Container Garden Inspiration From a Top Chicago Designer
Austin Eischeid, who designs Millennium Park’s stunning container gardens, offers tips for creating your own beautiful container arrangements.
When designer Austin Eischeid created his first container displays at Chicago's Millennium Park in 2018, he started with two showcase urns and has since grown his charge to 24 spectacular displays in large containers at multiple park entrances.
"These planters are visitors' first impression of the park," says Eischeid, who seasonally swaps out 30 to 40 plants per container for fresh new designs throughout the year. Park visitors love them—they often stop for keepsake pictures alongside the impressive displays.
Sounds like a lot of creative pressure for this 32-year-old owner of Austin Eischeid Garden Design, but Eischeid welcomes the challenge. He not only schemes plant combinations for their good looks but also their toughness to endure Chicago's weather extremes and curious visitors' touches and brushes past the plants.
"When you have 20 million visitors pass through, you don't get to do a ton of spillers in the classic thriller-filler-spiller style," says Eischeid, referring to the familiar container design formula.
Instead, he uses his designs to challenge visitors to rethink container gardening. He forgoes typical seasonal plants like spring pansies and fall mums for more unusual annuals, flamboyant tropicals, sculptural succulents, ornamental vegetables and the latest perennials. For inspiration, he dives into social media, plans vacations to exotic garden destinations and walks downtown Chicago to study the container designs emerging at outdoor restaurants and cafes.
He always encourages visitors to experiment with their own container gardens. Even at his own Chicago apartment, he grows so many containers on his balconies, friends tease, "Ah, where do we sit?"
"With container gardening, you can get up close and personal with plants," says Eischeid. "You can watch them at eye level, interact with them and enjoy their scents and movement." Besides, he says the small scale is perfect for people with limited space or new to gardening. Read on for his design tips for your own containers.
#1 Add instant height with branches. Eischeid says when you first pot up spring containers, the plants are often small and take time to fill in. Use branches like yellow-twig dogwoods and pussy willows for height. Later, the sticks can be used as trellises for climbing plants like clematis vine.
#2 Embrace foliage. Yes, flowers are great. But, Eischeid creates equally impactful designs with bold leaves like this tall Australian tree fern underplanted with a striking 'Gryphon' begonia, bloodleaf (Iresine 'Brilliantissima') and coleus.
#3 Add the unexpected. For fall, Eischeid avoids ho-hum chrysanthemums and introduces surprising fall plant combos like feathery pink celosia, flowing sedge grasses, branching sunflowers and orange dahlias with ornamental kale and millet.
#4 Move large focal plants from the center. Instead of a solo elephant ear (Alocasia 'Serendipity') in the center of the pot, Eischeid planted two and moved them to the sides, then intermingled tall purple verbena, coleus and fishtail palm for a stunning arrangement.
#5 Grow your own salad bowl with colorful red mustard (center), red leaf lettuce (lower right), green onions (left), bronze fennel (back) and even edible pansy flowers.
# 6 Add deep-colored foliage for contrast. Above, Eischeid accents brightly colored 'Canary Wings' begonia and pink-speckled 'Miss Muffet' caladiums with 'Colorama' dracaena and deep purple oxalis.
#7 Discover Eischeid's favorite plant—chartreuse flowering spurge (Euphorbia 'Rainbow Ascot'). He says it's a bright, shining beacon, especially in the spring when it's hard to find larger blooming plants—and a keeper through summer for its raspberry and green foliage. The spring blooms are shown here with orange kniphofias and purple alliums.
#8 Go tropical. Capture an island vibe with favorites like 'Hawaii' bromeliad, alocasias and fishtail palm.
#9 Feed pollinators. Eischeid helps feed the park's pollinators with favorites like 1) 'Monarch's Promise' milkweed with red-orange blooms and variegated foliage and 2) tall purple verbena.
#10 Try new plants. Enjoy a close-up view of novelties like 'Iron Man' mangave (right) or kniphofia and dahlia tubers (back) in containers for a season. In the fall, transplant the mangave into a houseplant container and the tubers into landscape beds.