Transforming a garden patio with containers

On a garden patio a container planting with fuchsia bud and flowerContainers full of plants can do wonders for adding colour to a garden patio but they can do so much more. They can direct traffic, help wildlife, lend some privacy and give you the feeling that your space is much bigger than it really is. And you don’t need much space to begin with, either. On top of that, garden centres are addressing the demand for personalized outdoor spaces by offering more and more gear and gadgets that not only make your container-furnished patio great looking and a pleasurable place to hang out but easy to maintain (automatic container irrigation systems, for instance) and easy to move things around (lightweight pots with heavy design cred, customizable pot trolleys, and even vertical living walls that can be pushed around–see the video at the bottom of this post.).

To show how much containers can multi-task for you, here’s a design of mine for a patio in southwestern Ontario. This patio has its challenges: the southern side is sunny, the northern corner is shady. A flower bed already exists on the far side of the patio and I wanted to add containers so that the flowerbed and containers worked together rather than competing with each other. I also wanted to add some privacy to the small seating area, lead eyes to a focal point, camouflage a well-used path at the side of the house, and make the whole thing easy to maintain. The budget had to be manageable–no expensive plants, please!–with an eye to winter interest, too. Phew! But all that can be addressed by the plants and pots you choose and where you put them. The notes for all this are below.

A drawing of a plan for a patio with container plantings

Yes, you can travel without leaving your backyard

Choosing a theme (zen minimalism, desert oasis, European charm) makes a design come together easier. And it’s fun. Although this patio plan is for a garden located in southwestern Ontario, the containers and their plantings are meant to give off the vibe of an English country house terrace. The lush groupings of plants keep to a soft watercolor palette for a romantic feel. The collection of containers blends quirkiness with formality, two characteristics reminiscent of the Victorian era.

MAINTENANCE NOTE: Positioning your pots into groupings (like the two large groupings shown above) makes watering a lot easier.

All the pots in the north part of the patio are chosen to resemble styles popular in the Victorian era and are made of terracotta with a colouring that complements the tones in the brick wall of the house. By choosing pots that match the brick and choosing predominantly green plants for this grouping, the emphasis is on texture and creating a smooth transition from the house to the garden. This sense of lushness with plants fluidly blending into one another also promotes the feeling of a romantic garden. No jangled mix of styles here; lots of monotones and repetition instantly reads as a quiet zone.

Camouflage, traffic routing and reshaping the patio

The grouping in the north corner works to lead the eye in a sweep from the home’s back door, along the edge of the patio and out to the established flowerbed. The plantings offer a cool lushness three seasons long with a combination of shade-tolerant, predominantly green plants, accented with touches of cream and white flowers and variegated leaves. With this harmonious grouping, the eye doesn’t rest on one “hot spot” but moves along the entire group. The cream and white also lends light touches to what is essentially the darkest part of the backyard area. The light colours also make enjoying the patio at night extra special.

The outside row (extreme top left of diagram) of extra large, wide terracotta pots creates a sense of rhythm. Each has a metre-high wooden pyramid-shaped trellis positioned in its center supporting climbing evergreen ivy (Hedera helix), a plant dependably tolerant of sun and shade. The ivy will also tumble over the sides of the pots. The trellises lend height to hide a fence and a worn path in the lawn. They also shelter the smaller pots lined up in front of them from the glare of the setting sun. And both the pots and the trellis will make a great statement when the garden is covered in snow. The pots are set in a row to border the patio yet still give access to a gate that leads to the side of the house. The large pot closest to the house wall is positioned at an angle to the row to act as the anchor for a grouping of smaller terracotta containers, positioned to turn the corner of the patio into a curve that mimics the curve of the patio at the opposite corner.

PLANTING NOTE: Soilless mix in the terracotta pots includes hydrating crystals to retain moisture as terracotta is very porous.

Besides ivy, the “A” pots (see above) also include Campanula portenschlagiana, a dwarf bellflower, for blooms from spring to late summer and dark purple leaved Ajuga reptans for low-lying textural interest. One “B” pot will include Astilbe for a little height and feathery leaves with cream flowers that bloom in mid-summer. The other “B” pot will feature a small Viburnum for height, lovely small, dark leaves and white flowers in spring. Both “B” pots will be filled in with shade-tolerant Pelargoniums species, offering white blooms all summer long and Vinca major with variegated leaves tumbling over the sides. “C” containers will include interesting leafy specimens such as Japanese Painted Fern (Athyrium niponicum) and coleus cultivars (Solenostemon scutellarioides) in dark shades of green, purple and silver-grey.

Adding a focal point, giving the birds a break and giving everyone an eyeful

Opposite the darker, lush north corner is a much more dramatic group of planters. A large, wide-mouthed container in the center of the grouping is actually a birdbath and serves as an eye-catching water feature. The pots surrounding the bath are of glazed ceramic in white or pretty Victorian-era Chinese white and blue patterned pots. Though you wouldn’t usually put shiny-surfaced pots in the sun, the sides of these pots are shaded by the tumbling spillers they’re planted with and the glaze helps the pots to retain water. The plants in these containers are mostly abundant two-to-three-season-long bloomers that thrive in a sunny spot such as buttery yellow Coreopsis and Petunia integrifolia.

A container planting with fuchsias and Japanese fernAll the flowers are in pastel shades, producing small but abundant arrays of blooms that spill over the sides of the containers. Some of the pots are filled with pink, rose and light purple sweet pea (Lathyrus), supported by large twigs pushed in to the soil for a naturalistic feel. Trailing ivy in some of the pots further enhances the sense of abundance and is a nice tie-in to the ivy in the darker north corner.

This grouping is the focal point of the patio. The smaller containers that hug the birdbath accentuate the curve of the patio and serve to lead the eye from the bath to the established flower bed. As you step on to the patio from the kitchen door, your eye is first caught by the birdbath. Then, as you step out, your gaze is led across the patio to the right, along the flowerbed. The patio itself seems curvier than it actually is. When seated in the garden chairs, the eye is caught again by the dramatic birdbath grouping framed by a strip of green lawn behind it. Thanks to the northern pot grouping and the hanging baskets (more on them below), if you were to add two more chairs for conversational seating, even those people seated at an angle towards the house still have some plants to gaze at.

BIRDBATH NOTE: Worried about mosquitoes? You should be, of course. But discouraging them from making a nursery in your bath is easy enough. Mosquitoes need about a week to grow from egg to adult in calm water. Just stir the water whenever you think of it and be sure to replace it with fresh water at least once a week.

And final touches to frame the whole experience

Two hanging containers flank the kitchen door that leads on to the patio. The hanging containers frame the view of the birdbath as you stand in the doorway. Shade-loving Fuschias will thrive here and shouldn’t require too much more watering than the other containers, despite the issues associated with hanging planters, because they are protected from the wind and shaded by the house. These Fuschias would echo the pastel color scheme of the sunny group and, serve to highlight the door.

Positioned between the chairs are two containers planted with fragrant Nicotiana underplanted with a froth of sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum). The sweet woodruff adds contrast to Nicotiana’s strap-like leaves with small whorls of fresh green lance-shaped leaves and acts as a living mulch for each pot.

Here’s the video showing an example of a moveable vertical garden planter. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but the idea sure is cool and gets you thinking about just how far you can go to make your patio versatile and personal. Happy patio transforming with your garden containers!

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