Container Planting Made Simple!

Container gardening is a fun and creative way to add interest to your outdoor space and add year round interest. There are some basic concepts to know to ensure the success of your planting. While there are many different types of materials used for planters, some are better used than others, depending on your location and hardiness zone. First, there is concrete, which is attractive, durable and can take just about any type of weather. It is important to note; however, that concrete could be quite heavy. Terra-cotta or clay containers are very attractive, and excellent for warmer temperatures, but should not be left outside during winter in colder climates, as they are somewhat fragile and can chip easily. I bring mine indoors here in zone 7 once the temperatures drop to below 50 degrees to prevent that from happening. An alternate is a durable form of wood, such as cedar or non-treated pine, which will last for years to come. To prolong the lifetime of your planter, brush surfaces with a clear waterproofing sealer meant for outdoor wood. My favorite and most often used materials for containers include resin, fiberglass or plastic, all which will last for several seasons, are less costly and provide an attractive look. Many resin planters today look just like real concrete and add a nice touch to the garden.

Figure 1: Left to Right-Variegated Boxwood, Columnar Juniper ‘Blue Arrow’ and Chamaecyparis ‘Nana Lutea’

When choosing your plants, try to combine various plants for their interest, whether it be for foliage, blooms or other characteristic. In most planter combinations, the three basic elements include the “thrillers”, “fillers” and “spillers”. The “thriller” is known to add height and make a bold vertical statement. In the container planting above (Figure 1), the columnar juniper takes the role of “thriller”, making a statement and drawing the eye into the center. “Filler” plants are the more rounded selections that are usually placed around the main focal point and add a look of fullness to the planter. “Spiller” plants are added to hang over the edges of the container to give a more flowing look. The “fillers” in the above planter and in Figure 2 are the rounded boxwood and cypress, with a Dwarf Alberta Spruce as the “thriller’ in Figure 2. In Figure 3, three Mondo Grass make a simple planting with foliage spilling over the edges of the container. In Figure 4, there is a similar look with Black Mondo Grass on one side and Golden Japanese Sedge on the other, with Heuchera ‘Caramel’ for color in the center.

Figure 2: Same Planter as Above with Dwarf Alberta Spruce in Center

I for one like to enjoy my container planters all year long, so I often use a combination of evergreens, which can be appreciated not only during summertime, but in every season, including winter. The key is to choose plants which are at least two zones hardier than your location. I use plants which are cold hardy down to at least zone 5, since I am located in zone 7. This ensures that should the winter temperatures be colder than expected, the plants will survive. I also tend to keep the planters in a more sheltered area, such as near the house during the colder winter months. They receive regular watering from rain and or snow, but if there is a dry period, I will make a point of keeping the containers watered at least twice a month.

Figure 3: Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens,’  (Black Mondo Grass)
Figure 4: Left to Right: Black Mondo Grass, Heuchera ‘Caramel’ and Japanese Golden Sedge

Figure 5: Dwarf Alberta Spruce (center), Thuja occidentalis ‘Filiformis’ (Threadlike Arborvitae) left and right and Chamaecyparis ‘Nana’ (front center)

When it comes time to plant your container garden, I recommend a light, peat moss based all-purpose mixture, which will supply good drainage. Be sure there are adequate drainage holes for excess water to escape and that the container drains freely. I do not add rocks to the bottom of the pot, since I have found they can end up doing more harm than good, clogging the planter and not allowing water to drain. When planting, very gently loosen the root ball around each plant to prevent it from becoming root-bound and plant slightly higher than the soil level to allow for watering and top dressing or an additional layer of mulch, which will help to regulate soil temperature. Be sure that the plant is no deeper than the container it came in. Water right after planting and keep the container evenly moist, but not wet. For point of reference, the planter in Figure 5 measures 20 inches in diameter, while the smaller planters (Figures 1-3) are 18 inches long by 8 inches wide and Figure 4 measures 20 inches long by 8 inches wide.

For another type of look, try filling a terra-cotta pot with a variety of succulents (below) to create these sun-loving succulent planters or make a simple combination of various types of Coleus (bottom figure) for a shade setting. These are both fun and easy to create and will add interest all season long, until the temperatures freeze. I have found the succulent planters to overwinter just fine indoors alongside a sunny window or in a heated garage with some sunlight.. When it comes to selecting, I simply go to the nursery, choose my container and select succulents or Coleus that range in size, shape and color and always choose something that strikes my attention. Lay out the plants in the pot and give allowance for room to grow. The moral of the story is to have fun, get creative and keep in mind…”thrillers”, “fillers” and “spillers”!

For more gardening tips: Visit My Author Page and Books

A Guide to Northeastern Gardening: Journeys of a Garden Designer Zones 3-9

Landscape Design Combinations

Dream, Garden, Grow!-Musings of a Lifetime Gardener.

