By Evin Morrison, Extension Master Gardener
Photos © Evin Morrison
When we are designing our outdoor garden spaces, we look at plant combinations. Our flower beds and containers are filled with multiple types of plants that complement one another not only in color palette, but in growing needs. However, for some reason when we bring plants indoors, most of the time, we follow a one plant per pot scheme. What if we brought some of those outdoor planting concepts inside? With a large container and a handful of houseplants, you can make an incredible living arrangement. Not only will it last longer on your table than a bunch of cut flowers, but it gives you an excuse to bring a few more varieties of plants into your home while still only taking up one planter!
Step 1: Selecting a Container
You’ll need to find a container. The container you choose is going to decide the direction that you go with planting, so don’t take this step lightly. Think about size, shape, depth, and material. Obviously, the bigger the planter the more plants you’ll be able to squeeze in, but a large pot will also take up more space.
How deep is the planter? If it’s only a few inches deep (like a large tray), when you go plant shopping, you’ll want to look at succulents or cacti in smaller pots because they have shallower root systems. Additionally, many succulents tend to grow at a much slower rate, so you won’t have to worry about your plants quickly outgrowing your container.
What kind of material is the planter? Terracotta and clay planters breathe more than glazed ceramic or plastic, so this will affect the watering schedule of your plants. Your container can also alter what kind of soil you choose. If you want to plant a tropical or moisture-loving plant in terracotta, , you’ll need to use a substrate that retains moisture. On the flipside, if you choose a glazed ceramic or plastic container and want to plant less thirsty houseplants, it will be a good idea to use cactus soil or soil that’s amended with something like perlite to increase drainage.
Step 2: Drainage
The big decision of a drainage hole is the next step that will greatly alter your planting path. It’s an unpopular opinion around the internet, but drainage holes are not completely necessary. Having a drainage hole in your container is without a doubt beneficial, but there are ways to plant and water houseplants if your chosen planter doesn’t have one that will still lead to success. In the example for this article, the container doesn’t have a drainage hole, but because we are planting moisture loving species and amending the substrate, the finished product is going to thrive. Bonus: it won’t leak water all over the table!
You can also place a smaller container with drainage inside a larger, more decorative container without holes. . For this type of effort, recycled hanging basket planters work great as your inner planter because they are usually the right shape.
If you pick a planter that doesn’t have drainage, but you would prefer that it does, almost every container can be drilled to add a few holes underneath. Use a diamond drill bit for clay and ceramic planters, a standard drill bit for plastic, and regardless of drill type, don’t forget the eye protection. Of course, make sure that while you’re shopping you also pick up a plastic or glazed saucer to protect your furniture and make watering easier.
Step 3: Choosing Plants
The fun part of picking your plants is finally here. Knowing how wide your container is, how much root space you have, and what kind of moisture you can expect from both material and drainage will point you in the direction of what types of plants to gather. Just like in an outdoor garden bed or container, you want to pick plants that need similar light and water requirements. In other words, don’t expect a fern and a cactus to live happily together. Take the time to read the identification tags and decide what will work best as a combination.
It’s also important to gather your chosen plants together in the store before you purchase them to see if they complement one another. The example arrangement sticks with a white and green color scheme, pulling the bloom color of the orchid down to the variegated foliage of the smaller complimentary plants. Stick to a common gardening rule when planting containers: find a thriller (the orchid), a filler (the fern, syngonium , and peperomia), and a spiller (the tradescantia ). Mixing foliage types will also add interest to your arrangement. Try mixing structural leaf shapes like the orchid with wispy leaf structures like asparagus ferns.
Step 4: Planting
Once you have all your pieces gathered, it’s time to plant! Now here’s the secret you’ve all been waiting for: How do I plant this arrangement with no drainage hole? The answer: We are going to put down a layer of lightweight expanded clay aggregate, also known as “leca.” This material usually comes in the form of small clay balls and is often used in semi-hydroponic growing. Because leca absorbs excess moisture and releases it back into the soil, it is much different than a layer of pebbles or rocks.. A layer of stones will only raise the water table and lead to root rot, whereas a layer of leca will actually aid in the absorption of excess water. Of course, you will still want to avoid flooding the container and creating a super soggy environment.
Start your arrangement by planting your thriller plant. If the arrangement will be against a wall, put the thriller towards the back and plant your filler and spiller in front of it. Maybe your arrangement is going to live in the middle of a table? Well then, pop your thriller right in the middle and plant all the way around it so that it looks beautiful from all angles. For our example, the thriller is a beautiful orchid. Since the blooms of this orchid will likely fade before the rest of the plants in the arrangement, a useful trick is to leave the orchid in the nursery pot and plant around it. Once the blooms fade, you can pop it right out and replace it with another one in bloom or fill the space with a different plant! We love a modular planter that can be changed with the seasons.
To avoid having to buy so many plants for this project, don’t be afraid to divide your houseplants. Things like the tradescantia in our example can easily be pulled apart and planted around the container. Not only will it allow you fill in gaps without buying two of the same plant, but by spacing them out you will create symmetry around your arrangement.
Step 5: Dress it Up
Maybe you thought you were done once you had all your plants in place, but this is a special planter so take the time to dress it up a little. For moisture loving containers, consider top dressing the soil with preserved or living moss. If you’ve made a desertscape, you can top the soil off with gravel or pebbles. Just remember that some top dressings can slow down the rate of evaporation from your soil, so make sure to test the moisture of the container with your finger each time before watering.
Adding in some whimsical elements will really make your arrangement pop. Small metal mushrooms or hardscaping elements like stones, foraged pinecones, or driftwood are great finishing touches. Get creative and really make your arrangement match your space and personality.
Step 6: Enjoy your arrangement!
While these beautiful arrangements will last longer than cut flowers, keep in mind that the plants will grow. Most likely after a few seasons you’ll need to disassemble your container and up-pot these plants. Keep them together in a larger planter, or give them each their own space—either way it opens the opportunity to start over again and try something new!
If you try this project out, we would love to see your creations. Find the link to this article on the MGNV Facebook page and share your pictures!