designing with containers

Designing With Containers

The existence of potted plants as contained gardens must surely stretch deep back into time immemorial.

Imagine, if you will, the magnificence of ancient Egypt, Babylon and Persia, the dignity of early classical Grecian civilizations, the grandeur of the once mighty Roman Empire, the spirituality of the East, the splendour of Renaissance Europe and the unreserved ostentation of Victorian England, and you will surely find evidence of early container gardening and designing with containers in all of its many guises.

We can only conjecture what inkling guided the hand that planted the first potted plant and sparked a narrative that stretches from the early beginnings of the humble pot, urn, box and basket to the inestimable forms of creative container gardening and landscaping of today.

The length and breadth of it all

Broadly speaking, we can consider three very clear aspects relating to designing with containers: Aesthetic design relating to designing with the containers as elements in their own right as types of planters, some of which are:

  • Pots, troughs, bags, baskets and boxes
  • Off-the-shelf novelty containers
  • Bespoke and handcrafted containers
  • Upcycled and repurposed items
  • Specialised planters that include vertical units or modules, hydroponic, aquaponics, bonsai and even terraria.
  • On top of this, planters are used on floors, walls, ceilings and even inner-space, so the sky really is the limit.
  • Plant design within and around the containers.
  • Practical considerations to ponder when using contained planters.

The topic is broad, so in this article we must narrow down our scope to consider the aesthetics of container design as elements in their own right within the space, and with a focus on pots and the more traditional types of planters like boxes and urns.

Following the views of aesthetic design

Containers used in the broader world of garden and landscape design are a powerful source of what helps give the space – be it open garden, patio, balcony, conservatory or room – structure, spirit, harmony, personality and character. This being the case, we must look to some of the basic principles of design for direction. While all designers acknowledge the value of eclectic and eccentric design, we will focus on the use of some of the traditional design principles here as a point of departure.

Composition, form and accent

Composition in designing with containers depends on what we wish to achieve and is really all about selection, relative positioning and grouping. Pots and containers, given the myriad sizes, forms and styles on offer, lend themselves beautifully to help create a desired effect, be it framing, vista, structure, backdrop, focal interest, harmony or rhythm. Although not an end in itself but more a means to an end, composition forms the backbone of what we set out to achieve when using containers in our design. In this way we can use the placement of pots and containers to achieve important outcomes in the design space:

Structure where multiple similar containers can be regimented boldly to define space, divide areas into rooms and create boundaries. Larger, plain planters can be used as backdrop elements to lend visual support to forward features or planting.

Accent as focal points where planters are creatively placed in groups – often with an interplay of different heights – to achieve artistic interest. Large, imposing planters can be used individually as focal points when correctly placed and framed. A word to the wise regarding focal points relates to the well-used adage that ‘less is more’. Too many of the same element used in the space detracts from their value as focal elements and dilutes the effect, so a measure of restraint is called for when considering this aspect.

Vista and perspective are powerful design devices for the garden designer and can be achieved by using height interplays, panorama or keyhole vista. Vista gives a sense of depth and drama to a space. In a larger space, planters can be placed in single or paired rows – as straight lines or meandering to create or enhance a sense of avenue. In a more narrow space, the illusion of depth can be created using the different sizes or heights of similar-shaped pots, for example. Positioning the largest pot in the front of a row and the smallest at the back creates the illusion of visual depth.

Visual movement is created by considering the space dynamics between elements. Planters can be placed at strategic points in the garden to take the eye from one place to another – a sense of connection. The sense of visual speed is created by placing elements closer together for a slower visual speed or further apart to speed it up. Changing the spacing between rows of pots in a concertina interplay helps with a sense of visual pulsating movement.

Balance can be formal and symmetrical, by placing two identical pots as sentries on either side of an entrance or path as a framing device, or informal by using groups of pots that even out the volume.

Rhythm and harmony when designing with containers

Well-considered repetition using forms, colours and textures that echo through the space will introduce rhythm in the same way that integrated connectivity of elements in their surrounds evokes a sense of easy harmony. Harmony harks to the achievement of a holistic result where all the elements are in easy balance and in agreement.

Multiple similar containers can be regimented boldly to define space.


The style of planter is crucial and relates to the link that exists between elements, the overall design and architecture. Conventional wisdom and a simple rule of thumb has it that we must marry the style of planter to the style of architecture and garden. Classical Grecian or Victorian urns sit comfortably in classical formal spaces, terracotta pots for Mediterranean or rustic spaces, whilst contemporary minimalist spaces will embrace planters with clean, angular geometrical lines and forms. Of course, mixing styles is not taboo, but certainly a double-edged sword that can easily lead to eclectic genius or unsightly visual chaos, but this is a discussion for another day.


As in all things design, the colour of the container as an element has very real implications and effects on the design space. Bright, strong colours are naturally stronger focal points than subdued hues. The same would apply to planters used to define avenues. A choice should be made as to whether the accent is the container or the plant within the container– if it is the latter, then the container should not overwhelm the planting within it.

Where containers are used as a backdrop, subdued greys, blues and greens would be the natural choice. Colour emits visual heat or coolness, so hot reds, oranges and yellows will have a completely different effect than cool blues and greens. Choices of colour will also depend on whether we are looking to blend and harmonise or looking to take advantage of the drama of sharp contrasting. An example of harmony would be yellow plants in a yellow pot, whereas contrasting would be blue flowering plants in the same yellow pot – the effect is noticeably different.

Finally, bear in mind that brighter colours tend to advance visually whilst the softer, deep hues will retreat visually – this is a great way to create the feeling of more depth in a narrow space.

More questions than answers when designing with containers

There is so much more that can be explored when considering the use of containers in the design of garden spaces, and this is what makes it all so incredibly attractive to us as an art form. The basic principles of design as they apply to this craft are but a springboard to the myriad of possibilities that open up to us as we probe the wonderful world of container gardening design.

Mike Rickhoff is the Faculty Head of Lifestyle College as well as a Landscape Consultant. He can be contacted at Lifestyle College on 011 792 8244, enquiries@lifestylecollege. co.za or at Michael Rickhoff Landscape Consulting on 083 408 1610, mike.rickhoff@gmail.com.

The Gardener