Gardening by Month: A Monthly Guide to Planning the Northeastern & Mid-Atlantic Garden

Shade Gardening for the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic: A Guide to Planning the Ultimate Shade Garden

Author: Lee@A Guide To Landscape Design & Maintenance Copyright 2022. All Rights Reserved.

Growing and Maintaining Alocasia (Elephant Ear) Plant

Alocasia, also known as The Elephant Ear, is a large tropical looking plant displaying large, deep green arrow-shaped leaves, resembling the ears of an elephant. Planted as a tuber, the magnificent foliage of the plant can reach up to 9 feet (3 meters) in height with leaf spans up to three feet long! Alocasia are warm climate plants, cold hardy in USDA hardiness zones 7 through 11, depending on the species. They are commonly grown as annuals in colder climates and make wonderful focal points in the garden, serving nicely as accent pieces, especially when grown in containers.

Alocasia Tuber

Growing Elephant Ear plants is simple with very little maintenance necessary. Most of these plants prefer rich, moist soil and can be grown in full sun, but they generally prefer partial shade. The tubers can be placed directly outdoors once there is no threat of frost or freezing temperatures, which occurs around mid-April here in my zone 7a garden. Plant the tubers about 2 to 3 inches deep, blunt end down in a rich, organic potting soil. I use a large container (at least 16-20 inches in diameter) and plant just one plant. It will take several weeks for the first foliage to appear, but once the roots are established, the plant will rapidly grow throughout the summer months.

Alocasia Elephant Ear Plant Mid-Summer

Your Elephant Ear plant will continue to grow to its maximum size, which will occur around July or August. It is recommended to keep your plants well-watered and to feed them once a month with an organic slow release fertilizer (such as bone meal) to maintain their vigor. As the plant matures and older foliage fades, simply remove any undesirable stalks at the base and new shoots will form. Planting around the perimeter of your large planter will add additional interest. In this planter I used a combination of Sweet Potato Vine and Morning Glory surrounding the large leaves of the Alocasia.

Alocasia Elephant Ear Plant Late Summer

Elephant ears cannot survive winter outdoors. When autumn arrives, along with freezing temperatures, the plants must be dug up and stored indoors. After the first frost, cut the foliage back to about a couple of inches and carefully dig up the plants. Allow the tubers to dry out for about a day or two and then store them in peat moss or shavings in a cool, dark area such as in a garage or basement to overwinter. Repeat planting the following year!

For more gardening tips and design ideas: My books on Amazon:

Visit my Author Page

A Guide to Northeastern Gardening: Journeys of a Garden Designer  Landscape Design Combinations
Dream, Garden, Grow!-Musings of a Lifetime Gardener

Author:  Lee@Landscape Design By Lee 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Constructing a Retaining Wall: How To Guide

This past summer, I re-designed a raised planting bed that was constructed out of an old railroad tie retaining wall that was decaying and crumbling over time. I had the opportunity of watching the crew at work, so I figured I would share the installation process with you. There is a correct method of installing the wall to ensure that it is going to be functional and permanent. I used the Nicolock Firma Wall System Toffee/Onyx stone for this particular project, but if you are using another material, such as natural stone, the process is similar.

Step 1: Excavate soil and build base
Step 1: Excavate soil and build base

First, the original railroad tie wall had to be demolished and removed, while the soil around the perimeter area had to be excavated. It is important to dig down the equivalent of one course of block (eight inches in this case) and use a leveling device to obtain an even base. Add a recycled concrete layer under where the wall stone is going, approximately two-three inches at a time, and use a tamper to compact it. (If starting from scratch, it is recommended to use the recycled concrete as a base under the entire area where the topsoil is going and also use a layer of fill in between the topsoil and base to ensure proper drainage.) Select your wall blocks and lay them out across the base. Continue laying the stone block by block until the entire perimeter is created. Measure and make cuts with a masonry saw to complete any angles needed to fit the pieces together at the corners. This first step in construction takes the longest and is most crucial in determining the success of the rest of your project.

Step 2: Continue Adding Second Course
Step 2: Continue Adding Second Course

Continue with the second course. Select your wall system blocks and stack them in a staggered pattern on top of the base course so that the seams are overlapping. Dry-fit each block first so that the vertical joints are staggered as seen above. This creates a stronger and more stable wall.. Remove the block and apply a layer of mortar on the first course. Add the next course and tamp the block into place with a mallet, and repeat.

