Choosing Plants for Containers

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Almost any plant can grow in a container, but some plants grow better than others.

Annual flowers are a good choice for container growing. They bloom quickly and for months at a time. Annuals are smaller than most perennials and shrubs; they require smaller containers that are easily moved from place to place for the best effect. Annuals are seasonal, so cool-weather annuals planted in spring must be replaced with warm-weather annuals by early summer.

Perennial flowering plants and small shrubs are a good choice for containers where larger plants are needed. Perennials and shrubs commonly stay in the garden year-round; in containers, perennials and shrubs will be in place for two or more years.

Best plant choices for containers

  • A good container plant should have the following characteristics:
  • Foliage is attractive.
  • Blooms that last a long time, at least several weeks.
  • Roots that do not mind being crowded.
  • A form that complements other plants in the container and the container itself. Consider a plant’s size at maturity, height, and breadth. Is it upright or trailing?
  • Moderate drought tolerance. It should be able to survive a missed watering.
Fuschia and New Guinea impatiens
Fuschia and New Guinea impatiens

Choose healthy plants

  • Healthy, robust plants are key to successful container gardening. When choosing plants for a container, look for the following:
  • Look for healthy roots. Tip the plant out of its pot and check to be sure it is not rootbound. Look for white and cream-colored roots; roots that are brown or dry indicate the plant is rootbound. Roots that form a tight mesh are pot bound and will take longer to establish in their new container.
  • Look for signs of insects or grubs. Check the undersides of leaves. Avoid plants that have speckled leaves or leaves with holes; these are signs of insect feeding. Avoid plants with yellowed or mottled leaves; these plants could be diseased.
  • Choose a small healthy-looking plant over a larger plant that is weak or leggy looking. Weak and leggy plants may have been growing in low light; these plants will be prone to fungal disease.
Impatiens and lobelia
Impatiens and lobelia

Solo plants or plant combinations

  • A single plant in a container can have a strong effect as long as it is full and healthy. A solo plant should be to scale for its location and for its container.
  • When combining plants in a container, follow this formula: plant at least three different plants, one tall and spiky, one low and trailing, and one medium-height as filler. Follow this formula as you add additional plants to the original three.
  • Follow a color scheme. Consider how plants will complement one another when they are in bloom. Look at a color wheel. Colors adjacent to one another are complementary; choose plants with blooms that are complementary. Colors directly opposite one another on the color wheel are also good choices; they contrast each other, helping the other to stand out.
  • Consider foliage color when choosing plants; there are different shades of green. Some leaves have shiny surfaces, some have hairy and mute surfaces. Consider leaf size, shape, and texture as well.
  • Combine plants with the same growing needs. Plant full-sun plants with other full-sun plants, shade plants with shade plants, drought-tolerant plants with others that are drought-tolerant, plants that want wetness with others that prefer moist soil.

Tall, spiky flowers for containers

Common NameBotanical Name
Bells of IrelandMoluccella laevis
CelosiaCelosia spp.
CannaCanna hybrids
DelphiniumDelphinium elatum
Flax, New ZealandPhormium spp.
Flowering tobaccoNicotiana spp.
Salvia, annual blueSalvia farinacea
SnapdragonAntirrhinum majus
Spider flowerCleome hassleriana

Medium height flowers for containers

Common NameBotanical Name
AgeratumAgeratum houstonianum
Begonia, variousBegonia spp.
Dusty millerSenecio cineraria
Flowering cabbage, kaleBrassica oleracea
Geranium, upright typesPelargonium spp.
Globe amaranthGomphrena globosa
HeliotropeHeliotropium arborescens
ImpatiensImpatiens spp.
MarigoldTagetes spp.
PansyViola spp.
Tuberous begoniaBegonia x tuberhybrida
Vinca, annualCatharanthus roseus
Wishbone, flowerTorenia fournieri
ZinniaZinnia spp.

Low, trailing flowers for containers

Common NameBotanical Name
Dahlberg, daisyThymophylla tenuiloba
Edging lobeliaLobelia erinus
Fan flowerScaveola aemula
FuchsiaFuchsia spp.
Geranium, ivy typePelargonium spp.
LantanaLantana camara
Licorice plantHelichrysum petiolare
NasturtiumTrapaeolum majus
PetuniaPetunia spp.
Swan River daisyBrachycome iberidifolia
Sweet alyssumLobularia maritima
Sweet peaLathyrus odoratus
Sweet potato vineIpomea batatas
Verbena, trailing formsVerbena spp.

Drought-tolerant plants for containers

Common NameBotanical Name
AgapanthusAgapanthus spp.
ArtemisiaArtemisia spp.
Dusty millerSenecio cineraria
Geranium, annualPelargonium spp.
Flax, New ZealandPhormium spp.
Hens and chicksSempervivum spp.
LantanaLantana spp.
Licorice plantHelichrysum petiolare
Moss rosePortulaca spp.
Salvia, annual blueSalvia farinacea
Sedum, variousSedum spp.
ThymeThymus spp.
VerbenaVerbena spp.
YuccaYucca filamentosa

Also of interest:

Container Garden Care

Planting a Container

Gardening in Containers

Written by Stephen Albert

Stephen Albert is a horticulturist, master gardener, and certified nurseryman who has taught at the University of California for more than 25 years. He holds graduate degrees from the University of California and the University of Iowa. His books include Vegetable Garden Grower’s Guide, Vegetable Garden Almanac & Planner, Tomato Grower’s Answer Book, and Kitchen Garden Grower’s Guide. His Vegetable Garden Grower’s Masterclass is available online. has more than 10 million visitors each year.

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