How To Plant Flower Pots And Decorate With Containers

Ahh planting season! The last frost date is behind us, we’ve picked out our annual plants at the local garden center, and it’s time to decorate that front porch or outdoor space with beautiful potted plants for the summer.

As I’m potting away and diving into container gardening this weekend, I thought I would share my best tips for how to plant flower pots and decorate an outdoor space with garden containers.

How to plant flower pots with a collection of terracotta pots on a deck filled with flowers

Growing flowers in pots is so simple and can make for a beautiful display for your outdoor space. It’s so worth the initial springtime investment for a summer of beautiful flowers. Fall flowers on a deck are a thing too.

When To Pot Flowers Outside

When dealing with outdoor plants it’s essential to know your growing season and when it’s okay to put flowers outside. This isn’t just for vegetable gardening but also flowers.

After Last Frost

Number one tip, before you head to your local garden center, check your last frost date. While some flowers could tolerate a late frost, many springtime flowers are frost-tender and won’t survive or thrive afterward.

In our area, our average last frost date is around Memorial Day. While sometimes I’ll buy or plant my flower pots earlier, like on Mother’s Day, I often wait. I don’t love moving plants inside and it’s not always worth the risk.

Deck container planting for summer with a collection of terracotta pots filled with a mix of purple and white flowers around a green door entry

Look Up Average Last Frost By Zip Code

It’s easy to look up your average last frost date by zip code. I like using the Farmer’s Almanac to look up my average last frost date.

Another useful tool is the USDA hardiness map to show your growing zones, which is more important for perennials than annual plants. They recently updated growing hardiness zones so check out your updated zone. We jumped from zone 4b to 5a, opening up some new varieties of annuals for us to plant.

Select Your Pots

Do a dry run of your plant pot arrangement and set them out where you want them.

Start with the larger pots and other large containers, mixing in a small pot here and there. Keep pulling in pots, leaving plenty of space around them to allow the plants to breathe, until you have the right pots for you and your space.

I love terracotta pots and collect them at flea markets and yard sales all year round. I’ll often pull out the largest pots from my collection for a simple arrangement around our main entry door.

Arranging empty planting pots on a deck around a door

Consider Style

When selecting your pots, consider the style you’re going for. Classic terracotta pots give off a traditional or cottage vibe while galvanized containers lean more farmhouse. If you prefer a modern style, try square containers or concrete planters with clean lines.

Planters and containers can set the tone for your container planting so give pots some thought.

Stack of aged terracotta pots in varying sizes and shapes in the corner of a patio

Vary Sizes

When you vary the sizes of your flower pots, it gives the arrangement much more visual interest. Large pots anchor the space while the smaller pots fill in the gaps.

The classic decorating rule of three also applies to container gardening. A no-fail plant pot grouping includes three pots: one larger pot with a mix of plants, a medium-sized pot with a larger plant, and a small pot with a smaller plant.

If you vary the container sizes while keeping a consistent color scheme or container style while planting flower pots, you’ll have a gorgeous display for your outdoor space.

Select Your Plants

Now for the fun part, selecting plants for your container flower gardens. Or if you’re like me, you waffle over every little decision, fine-tuning until the kids you’ve brought along get cranky, and then you just let them pick whatever and hope for the best.

Flower selection in a local garden center greenhouse

Photograph Your Pots

One thing that helps me choose plants for my pots is keeping photographs of each pot on my phone. You could even be extra and jot down the pot sizes so you don’t confuse a 12-inch planter with a 20-inch planter.

This photo folder has been so helpful as I’m shopping at the nursery and keeps me reined in from buying all the pretty flowers. It also helps prevent multiple trips to the garden center because I didn’t buy enough of a certain variety to fill out a planter.

Vintage terracotta pot sitting empty on a patio

Make A Shopping List

Before heading to the local nursery, I also like to make a vague shopping list.

This list doesn’t need to be specific, but more vague. Think, “two large 24″ – 36” plants for the big pots “instead of “two cleome flowers in light pink.” You never know what you’ll find and what might be inspiring so keep a sense of vaguery to the list.

Screenshot of flower shopping list made in iPhone notes app

Unless you do want something specific. You do you!

Full Sun or Part Shade

Knowing the location of your plants is also helpful in deciding the type of plants to get. Full sun or part sun.

