How to Group Container Plants: Tips from Great Dixter

How to Group Container Plants Tips from Great Dixter - Longfield Gardens

Great Dixter is one of the world’s most famous gardens. Located in East Sussex, just south of London, it was the family home of innovative plantsman and garden writer Christopher Lloyd, who gardened there for almost 80 years. Now maintained by a charitable trust, Great Dixter remains a mecca for gardeners who are eager to be inspired by new and creative plant combinations.

At the center of this remarkable garden is the Lloyd family’s medieval manor house, a rambling, half-timber structure that has been in continuous use since the 1400s. The entrance to the house is adorned with one of Great Dixter’s many signature features: an ever-changing tableau of 50 or more container plants.

How to Group Container Plants Tips from Great Dixter - Longfield Gardens

A late spring display with daffodils, tulips and other treasures. Photo source unknown.

Unlike the way most of us approach container planting, the gardeners at Great Dixter fill each pot with a single type of plant. This is brilliant on many levels. From a strictly horticultural point of view, it ensures every plant gets a room of its own. The perfect size pot. The optimum soil mixture. The right amount of sun or shade. The ideal water and fertilizer regime. And most importantly, plants never have to compete with each other.

Giving each plant its own pot has another big advantage. It provides endless opportunities for new combination. At Great Dixter, this entrance display is dismantled every 4 to 6 weeks and totally reassembled into a new collection of flowers and foliage. In between, it’s easy to move tired plants out and fresh plants in.

How to Group Container Plants Tips from Great Dixter - Longfield Gardens

A cheery springtime display. Photo from the blog The Frustrated Gardener.

To create these bold, ever-changing displays, you need to always have more plants waiting in the wings. The gardeners at Great Dixter have the luxury of pulling plants from an on-site nursery and greenhouse filled with interesting choices. But with a little planning, you can create your own fabulous display of container-grown plants. Here are some tips:

Assemble an assortment of small, medium and large pots

The pots don’t need to match, but you do want them to be relatively “quiet” so the plants are the stars. At Great Dixter, all the pots are terra cotta and this brings continuity to the display.

Make sure every pot has a drainage hole on the bottom. It’s also good to include some cachepots that are the right size to hold (and hide) standard 2, 3 or even 5-gallon nursery pots. This makes it easy to pop feature plants in and out without dismantling the entire display.

How to Group Container Plants Tips from Great Dixter - Longfield Gardens

Late summer drama with cannas, millet, fuchsia and more. Photo source unknown.

Think about the light conditions

The entrance to Great Dixter faces northeast so the plants get morning light and are protected from afternoon heat. This location is not ideal for sun lovers, but the plants can be moved before they can start sulking. For best results, choose plants that will be happy with the amount of sun or shade that’s available.

How to Group Container Plants Tips from Great Dixter - Longfield Gardens

An early summer collection of lupins, bellis, snapdragons, hesperis and sweetpeas. Photo source unknown.

Create a month-by-month list of high-impact container plants

In Great Dixter’s container displays, not every plant is a star. But they always have a few that deliver a wow. These are often seasonal plants that come in, do their thing and then get pulled to the side. At home, you can get them started in the spring and keep them in a holding area until needed (more on this below). Others can be purchased as needed along the way.

To imagine how you might make this work at your house, here’s an example of some high impact plants that could be featured each month: daffodils, pansies and a flowering shrub for April; tulips and alliums for May; Asiatic lilies and several types of roses for June; fuchsias and eucomis for July; hydrangeas and Oriental lilies for August; dahlias, cannas and elephant ears for September; mums, ornamental grasses and ornamental kale for October.

How to Group Container Plants Tips from Great Dixter - Longfield Gardens

The entrance to Great Dixter in late summer. Photo courtesy of Jason Kay from his blog Garden in a City.

Plant your own mini-nursery

At the start of the growing season, gather ten or twenty nursery pots and fill them up with annuals, perennials and summer bulbs. After you have finished planting, move the pots somewhere out of the way until they come into bloom.

Here are some of the many plants that grow well in pots and will add excitement to your grouped container display: hybrid lilies (plant several different types to stagger the bloom time), rudbeckia, dahlias, cannas, acidanthera (peacock lily), caladiums, calla lilies, begonias (for shade), heucheras, coleus, mums, agapanthus, fuchsia, sunflowers, marigolds, ornamental grasses, ornamental kale and cabbage, abutilon, astilbe and papyrus.

How to Group Container Plants Tips from Great Dixter - Longfield Gardens

A Great Dixter-style entryway at the home of gardener Suzanne Albinson.

Plan for foliage

Foliage plants always have an important role in the Great Dixter displays. They bulk up the presentation and help weave it into something more interesting than a collection of pots. Options for annual and perennial foliage plants include coleus, plectranthus, ornamental grasses, colocasia, sage, rosemary, heuchera, hosta, ornamental kale and sweet potato vine. Potted shrubs are another good bet and you may decide to let some of them stay all season long. Good candidates include boxwood, arborvitae, yucca, nicebark and sambucus.

Plan for height

Be sure to include some large plants that are 4 to 5 feet tall. They don’t need to have flowers. In fact, for a shady spot, you could even use big a houseplant such as ficus or dracena. Vine-covered tuteurs are another good way to add height. In a number of these photos you can see sweetpeas growing in a pot with a freestanding trellis.

Strive for a variety of different foliage textures. Evergreens such as arborvitae, boxwood and juniper are good options. Bamboo, Japanese maples and ornamental grasses add lightness and movement. The bigger, bolder foliage of cannas, croton and elephant ears bring depth and drama.

Plan to water and fertilize your container garden

Plants that are grown in pots are totally reliant on you for their health and well being. Start the season right by filling the pots with good soil that has been fortified with compost and an all purpose fertilizer. Frequent watering will quickly wash these nutrients out of the soil, so a regular fertilizer routine is essential.

Liquid fertilizers can be absorbed almost immediately and are relatively inexpensive. For dilution rates, follow package directions. Container plants actually prefer getting half the recommended amount, twice as often. Another option is to use a slow-release fertilizer such as Osmocote.

Regular watering is essential. From midsummer on, your pots may need to be watered every day. Remember that one advantage of separate pots, is being able to cater to each plants’s individual needs. Not all plants want the same amount of water. The best way to check soil moisture in a small container is to lift the pot. If it’s light, it needs a good watering. If it feels heavy, let it wait.

Use a hose to water each pot (rather than an overhead sprayer). Go slowly to ensure the entire root ball gets moistened. Large containers should be watered slowly and deeply at least once or twice a week.

How to Group Container Plants Tips from Great Dixter - Longfield Gardens

An early summer display complete with sweet peas! Photo from The English Garden.

Don’t sweat the color scheme

Great Dixter’s entrance displays often include as many as 50 pots. There’s no specific color theme. It’s simply a collection of fabulous plants, artfully assembled.

Your own container display will probably be much smaller, but you don’t need to worry about making it color-coordinated. It’s the combination of textures, heights, shapes and growth habits that make these compositions so compelling.

This gathering of plants should look cohesive, but it’s important not to crowd the pots. Being able to give each plant room to breathe is one of the advantages of separate pots. You’ll find they stay healthier, and you’ll also be able to see and appreciate their natural habit, which is usually hard to see in a mixed planter.

Ready to get started? You might also be interested in reading: How and Why to Fertilize Your Plants, Bloom Time Chart for Spring and Summer Bulbs, How to Grow Summer Bulbs in Containers and Best Bulbs for Containers.