Container gardening Local Master Gardeners offer advice on keeping creative planters beautiful

Topiary hibiscus, sun coleus creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia) and Diamond Frost Euphorbia (Euphorbia graminea) fill this container.

From traditional window boxes to repurposed containers, gardeners everywhere are potting up their plants. It seems no matter how long I work on it, finding the perfect container combinations and keeping them looking great seem to take constant inspiration.

So I asked Clemson Extension Master Gardeners to share their favorite tips and plant combinations for beautiful, low-maintenance container gardens.

Heather Powers says, “You can grow almost everything in a container, and almost anything can be a container.”

She proved it by “up-cycling” a set of old dresser drawers into a creative planter.

Beth McCandless finds that even traditional garden features such as birdbaths take on new life when planted with fragrant herbs such as lemon thyme.

Sue Lawley found the bottom of an old sea buoy on a neighbor’s trash pile. A few drainage holes in the bottom and a coat of paint to enhance its hammered metal finish turned trash into treasure. Lawley’s favorite three-season flowering combination consists of pansies, snapdragons, stock, licorice plant (Helichrysum petiolare), alyssum and the prolific blooming hybrid Supertunia.

Filling large containers with high-quality potting media containing slow-release fertilizer can become cost prohibitive and make pots too heavy to move.

Karen Smelter says, “You don’t need to fill a large pot with all soil.”

Adding lightweight packing materials such as Styrofoam peanuts to the bottom of a pot not only lessens its weight, but saves money.

Smelter’s large-scale pots contain topiary hibiscus, combined with sun coleus Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia), and Diamond Frost Euphorbia (Euphorbia graminea).

John Pienadz suggests gardeners try adding a bag of soil, then placing several empty 2 or 3 liter soda bottles with caps on, and adding more soil to fill the pot. Pienadz’s pots pack a tropical punch, combining Kimberly Queen ferns (Nephrolepis obliterata), plumeria, tropical hibiscus and chenille plant (Acalypha hispida).

Yvette Guy uses drill bits made for ceramic and glass to drill drainage holes into clay and concrete vessels. An avid herb gardener, she advises, “Always plant with good drainage in mind ... especially for herbs, because wet feet will kill most of them.”

Guy also cautions that plant roots in pots left on patios or in other sunny locations are vulnerable to overheating and “cooking,” so choose heavy clay pots to protect plant roots. Her favorite long-lasting container is a large glazed bowl filled with blooming chives and edible flowering dianthus.

From colorful exuberance to quiet understatement, creative expression draws gardeners to containers.

Cathy Damron prefers the ease of grouping single plants in individual pots to create cohesion. Eve Brown masses glazed blue pots filled with red and white impatiens as a memorial to her son, Gene, who loved gardening and once served in the Navy.

She says she has spent a small fortune on blue pots, but designing a garden in her son’s memory has been great therapy.

Planting in containers allows gardeners to use every inch of space available to them. Master Gardeners grow fruit trees, vegetables, edible flowers and herbs, along with ornamentals, to maximize space. Donna Powell incorporates strawberries, rosemary, lavender, sage, thyme and tarragon into pots. She adds nasturtiums, purple basil and Japanese eggplant for edible elegance.

A drip irrigation system makes watering easier; without it, frequent hand watering is necessary to keep most container gardens thriving during the heat of summer. The Master Gardeners say that while automatic watering with timers and drip systems is great, they also offer the following tips for reducing water use:

Choose light-colored containers to reflect heat.

Edge containers into shadier areas during the summer.

Place pots directly on soil instead of paved surfaces to reduce water loss.

Mulch containers with moss, compost or pine straw.

Choose “garden soil” over “potting soil” so pots don’t dry out too quickly.

After watering, fertilize with water-soluble fertilizer every few weeks or as needed to meet the needs of the plant.

You can find inspiration at local garden centers, magazines and websites such as Pinterest. Stubbs says, “Remember this rule: You will need a “thriller, filler and spiller,” but you don’t have to replace every plant in the container each season.

Susan Seabrook uses evergreens and tall perennials as thrillers and spillers in her combinations, and changes out the filler to match the season. Seabrook recommends canna lilies, coleus, globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa), wire vine (Muehlenbeckia axillaris), and purple-heart vine for part-sun gardens.

The last bit of advice from the Master Gardeners is to group plants with similar needs for easier maintenance, keeping in mind these “mini-landscapes” are only temporary. To revamp tired planters, dismantle them, add fresh potting media, divide and re-plant perennials, pop in new annual color and enjoy.

Amy L. Dabbs is the urban horticulture extension agent and Tri-County Master Gardener coordinator for the Clemson University Cooperative Extension. Send questions to