Here are some sunlight definitions thanks to the Proven Winners sun guidelines:

  • Full Sun: more than 6 hours of direct sun
  • Part Sun: 4 to 6 hours of direct sun, including some afternoon sun
  • Part Shade: 4 to 6 hours of direct sun, mostly morning sun
  • Full Shade: less than 4 hours of direct sun

​When you’re shopping, be sure to read the plant tag to help determine how much sun a plant needs.

Flower plant tag on a weathered potting bench with plants surrounding it

For our deck flowers, the space gets around 6 hours of direct sun. I’ve found that both full sun and part sun flowers do well here. Although the full sun flowers tend to thrive more than part sun flowers so I tend to stick with full sun for the most part.

Group Plants With Similar Needs

When selecting the type of plants for a planter, group plants within the same pot according to their needs. If you’re mixing three different plans in a large pot, they should have similar water and sunlight requirements.

Most plant tags will let you know the needs of the plant. When in doubt, a salesperson can often help you.

Thriller Filler Spiller

If you like to mix a variety of plants in one pot but are unsure how to do so, try the simple thriller, filler, and spiller combo. It’s a classic container planting combo.

Thriller plant, filler plants, and spiller plants combined in one large terracotta pot

Note…the begonias (the fillers) in my plant pot in the photo above are currently small but will fill in at around 8″ tall. I’ll update the photo when they mature.

Start with a thriller plant to anchor the pot. These plants are typically larger and shoot up higher into the air. They’re either flowers or foliage. Some of my favorites include spider plants, geraniums, ornamental grasses, asters, and eucalyptus.

Filler plants go in second and are the mid-sized plants in the pot. Fillers don’t grow as large or tall as thrillers and are more mounded to fill the space in front of the thriller. Some favorite fillers include petunias, zinnias, and begonias.

Spiller plants are the last planted and go in front of the fillers and spill over the edge of the pot. These plants are trailing or vining varieties. Some favorite spiller plants include alyssum, trailing begonia, and coleus.

Planting large pots with thriller, filler, and spiller plants

Color Scheme

When selecting your plants, also think about your color scheme. Go for muted tones or a bright color, use a variety of purples or maybe all white. 

I lean towards pinks and purples since they’re my favorite flower colors. This year, I leaned into purples. I love purple flowers paired with the terracotta pots and our green entry door.

Purple flower color scheme for container gardening on a small deck

These days, as I’m in the parenting young children phase of life, I let the kids pick their favorite flowers.

Pot Your Plants

​Now that you have a small arsenal of potted flowers in the trunk of your car, let’s get them in the dirt.

Drainage Holes

Before planting, make sure your pots have good drainage. Most terracotta pots have drainage holes to prevent excess water from pooling in the bottom of the planter. Excess water can cause damage to plants like wilting or root rot.

It’s a good idea to always shop for pots with drainage holes. Sometimes you can drill drainage holes in the bottom of plastic pots.

Select High-Quality Potting Soil

Choose a high-quality potting soil for your containers. Not just any bag of dirt will do.

Most bags of garden soil will specify whether it’s good for pots. Good quality soil will include elements that encourage healthy plant growth and keep the dirt from getting too compacted.

It never fails. I never buy as much potting soil as I need and often make another trip to the store for more potting soil. When in doubt, buy the extra bag and store it for later if you don’t use it.

My favorite potting soil is the Gardener’s Supply Self-Watering Potting Mix.

A bag of self-watering garden soil from Gardener's Supply

It’s the type of mix that needs to be hydrated, so it’s super lightweight and easy to carry home. We’ve had quite a few dry summers here and this mix improves the drought tolerance of my plants. While it’s specifically formulated for self-watering containers, it works well as an all-around mix in regular planters.

Don’t Fill the Bottom of The Pot With Junk

​Please, I beg of you, don’t fill the bottom of large planters or tall planters with junk. I’ve seen so many people on social media fill the bottom of their pots with packing peanuts, cut-up pool noodles, crushed cans, and other items to lessen the amount of dirt in their pots. While yes, it keeps the pots lightweight, it’s not great for plants.

Filling the bottom of your pots with dirt, and only dirt, extends the soil level and helps prevent the potted plants from drying out. Plus, it’s much easier to dump the entire contents of the pot in the compost pile if you don’t have to weed out the junk.

Filling a large terracotta pot with good soil to prep for growing flowers in pots

Choose The Right Pot

Read the tags of your plants and choose the right pot for your plants. Larger plants need larger pots while smaller plants can go in smaller pots.

