Gardening With What You Have

Continuous Containers: Jazzing It Up With Shrubs

Christine Froehlich 09/25/2018 Comments

I hit upon the idea of planting shrubs in containers the year I came home with an assortment of new plants I scored at a GWA (garden writers) conference. I intended to write about their performance, but most were in 4 inch pots and I was reluctant to plant them in my garden. I'm probably not the most careful gardener around. I knew I'd forget where they were, accidentally step on one or pull it out. So I grabbed some of my favorite containers, assembled a few combinations and added a couple of perennials for a little color. By the end of the summer I was hooked.


Combining shrubs is the best! You can't beat berrying, flowering,variegated,magenta, chartreuse and gray foliaged shrubs for year round interest. Annuals and perennials don't provide much shape, but shrubs have horizontal, vertical, rounded and weeping forms that are fun to play around with. Plus, they add height and width to your containers. And by the way, it's a great way to trial plants you aren't familiar with. 


There are many advantages to changing up your planting scheme.

  • Plants can be used twice: once in containers, then replanted in the garden.
  • A safe way to observe them to decide if they are garden-worthy.
  • An inexpensive way to increase shrubs in your garden.

Take a spin through any decent garden center and you'll find shrubs of all different sizes, shapes and color to choose from. Trees with cool branching habits are fair game too. Pair them up with late blooming perennials or annuals to create a jazzy fall container.






Mix it up with evergreen and deciduous shrubs. A combination of both will provide long lasting color throughout the winter.


lonicera and box
Variegated Boxwood and Lonicera


If you want to focus on late summer and fall combinations, try combining deciduous shrubs that change color or berry.


cotinus in container
Cotinus, Hypericum, Pennisetum and Euphorbia 


Consider structure. If you choose a tree or shrub with interesting branching or a weeping habit such as such as this Japanese maple in the photo below, it will look good long after the leaves fall. Berrying shrubs, such as the Hypericum planted next to it bump up the fall look - and it has yellow flowers all summer!


maple in container
Hypericum, Japanese Maple, Pennisetum, Plumbago and Euphorbia 


The lead plant in the container below is an evergreen, Chamaecyparis obtusa 'Gracilis.' The plants around it, fuschia and Japanese forest grass (Hakonochloa macra) can be cut back after frost. I stick winterberry branches in later to give it winter color.


conifer container



3 keys to success:


1. Winterproof container - my favorites are frostproof terracotta and high quality fiberglass. Wood, cement and iron will work too. Elevate container a few inches off the ground to promote drainage and prevent the pot from cracking. Containers should be large enough to contain the shrub or shrubs - at least 20" in diameter.

2. Choose shrubs/perennials that are hardy to one zone below what you would plant in your garden. For example, if you are in zone 5, choose plants that are hardy to zone 3-4.

3. Don't let your container go into the winter dry. Keep it well watered until the end of October, early November. 


Choosing shrubs:

  • Pick plants with interesting leaves. Consider shape, texture and color.
  • Don’t worry about the eventual size of the shrub. Buy a small plant - it won’t get to maturity in one season.
  • Make sure it will fit into your container, about l gallon or less is the best size to use. They grow quickly!
  • Think about where you might locate it in your garden when you have grown it to a larger size.


How to plant:

  • Let one shrub take the lead role for your color scheme. If there will be flowers, think about  what you will pair it up with (I like contrasting perennials with shrub colors – you can use them again too).
  • Keep your container simple. I usually pair a shrub with two or three perennials and maybe a few annuals tucked into the sides.
  • Break up the root system of the plant so the roots can spread out. If it is bare root shrub make sure not to plant it too deep.
  • Use a light, friable soil mix, add mushroom or any other good compost. I like to mix in Plantone (Espoma product) and water. Fertilize biweekly with liquid fertilizer. You don't need to fill the whole pot with soil, use leftover plastic pots or soda bottles to fill the bottom.


What to do at the end of the season:

  • If you decide to put the shrub in your garden, plant it in a carefully prepared spot and water deeply. 
  • If you can’t decide where to put it or want to use it again in a container the following spring, pot it up in a plastic nursery container and sink it into a protected spot in the garden. Water it  and protect the roots with mulch.

A list of plants I've tried: Don't stop here. Experimenting with new stuff is half the fun, and there's so much more out there.



Sambucus nigra

Weigela ‘Midnight Wine’

Physocarpus(ninebark)'Little Devil'



Hypericum ‘Brigadoon’

Hydrangea ‘Lemon Daddy’

Rhus ‘Tiger Eyes’




Juniper ‘Blue Star’

Chamaecyparis ‘Blue Feathers’


Green and White Variegation:

Weigela ‘My Monet’

Hydrangea – variegated blue

Eleutherococcus sieboldianus ‘Variegata’ – variegated aralia

Cornus ‘Ivory Halo’ (red twig dogwood)

Diervilla 'Cool Splash'


Dark Greens:


Ilex crenata compacta

Ilex mexervaea (blue holly)



Hydrangeas – dwarf varieties

Roses –  ‘Knockout’ series and miniatures


Rethinking container schemes has given me a whole new appreciation of how to use them in the garden. In addition to the ornamental factor, containers have practical purposes such as:


1. Adding height to garden beds and filling up holes.

2. Covering up ugly stuff like gas meters, tanks, air conditioning units.

3. Areas you can't plant in because of roots,rocks and other terrifying soil conditions.


Aside from a few dogs, most of my experiments have made it into the garden, beefing up my collection of woody plants. Needless to say, I'm done with emptying containers and dragging them to the garden shed - mine are staying planted and put. Doesn't get much better.



















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