Containers are used prominently and add interest to this restful refuge in the garden.Containers are used prominently and add interest to this restful refuge in the garden.
Containers are used prominently and add interest to this restful refuge in the garden.

Patio Plants: Container Gardening With Perennials

By David Salman, High Country Gardens Chief Horticulturist

Container gardening has traditionally been focused on the use of annual plants, but containers are a great way to garden, and we can also use them to grow beautiful perennials and ornamental grasses. Below, Chief Horticulturist David Salman will review tips for proper planting, expanding your plant palette, and recommended container plants. 

Read on for helpful tips for success with container gardening.

5 Tips For Container Gardening

  1. Use bigger pots. (Note: I use the words container and pot interchangeably.) Avoid using pots that are too small. Plants quickly become root-bound and it becomes difficult if not impossible to keep them adequately watered and fertilized. I always use at least a 14-inch diameter pot. Remember: The bigger the mature plant, the bigger the pot.
  2. Always use a soil-less potting mix. Filling pots with garden soil is a recipe for failure. Garden soil compacts and greatly restricts drainage and air exchange. I always recommend a high quality soil-less potting mix. This potting mix can be reused each season and enhanced with new ingredients.
  3. Keep the plants well fertilized. Because we must water pots more frequently than plants in the ground, we need to replenish nutrients that are flushed away. If you want to grow your pots organically, top-dress every couple of weeks with earthworm compost and Yum Yum Mix. Compost tea is also excellent. Growing conventionally, use Osmocote slow release fertilizer mixed into the soil at potting time and supplement with water-soluble Miracle-Gro (or equivalent) once every week or two.
  4. Don't put gravel in the bottom of the pot! Counter to popular belief, adding gravel to the bottom of the pot actually encourages water to saturate soil, and makes it more difficult for the water to leave the soil. This is a useless technique that can actually restrict drainage in the pots. Fill the pots completely with soil-less mix. Be sure that there are drainage holes in the bottom of your pot. If the pot has a large drainage hole, I'll put an irregular rock over the hole that doesn't seal the hole and allows for water to flow out.
  5. Leaving pots out-of-doors year-round: If you want to leave your containers outside year-round, I recommend using a fiberglass pot or the pot-in-pot strategy to avoid cracked pots and cold damaged roots. For pot-in-pot cultivation, plant in a plastic nursery container and drop this pot into a slightly larger ceramic pot. Fill the empty space in between with small bark nuggets. This insulates the inside pot from heat and cold and allows winter watering without cracking the ceramic pot.
Kniphofia gives a pop of color in a container! Customer Photo By Kim G.Kniphofia gives a pop of color in a container! Customer Photo By Kim G.
Kniphofia gives a pop of color in a container! Customer Photo By Kim G.
Coreopsis fills out this container nicely for a sunny display. Customer photo by Barbara F.Coreopsis fills out this container nicely for a sunny display. Customer photo by Barbara F.
Coreopsis fills out this container nicely for a sunny display. Customer photo by Barbara F.

Recommended Xeric Perennials for Containers

Gardeners living east of the Mississippi will find the use of containers as a great way to expand their palette of perennials, especially when it comes to growing xeric plants that would be unhappy in the ground because of excessive moisture and soggy freeze-thaw conditions in spring. And western gardeners may use containers to grow selected plants that require richer soil and more frequent watering. Perennials that may seem impossible to grow in the ground become easily cultivated in pots.

I can't recount how many frustrated gardeners have asked me how to grow Agastache (Hummingbird Mint) in cold, moist, Mid-Western or Eastern climates. The answer: plant them in pots. The same goes for Lavender, native Sage (Salvia greggii and hybrids), and other popular xeric plants!

Containers are also a great way to grow perennials that aren't quite winter-hardy enough for in-ground cultivation in your region. Gardeners in Zones 4 and 5, for example, can enjoy Perennial African Daisy (Gazania), native Sage cultivars/hybrids (Salvia greggii), and Spanish Lavender (Lavandula stoechas) by planting in containers and overwintering the plants indoors. These are just a few of many cold-tender perennials that make superb potted specimens.

Agastache Blue Boa with Agastache Peach in ContainersAgastache Blue Boa with Agastache Peach in Containers
Agastache grows surprisingly well in containers, as it prefers well-draining soil. Customer photo by Wendy H.
lavender container gardenlavender container garden
Lavender in containers makes for a fragrant welcome.

How To Protect Flower Pots Over The Winter

We need to protect the pots and their resident perennial plants from the extremes of the winter weather.

  • After several hard frosts, move them into an unheated garage or cold frame.
  • If this isn't practical or you have a lot of pots to protect, make a straw bale enclosure where the pots can be placed. Cover with a couple of sturdy pieces of row crop cover (frost blanket) fabric.
  • Be sure to give the pots a drink every month or so on a warm day so the roots don't dry out excessively.
  • In spring, cut the perennials back and move them into the outside position.

Re-Potting Perennials

When using perennial plants, they can remain in the pot for at least two seasons before re-potting them into a larger one. Or the perennials can be divided and re-planted back into the same pot with fresh soil-less mix.

When designing your container garden, make sure pots have a mix of plants: thrillers, fillers and spillers. Perennial plants that appreciate well-drained soil are a great choice for containers.