Step 3: Mortar the Layers
Step 3: Mortar the Layers

Continue building courses. At the third level, insert a drain pipe, while leaving an exit point for the drainpipe at one end of the wall. This will ensure proper drainage once your wall is complete. Continue the process while carefully aligning the block in a staggered pattern and mortar the layers until the desired height is obtained. Note that the final and top layer is the wall capping, a more decorative layer that prevents moisture from running down into the  open cracks of the lower layers and which adds the aesthetically pleasing finishing touch! Mortar the wall cap in place as you did for the other courses.

Constructing A Retaining Wall: Finished Project
Constructing A Retaining Wall: Finished Project

Depending on the size of the wall, a project like this can take anywhere from a couple of days to a week or more, but it is worth the while to take your time and have good results. Once your wall is constructed, bring in new organic topsoil and plantings to complete the project.

For more gardening tips and design ideas, see my books on Amazon:

A Guide to Northeastern Gardening: Journeys of a Garden Designer Zones 3-9
Landscape Design Combinations

Author:  Lee@Landscape Design By Lee 2018. All Rights Reserved.2c425-page2bdivider

Book Launching: Introducing My Second Book-Landscape Design Combinations!


I am very excited to be officially announcing the launching of my second book, Landscape Design Combinations! Fifty something years ago, I developed a passion for all things green and started digging in the soil by the age of five. In the 1980’s, I entered the field of education and after sixteen years, with the encouragement of friends, started up a landscape design business in 1996. I took up an interest in blog writing and photography in 2010, and after retiring from 32 years of teaching in 2013, I decided to put all my experiences into a published work. I had quickly realized that writing and publishing a book was not an easy task, but persisted in accomplishing what I had started. By 2015, I published my first book A Guide to Northeastern Gardening. 

The thought of starting the process all over again was the furthest thing from my mind, but to my own astonishment, the desire to write within me grew even stronger. There was still so much I wanted to share. As I started to write, the words came easily, and a second book started to materialize.  Now, two years later, I have completed Landscape Design Combinations, which takes the first book a step further by going much deeper into the design process, while offering numerous landscape designs with labeled photographs and descriptions. One can say that it completes what I had started. I am now thrilled to be able to share my love of gardening and design with you through a second book.

What does this book have to offer? 2-sample-6-borderLandscape Design Combinations is a comprehensive guide to help you plan your outdoor space. If you have ever felt overwhelmed by “what to plant where” in your garden, or have spent months, or even years, not knowing where to begin, Landscape Design Combinations will help to facilitate the process. The first two chapters deal with the basic principles of landscape design and color coordination. You will get ideas for the desired function of your space and discover your own personal sense of garden style and color preference. Throughout the book, each chapter builds upon the one before it, discussing foliage combinations, then types of and proper placement of evergreens, followed by flowering shrubs and finally, perennials.

perennial-borderNumbered and labeled photographs are supplied throughout the book with information on each plant, such as common or scientific name, plant descriptions and cold hardiness. Once plant usage and placement is covered, the remaining chapters discuss hardscape, with directions on how to build a simple stone walkway or patio, along with more information on garden styles. Each chapter will incorporate plants discussed earlier and create designs starting from simple perennial combinations to full landscape designs.

4-sample-1-borderDiscussion of evergreens and flowering plants will focus on placement and interest provided, while perennial combinations will include bloom time for each plant discussed. As each chapter progress, more detailed design plan layouts will be provided as a guide to assist you in planning your space. In the later chapters, topics covered include designing for seasonal interest, container combinations and hardscaping, with easy to follow designs. The book ends with “Garden Inspiration”, which discusses garden styles throughout the centuries and how various design elements have developed over the years. Finally, a glossary is included with definitions of design terms used throughout the book.

About the Book:book-coverLandscape Design Combinations provides the necessary tools to help you easily plan your garden, while offering a multitude of design plans with labeled photographs and detailed descriptions. Topics such as landscape design principles, color in design, the use of foliage, designing with deciduous and evergreen plants, planter combinations and landscape planning are discussed. Additional topics include designing with hardscape with “quick and easy” landscape designs and garden styles throughout history, with colorful illustrations. The information presented is applicable to both novice or professional gardener alike, and is all based on Lee Miller’s personal experience as a landscape designer for over twenty years. Lee Miller is also the author of “A Guide to Northeastern Gardening: Journeys of a Garden Designer”, initially published in 2015.

About the Author: garden clean up 2Lee Miller is a professional landscape/garden designer involved in the horticultural industry since 1996. Having started a gardening blog in 2010, she is the author of over 200 articles on general gardening, landscape design principles, gardening tips, planting, pruning, garden maintenance, feature plants and more. In addition, Lee Miller has donated her time as a contributing writer for the American Heart Association Gardening Blog, as well as Gardening Know How, and has been involved as a presenter at local gardening clubs.

To Preview Landscape Design Combinations, simply click on the link or icon below. I hope to inspire you!

Landscape Design Combinations


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