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Water-Saving Containers Part 4: Putting it All Together for a Beautiful Water-Saving Container Garden


If you’ve read the last three posts, you know the basics: we can make container gardens water-thrifty (even more water-thrifty than plants in the ground) by using bottom-watering, good water-retaining soil, and mulch or groundcover-mulch. But how does all that work out in the garden?

More sun, less water saving. This may seem obvious, but containers allow you to make this fact into an art. Since I’ve spent a long time gardening in places that are mostly in semi-shade, I’ve learned to make microadjustments in where I place my containers. They need enough sun so they don’t grow leggy or refuse to flower, but if I tweak them I can find the exact spot where they get enough sun to thrive, but not enough to suck up inordinate amounts of water. Only your own experience will tell what this is in your climate.

Look at your containers as little landscapes. If you think of each container as a little landscape, you’ll get the most out of it. So consider: do all these plants have the same water requirements? If they don’t, somebody’s going to be unhappy. Put that plant in a another container. Do you have groundcovers and tall and medium plants in the same container? That’s how you get the most use out of your container space. Tall lilies grow through ground-covering rosettes of digitalis or campanula which, in their own turn, put up the flowering spikes. Earlier plants die out as later ones come in. And so on.

Plants grouped together save water. Because they transpire moisture, plants in a group will keep a little more humid than their isolated friends, even if they’re not in the same pot. That’s lucky, because containers grouped together look great and create an inviting atmosphere.

Look at groups of containers as a moveable landscape. Massing containers gives the effect of a large planting, especially if the containers are all at the same height. But with containers, you have an added advantage: if there’s only one big show, and it’s over, you can move the containers out of the way and put some more eventful plant in its place, all without hurting anything.  That’s what I did with the tulips pictured at the top of this post, which put on a glorious spring show and then die, never wanting water until next year. After the foliage goes brown, I move them someplace inconspicuous. They sit around the back until they sprout up the following year.

Look at groups of containers as a permanent landscape. Other parts of my garden have container setups I’m not interested in moving around; I’m not a total masochist, after all. In this semi-shady area under madrones, I collect plants that like semi-shade and aren’t too water-demanding: foxgloves, campanula, lilies, alpine strawberries, California figwort, violets, rehmannia, forget-me-nots, and a few other odds and ends. These containers have succession, in a mild way: violets and early bulbs give way to campanulas and foxgloves; clipping back the stems of campanulas and foxgloves gives me bloom for most of the summer. Cyclamen pitches in in fall, and I read shade-gardening blogs such as the wonderful Northern Shade for more ideas about how to make this spot interesting in fall. The point is that if you want a more-or-less permanent container garden, you have to plan groupings with the same care you’d use when you plant in the ground.


From most angles, the bench covers these low pots, leaving only plants visible. You can get the effect by scrolling so you can see only the top half of the picture.

Share the knowledge. OK, now it’s time for you to speak up. What tactics do you use to create a beautiful container garden? And is there anything you do that helps save water?

Next post: when water plants save water. (Yes, you read that right.)


In a way, my whole blog is about low-water gardening; that’s the reason I got involved with tulips, and I already loved natives and Mediterranean herbs. During June, my posts will all be about conserving water in the garden. This gives me scope to cover everything from containers to cityscapes, soil to site to sprays, and of course portraits of more of those stellar plants that spread their glories with little or no watering. (Hint: the “Wild Plants” category will give you quite a few more; so will the “Bulbs” category.)

{ 7 comments… add one }

  • Racquel June 23, 2009, 1:09 am

    I love using large containers since they retain their moisture better. Some of mine only need a good drink once or twice a week during summer.

  • tina June 23, 2009, 4:59 am

    I was just thinking of these posts last night. I have three large dahlias and a multitude of other plants in some containers on the south side of my garage (the sunniest area in the yard). But you know I literally have to water them daily, sometimes more. Well I think I may have figured it out. I do have a irrigation thingy I could set up, but too much trouble and inconvenience. I think I am going to fill a black bag with water and use a pin to prick some holes in it. We’ll see how that works. I just can’t water everyday but do love the flowers. I’ll let you know.

  • Pomona Belvedere June 23, 2009, 8:19 am

    Raquel, it’s true, even just using large containers without the other water-saving things can help – but since I started with the water-saving parts, I keep on (except with natives and Mediterraneans) because the plants do so much better, at least here, where the air is so dry. And I kill them less.

    Tina, I’m very curious to know what happens with your dahlia experiment. I do know people who set up a drip irrigation system for their potted plants and love it; I haven’t got that far (“trouble and inconvenience” ring a bell for me. That and native unhandiness). Anyway I like your low-tech “trickle watering” idea and hope it does well for you.

  • Cyd June 24, 2009, 7:45 am

    I’m learning from you! I do have a bay tree with portulaca around it. This seems to act like mulch for this pot. Lately the rain has been watering for me.

  • BeWaterWise Rep September 23, 2009, 1:28 am

    Excellent post! Use of compost made at home and the proper placement of the plants is essential when having a container plant. Water plays an important role in the health of the plant and we need to use water wisely. Check http://j.mp/4olL0B for some efficient water-wise gardening tips!

  • Agus October 24, 2015, 12:14 pm

    I’m so happy for you Karen container greiandng is very exciting and fun! There are even easy to do books on containers and pots you can make for almost nothing. Enjoy, Maria

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