Flower Bulbs are perfect for growing in containers, especially if you're low on yard space.Flower Bulbs are perfect for growing in containers, especially if you're low on yard space.
Flower Bulbs are perfect for growing in containers, especially if you're low on yard space. Customer photo featuring a variety of Tulips by Mike W.

Arranging Plants: Thrillers, Fillers & Spillers

Remember the container gardening mantra, "thrillers, fillers, and spillers." If you're going to place a pot a container (pot) against a wall, put the tallest plants on the wall-side of the pot. 

  • The tallest, showiest plants (thrillers) go in the middle of the pot.
  • The medium-sized plants (fillers) go around the center plant.
  • Soften the edges of the pots by planting trailing (spillers). 
Perennial container garden with spurge, salvia and an artichoke in bloom.Perennial container garden with spurge, salvia and an artichoke in bloom.
Perennial container garden with spurge, salvia and an artichoke in bloom. Planting perennials in large pots adds a dramatic element to your patio garden.
Perennial container-garden with Artemisia, Siberian Iris, Lavender and Anemone.Perennial container-garden with Artemisia, Siberian Iris, Lavender and Anemone.
Perennial container-garden with Artemisia, Siberian Iris, Lavender and Anemone.

Planting Natural Nectar For Hummingbirds

As a hummingbird gardener, I recommend planting hummingbird attracting flowers and placing them around your outdoor living areas as a replacement or supplement to hummingbird feeders. When hummingbirds discover a reliable source of nectar, they will return for years to come. Pots filled with Hummingbird Mint (Agastache), native Sage (Salvia), Monardella, Hummingbird Trumpet (Zauschneria) and Coral Bells (Heuchera) make colorful, nectar-rich containers.

Even better, these plants are showy and wonderfully fragrant, so planting them near your outdoor spaces where you can enjoy the benefits is a great addition to the garden.

Our friends at The Hummingbird Society grow Agastache, Salvia, Penstemon, Honeysuckle, and more in containers to feed hummingbirds at their Arizona headquarters.

A hummingbird sipping from Salvia. Customer photo by Jean B.A hummingbird sipping from Salvia. Customer photo by Jean B.
A hummingbird sipping from Salvia. Customer photo by Jean B.

Check out The Hummingbird Society's perennial patio garden for hummingbirds:

Hidcote LavenderHidcote Lavender
Hidcote Lavender

Shop Perennials For Perfect Patio Plantings

Explore our selection of plants perfect for growing on your patio, deck, or rooftop garden. They're sure to cheer up any outdoor space.


  1. Salvia sylvestris May Night, May Night Meadow Sage, Purple Salvia sylvestris May Night

    Salvia sylvestris ‘May Night’ (May Night Sage) blooms prolifically with deep purple-blue flowers. It is an outstanding perennial with excellent cold hardiness, vigor, and toleran...

    Learn More
    May Night Salvia May Night Meadow Sage Salvia sylvestris May Night
    As low as $9.49 Sale $7.59
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Salvia sylvestris ‘May Night’ (May Night Sage) blooms prolifically with deep purple-blue flowers. It is an outstanding perennial with excellent cold hardiness, vigor, and tolerance of heavy clay soils. Blooming in late spring with a profusion of flower spikes, it reblooms later in the summer when deadheaded.
    Learn More
  2. Blue Ceratostigma plumbaginoides, Ceratostigma plumbaginoides, Hardy Plumbago

    Hardy Plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) is one of the most versatile groundcovers for cold climates growing in both sun and shade and most soil types. Plumbago blooms in late su...

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    Hardy Plumbago (Ceratostigma) Hardy Plumbago, Leadwort Ceratostigma plumbaginoides
    As low as $8.79 Sale $7.03
    Per Plant - 2.5" Pot
    Hardy Plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides) is one of the most versatile groundcovers for cold climates growing in both sun and shade and most soil types. Plumbago blooms in late summer with deep blue flowers followed by the foliage that turns burgundy red in fall.
    Learn More
  3. Thymus Pink Chintz, Pink Chintz Creeping Thyme

    1" tall x 18" wide. Pink Chintz Thyme (Thymus Pink Chintz) is a tight, low growing creeping thyme with thick stems of woolly green foliage that blooms in mid-spring with a profusion ...

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    Pink Chintz Creeping Thyme Pink Chintz Creeping Thyme Thymus serpyllum Pink Chintz
    As low as $7.99 Sale $6.39
    Per Plant - 2.5" Pot
    1" tall x 18" wide. Pink Chintz Thyme (Thymus Pink Chintz) is a tight, low growing creeping thyme with thick stems of woolly green foliage that blooms in mid-spring with a profusion of salmon-pink flowers.
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  4. Black Eyed Susan Goldsturm, Rudbeckia fulgida Goldsturm

    Rudbeckia Goldsturm blooms in mid-to-late summer with an eye-catching display of golden flowers. Black Eyed Susan is very attractive to butterflies and the seed heads provide winter ...

    Learn More
    Goldsturm Black Eyed Susan Black Eyed Susan Rudbeckia fulgida Goldsturm
    As low as $9.99 Sale $7.99
    Per Plant - 5" Deep Pot
    Rudbeckia Goldsturm blooms in mid-to-late summer with an eye-catching display of golden flowers. Black Eyed Susan is very attractive to butterflies and the seed heads provide winter food for seed-eating songbirds as well. Reliable and tough, Rudbeckia tolerates both drought and clay plus easy to maintain.
    Learn More
Text and Photos by David Salman

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