Start With Largest Plants

When planting a larger pot with a mix of plants, start creating your flower arrangement with the largest or taller plants.

Once the largest plants are in place, or your thriller varieties, plant your fillers and then your spillers.

Flowers in a Radio Flyer wagon on a patio in front of a potting bench to prep for planting flowers in containers

Gently Break Up Root Bound Plants

When you take your plant baby out of the nursery pot, typically the roots of your plant will be bound to the pot. You’ll see roots coiled around the edge of the soil.

Before planting, gently tease the plant’s roots apart with your fingers to break up the root ball. This helps encourage the roots to branch out once planted.

Flower root ball before teasing the roots apart and planting the flowers

Arrange Pots

Once you have your container planting flowers potted, it’s time to arrange the pots. It’s helpful to have large planters in place before watering the plants for the first time to reduce the pot’s weight.

Start with the large planters first and place containers roughly in the arrangement you originally determined. Make adjustments here and there until the planting pots are in the “just right” location for you.

Arranging terracotta pots filled with flowers on a small deck around a green door

Water In The Plants

Once you have all your plants potted and located in their final destination, generously water the plants. Moist soil will help the plants acclimate to their new home.

Water the plants gently, the rain shower attachment is perfect for this, until water begins to come out of the drainage holes.

My Potted Flowers For The Deck

When selecting my summer 2024 container planting flowers for the deck, the general rule was “kids’ choice so anything goes.”

Seriously. I went in with a general idea but I was shopping with both girls so I had a more open mind. They LOVE helping pick out flowers and I LOVE helping them cultivate a love of flowers and gardening. It works.

Rowan found these beautiful petunias unlike any we’ve come across at our local garden center. They’re the Splash Dance Magenta Mambo. It spurred the “everything shall be purple and white” idea.

Purple and white flowers in a Radio Flyer wagon on a patio to be potted in containers for summer flowers

We also paid zero point zero attention to shade vs sun and watering needs. My eldest understands and helps find full sun flowers but the youngest doesn’t. I pick my battles and choosing the right flowers per sun requirements wasn’t a hill I wanted to die on. Fingers crossed everything does okay.

The Plant List

  • Cleome Hybrid Senorita Rosalita
  • Begonia Senator iQ White
  • Lamium Maculatum White Nancy
  • Fuchsia Windchimes White
  • AngelDance Fuchsia Bicolor Angelonia
  • Petunia Splash Dance Magenta Mambo
  • Petunia Amazonas Plum Cockatoo

The Large Pots

We used the thriller, filler, and spiller combo for the largest pots. It’s a planting combination of cleome as the thriller, begonias as the filler, and lamium for the spiller.

The begonias were super small. We looked for some larger ones but there were none left. Thankfully they will “fill” in and grow to be about 8″ tall.

Larger pot filled with flowers using the thriller, filler, spiller planting technique using celosia, begonias, and lamium

The Medium Pots

In the rounded medium pots, we planted a single plant, the fuchsia windchimes white. These flowers are beautiful. I picked them up on impulse at the Home Depot while looking for landscape edging for another project.

Fuchsia flowers potted in a medium-sized aged terracotta pot on a deck

In the more traditional style of a terracotta pot, we planted a combo of the purple fuchsia and the magenta mambo petunias. I usually don’t plant multiple flowers or plants in the medium and smaller pots, but the kids’ wanted to and I rolled with it. I have to admit, I do like the combo.

Planting purple flowers in containers using a collection of aged terracotta pots. Flowers include purple fuchsia bicolor and the splash dance magenta mambo petunias

The Small Pots

The smallest pots we filled with the extra begonias. The begonias came in six packs and we had bought three. We didn’t need that many begonias, but I had grabbed the first flat, and each girl wanted their own. They also wanted to decorate their potting bench with the begonias so I’m sure they won’t stay on the deck for long.

Potted begonia flowers in terracotta pots on a small deck

There was also an incident of more petunias.

Plum cockatoo petunias in terracotta pots on a deck with other potted flowers

So happy planting, dear readers! And thanks for stopping by (and making it to the end!) of our “how to plant flower pots” post. Do tell me, what plants you used for container planting this year. I’m ALWAYS looking for new ideas!

Pssst….Visit the RentBlog for more patio and balcony decor ideas. You may even see some comments from yours truly. ‘Tis the season for extending our living spaces outside and making patios just as cozy as our favorite interior spaces.

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