Choosing Plants For Container Gardening Bamboos, Grasses, Ferns And Spiky Plants

If you are choosing plants for container gardening, whether for an individual pot or as part of a larger display, don't neglect bamboos, grasses, ferns and spiky plants.

All these are great for adding a pleasing texture and form to your display, as well as providing a contrast to your flowering plants.

Spiky plants are very versatile. I like to use large specimens to form focal points in my garden and smaller ones as centre pieces to lend height to mixed containers.

Fine-leaved grasses are the perfect foil for broadleaved plants whilst ferns add a tropical leafiness to shady corners.

Including evergreens such as bamboos and Cordylines, also makes it easier to keep your display interesting throughout the year.

Choosing Plants for Container Gardening: Bamboos

Bamboos are very well suited to container growing and provide year round interest and architectural form. They really come into their own in contemporary and minimalist schemes, and, of course, they are indispensable in Japanese style gardens.

The two spreading bamboos below can spread quite vigorously if you plant them directly in a border, so growing them in large containers is an excellent way to control them.

Phyllostachys nigra (Black Bamboo)

Choosing Plants for Container Gardening, Phyllostachys nigra, Black Bamboo
  • Form: spreading bamboo
  • Foliage: evergreen
  • Hardiness: UK - hardy; USDA zones 7 to 10
  • Situation: sun or partial shade, protect from cold winds
  • Height: 2-3m (6-10ft)
  • Spread: as wide as your container allows
  • Awards: RHS AGM

Reasons to grow: A graceful arching evergreen with lance shaped dark green leaves. The green stems turn black in their second or third year. A great feature plant.

Do not plant it in a container with a narrow neck otherwise it will become stuck - a wooden half barrel is a good choice.

Sasa palmata f. nebulosa (Palm Bamboo)

Bamboos for Containers, Sasa palmata nebulosa, Palm Bamboo
  • Form: spreading bamboo
  • Foliage: evergreen
  • Hardiness: UK - hardy; USDA zones 6 to 10
  • Situation: prefers partial to full shade
  • Height: 1.5-2m (4.5-6ft)
  • Spread: as wide as your container allows
  • Awards: RHS AGM

Reasons to grow: Green canes streaked with purple and striking palm like leaves make this a handsome specimen plant. Very useful for giving a tropical feel to your planting scheme. It likes to be sheltered from winter winds to prevent leaf browning.

Again, do not plant it in a container with a narrow neck otherwise it will become stuck.

Choosing Plants for Container Gardening: Ornamental Grasses

If you're choosing plants for container gardening do not ignore the ornamental grasses. They are absolutely invaluable in the container garden, either as single specimens or grouped with other plants where their delicate foliage provides a contrast.

Most grasses will grow well in pots, but these are some of my own favourites.

Festuca glauca (Sheep's Fescue, Blue Fescue)

Container Grasses, Festuca glauca, Sheep's Fescue, Blue Fescue
  • Form: perennial grass
  • Foliage: evergreen
  • Hardiness: UK - hardy; USDA zones 4 to 8
  • Situation: sun to partial shade
  • Height: 30cm (12in)
  • Spread: 25cm (10in)
  • Awards: RHS AGM

Reasons to grow: A very well behaved evergreen ornamental grass with dense tufts of blue green leaves.

Although it seems rather unassuming, I think it is great for adding winter interest and acting as a foil to other plants.

Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola' (Golden Japanese Forest Grass, Hakone Grass)

Choosing PlaHakonechloa macra Aureola, Golden Japanese Forest Grass, Hakone Grass
  • Form: perennial grass
  • Foliage: deciduous
  • Hardiness: UK - hardy; USDA zones 5 to 9
  • Situation: sun to partial shade
  • Height: 40cm (16in)
  • Spread: 50cm (20in)
  • Awards: RHS AGM

Reasons to grow: This elegant grass has graceful yellow leaves striped with green and cream and an arching habit which allows it to cascade over the side of its container. Delicate red brown flower spikes are produced in late summer, and the leaves themselves flush red in the autumn.

Looks absolutely stunning in a simple oriental inspired ceramic container.

Stipa tenuissima (Mexican Feather Grass)

Grasses for Containers, Stipa tenuissima, Mexican Feather Grass
  • Form: perennial grass
  • Foliage: deciduous
  • Hardiness: UK - hardy; USDA zones 7 to 10
  • Situation: sun
  • Height: 60cm (2ft)
  • Spread: 30cm (1ft)

Reasons to grow: This versatile deciduous grass looks great in a large container. Its wispy, pale yellow-green leaves are topped with fluffy plumes of silver-green flowers fading to blonde.

The fountains of billowing leaves and flowers are ideal for introducing movement into your planting scheme.

Choosing Plants for Container Gardening: Ferns

Ferns are an excellent choice for giving a lush leafy atmosphere to your container garden. They have the added advantage that they can be grown in shady corners. Make the most of them by grouping next to plants with contrasting foliage.

