Underplanting in Containers

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Underplanting in Containers

I’ve yet to see a garden that doesn’t have at least a few planted containers included in its design.

Whether artfully placed near the front door, grouped together on the back patio, or perhaps incorporated into a garden bed, containers are beloved by gardeners everywhere.

Photo 2 - Deciduous Maple

Many gardeners, however, don’t take full advantage of their container, forgetting to plant the layer at the very top of the soil. If a container is packed full with several low growing plants, this isn’t really an issue. However, if a container’s main star is one that’s deciduous (such as a standard rose or Japanese maple) adding evergreen underplantings is a great way to add another ‘planting opportunity’ while creating year-round interest.

Photo 3 - Meyer lemon

By maximizing this untapped layer in the container, you’re able to turn a traditionally empty space into an opportunity to add a little harmony in your garden. For example, consider pulling out colors from surrounding plants to incorporate within this layer, creating unusual and exciting color echoes. The bright yellow lemons from a ‘Meyer’ lemon tree are cheerful on their own, but when coupled with the contrasting and complimentary colors of the purple and yellow violas, a stunning color combination is created, lasting for several months.

Photo 4 - Tall and spiky Cordyline

Perhaps the main star of the container isn’t deciduous, but is an evergreen plant that happens to be tall and upright (such as a spiky cordyline or phormium). Again, by planting the bottom layer you transform a one-layered container into one with two, or even three layers.

Photo 5 - Trailing Thyme

By choosing plants that gently cascade down the side of the container, you also help create visual ‘motion’ within an ordinarily static container. As the eye travels upwards to view the upright plant, it also travels downwards to follow the trailing plant. This type of visual motion is an important element that helps to keep the garden exciting.

Photo 6 - Layered Ajuga in bloom

To take this concept of visual motion one step further, consider setting this container near the front of a garden bed. Make sure you don’t set it directly on the soil, but instead use a stepping-stone to help aid with drainage. When choosing underplantings for the container, plant a few at the base of it as well. This not only creates further ‘motion’ as the eye travels down the side of the container to the ground level’s plantings, but it adds a new layer within the garden. More layers equal more interest!
Remember to choose underplantings that have the same water and lighting requirements as the container’s main star. If your container has a sun-loving rose in it, for example, you wouldn’t want to underplant with shade-loving baby’s tears! And water-thirsty lettuces would be miserable in a container with an agave (and visa versa!)

Photo 7 - Succulents with Roses

However, if you choose plants that have slightly different watering requirements, there is a trick you can use to help ‘even things out a bit’. For example, this standard rose prefers a bit more water than these drought-tolerant succulents. To avoid root-rot from excessive water (certain death for succulents) a lightweight and quick-draining cactus medium can be used in the upper third of this container. The result is happy succulents whose roots stay dry, while the rose’s roots get the water they need.

Photo 8 - Garden bling

And, as an added bonus, this new layer is a great place to tuck in a little ‘garden bling’ that can often go unnoticed in larger spaces. More plants? More ‘bling’? More harmony? What are you waiting for! Experiment with underplantings in your containers and have fun taking your garden to the next level!