost' and 'Diamond Mountain', Begonia boliviensis varieties e.g. Bonfire and Million Kisses or perhaps order one of the Flower Pillows from Proven Winners.

Treat yourself to that young Japanese maple, plant it in a container topped with decorative pebbles and nestle it into the border. Design by Carol Ager

Shrubs. The beauty of buying these is that they can be transplanted into your garden in fall or kept in the container for another year assuming the pot is large enough. It's a great, budget-friendly way to shop. In addition to the shrubs mentioned above check out these ideas; Tiger Eyes sumac, Matcha Ball ash leaf spirea (A new, non-suckering Sorbaria)

Goodhearted tomato by Proven Winners did really well for me in a container last year and didn't need staking

Edibles: Planning on growing more fruit and veggies this year? Many are so decorative as to earn a spot right on the patio! Look for smaller varieties of blueberry e.g. Sunshine Blue, strawberries, colorful lettuce mixes, chard, kale, and of course herbs.

Simple, mixed designs

A single specimen plant, each underplanted with just 1 or 2 other species creates an extravagant, abundant look yet is quick to create

Perhaps you have containers already planted with a small tree or shrub and usually fill in around the base with annuals? I have several pots just like that and I usually add 3 or 4 different types of annuals around the base to finish the design, but with limited shopping options this year I'm going to simplify and just use one type of filler and/or one type of spiller. For example I'm going to surround my Tiger Eyes sumac, currently planted in a 2' x 2' cube container with 8 Cardinal Star million bells. This is a good strong grower, the yellow eye will repeat the foliage color of the shrub while the red will add contrast.

I also have an Orange Rocket barberry in a tall orange container. Usually I surround it with annual Euphorbia, verbena, and a trailer such as Dichondra 'Silver Falls'. This year I am going to just use 6  annual Euphorbia – whatever variety I can find 6 of.

Free things:

Maybe you don't need plants at all? Homeowner JoAnn filled her container with decorative glass and pebbles. Glass artist: Jesse Kelly.

Do one final walk around your garden to see what other treasures you might be able to use either as a finishing touch or just to flush out a design. Look for;

  • Decorative rocks, pebbles or fir cones to hide any visible soil in your pots
  • Small pieces of garden art that you can add as a fun accent
  • Seedlings that have self-sown in your gravel paths and borders. I found perennial sage (Salvia), lavender, blanket flower (Gaillardia), succulents/sedums, grasses, Siberian bugloss, tall verbena, and hardy geraniums
  • Groundcovers that you can use as trailers e.g. periwinkle, golden creeping Jenny, bugle weed (Ajuga)
  • Curly willow or curly hazel branches that you can prune and use to add height in pots rather than buying an expensive plant to fill that role this year


As gardeners and garden lovers with thumbs in varying shades of green and brown, we are used to observing the cycle of life, of dealing with the inevitable pests and diseases, of adapting to unforeseen circumstances that threaten to derail our garden plans (whether hurricanes or heavy snow), and we are used to problem solving. We are the eternal optimists.  We thrive on hope, on tomorrow's promises, and on today's joy. Let's celebrate each tiny victory and encourage one another. We can do this.

Header image featuring Catalina Gilded Grape wishbone flower courtesy of Proven Winners

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  1. Marlen Jacobs on April 14, 2020 at 9:01 am

    Thanks Karen. Once again you do amazing stuff. Please let me know which blog you are using; I'm about to start one.