Container Gardens with Pizzazz | Midwest Living
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Container Gardens with Pizzazz

Horticulturist Gail Estka considers containers an art form in her Illinois yard. See how she creates drama with tropical plants and trees as well as texture, foliage and color schemes.

Tropical movement

Containers are ideal hosts for specimens that you normally wouldn’t plant in a Midwest garden, such as this tropical blood banana paired with trailing geraniums and scaevola.

It seems there’s always room for one more container on Gail Estka and Alicia Baylina’s double Chicago lot. “Last year I counted over 120 pots,” Gail says. “Containers let you be more of a designer. And I love how pots add another layer to the garden and bring it closer to the house to soften the entries.” They also fill bare spots, add focal points and create ever-changing rooms. (Her large pots sit on wheeled bases to ease moving.)

Artistic flair comes from tropicals and trees that add height, as well as from texture, foliage and color schemes. To keep spending in check, Gail overwinters several containers and shops the indoor tropical plant section of big-box stores. Likewise, she buys hanging baskets on sale and separates the individual plants. Even watering has a budget angle: “I go out with a hose once or twice a day,” Gail says. “But I love it. It’s cheaper than therapy.”

Hang ups

Gail uses aggressive spreaders like creeping Jenny in pots and hanging baskets where the foliage adds lushness but is kept in bounds. 

Welcoming entrance

A welcoming committee of colorful blossoms and foliage flanks a side door. Pots brim with spineless yucca, croton, ageratum, marigolds and coleus; a hanging basket spills over with verbena ‘Bright Eyes’ and Wave petunias.

Mass appeal

Grouped containers create a privacy screen for al fresco dining. 

Air time

Metal orbs give air plants (bromeliads) an unexpected lift.

Triple play

Follow this three-part plan for lush containers. Begin with a “thriller,” an upright star player such as this calla lily. Next, add in one or two complementary “fillers,” which can include foliage or flowering plants like lantana and geraniums. Finish with a “spiller”—in this case livingstone daisy ‘Mezoo Trailing Red’—that cascades over the edge. 

Upward bound

Trees add vertical interest to container gardens; here evergreen podocarpus teams with vinca and petunias. Gail over-winters some trees, but says it’s often cheaper to pot a tree—even if it survives only one season—than to fill a container with annuals.

Shear style

Moss rose and corkscrew grass make for a whimsical updo. 

More on container gardens

Click the links below for more container garden inspirations.

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