Asplenium scolopendrium (Hart's Tongue Fern)

Ferns for Container Gardening, Asplenium scolopendrium, Hart's Tongue Fern
  • Form: fern
  • Foliage: evergreen
  • Hardiness: UK - hardy; USDA zones 6 to 8
  • Situation: full shade
  • Height: 70cm (27.5in)
  • Spread: 60cm (24in)
  • Awards: RHS AGM

Reasons to grow: This evergreen fern has prehistoric looking glossy tongue-shaped fronds that unfurl in early spring and provide year round interest. Some varieties, such as Asplenium scolopendrium 'Crispum', have unusual crested margins.

This fern is a true shade loving plant and the leaves will discolour if it receives more than a couple of hours of sunshine a day.

Blechnum spicant (Hard Fern)

Blechnum spicant, Hard Fern
  • Form: fern
  • Foliage: evergreen
  • Hardiness: UK - hardy; USDA zones 5 to 8
  • Situation: partial to deep shade
  • Height: 30-75cm (12-30in)
  • Spread: 30-45cm (12-18in)
  • Awards: RHS AGM

Reasons to grow: Grow this evergreen fern for year round interest and as a foil for flowering bulbs throughout the year. Over time, the leathery, dark green fronds spread out to form an attractive rosette.

Osmunda regalis (Royal Fern)

Ferns for Containers, Osmunda regalis. Royal Fern
  • Form: fern
  • Foliage: deciduous
  • Hardiness: UK - hardy; USDA zones 3 to 9
  • Situation: light or partial shade, keep moist
  • Height: 90cm to 2m (3 to 6.5ft)
  • Spread: up to 1m (3ft)
  • Awards: RHS AGM

Reasons to grow: This large distinguished looking deciduous fern is definitely worth growing if you are prepared to keep it well watered. Its bright green fronds gradually unfurl and then turn bronze in autumn and the divided foliage contrasts well with other foliage plants.

Good in a large container to allow it to achieve its full size.

Choosing Plants for Container Gardening: Spiky plants

These architectural plants are invaluable for providing structure. Their strong forms can be displayed in splendid isolation or used in a grouped display to provide contrast and form. They are also useful for providing a focal point for a vista.

The sizes given below are for container grown plants - in ideal conditions these plants can grow much larger.

Cordyline australis (Cabbage Palm)

Spiky Plants for Container Gardening, Cordyline australis, Cabbage Palm
  • Form: tree
  • Foliage: evergreen
  • Hardiness: UK - frost hardy; USDA zones 8 to 11
  • Situation: full sun to partial shade
  • Height: 2-3m (6-10ft)
  • Spread: 1m (3ft)
  • Awards: RHS AGM

Reasons to grow: An architectural, palm-like tree with striking spiky leaves. Mature specimens produce clusters of creamy flowers in summer, followed by blue black berries. Purple and variegated varieties are also available giving lots of options.

Useful as a focal point, accent plant or a centrepiece in a large container surrounded by flowering and trailing plants.

In colder areas plants may need winter protection - either cover with horticultural fleece or move into an unheated greenhouse. In my own garden I've found the purple leaved varieties to be more prone to frost and wind damage than the green leaved ones. The photo shows one of my green-leaved specimens rimed with frost during a cold snap and it has yet to come to any harm!

Eventually your plant may become too large to remain as a container plant but it can then be easily transplanted into a suitable border.

Phormium tenax (New Zealand Flax)

Phormium tenax, New Zealand Flax
  • Form: perennial
  • Foliage: evergreen
  • Hardiness: UK - frost hardy; USDA zones 8 to 10
  • Situation: full sun
  • Height: 2m (6ft)
  • Spread: 1m (3ft)
  • Awards: RHS AGM

Reasons to grow: Another very striking architectural foliage plant with upright sword-shaped leaves, green above and blue green beneath. In summer more mature plants produce very tall spikes of reddish flowers and these remain as seedheads during the winter months.

Some varieties have bronze or striped foliage - the photo shows the variety P. tenax 'Pink Stripe'.

Excellent in minimalist and urban settings and also very tolerant of coastal conditions.

Like the Cordyline it may need winter protection in colder areas - either cover with horticultural fleece or move into an unheated greenhouse or well-lit room.

Yucca spp (Needle Palm)

Container Plants, Yucca, Needle Palm
  • Form: shrub
  • Foliage: evergreen
  • Hardiness: UK - fully to frost hardy; USDA zones 5 to 11 depending on species
  • Situation: full sun
  • Height: 1-1.5m (3-4.5ft)
  • Spread: up to 1m (3ft)
  • Awards: many hold the RHS AGM

Reasons to grow: These spiky evergreen shrubs make excellent container specimens with dramatic sword shaped leaves and panicles of usually white flowers in summer. They look particularly good in an urban or minimalist scheme or mediterranean style courtyard.

Yucca filamentosa is probably the hardiest, so choose this if you live in a colder area. (The photo shows the very stiking Y. filamentosa 'Bright Edge'.) More tender cultivars can be covered with horticultural fleece or moved into an unheated greenhouse or well-lit room in the winter months.

Need More Information?

If you would like more ideas on what to plant in containers, go to Choosing Plants for Container Gardening: Trees and Shrubs.

Not sure what type of containers to buy? Check out the different types and materials at garden plant container.

General tips and information about container gardening can be found at gardening in containers.

Not looking for container plants? Head over to plant guides for links to all the 'plants for places' pages on this site.





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