5 Steps to Choosing The Right Outdoor Plants For You — Box and Sprout Skip to content
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5 Steps to Choosing The Right Outdoor Plants For You

When picking your new plants, there’s a few things you should consider. It’s a fun process, so again - don’t get too hung up on getting everything right. I often buy plants and then figure out where I can put them….but hey, I’m probably doing it wrong.

To get your started, here are 5 things it's useful to consider when choosing your outdoor plants

1. Sun & shade

2. Perennials,  annuals, shrubs & trees - what’s the difference  and why should I care?

3. Choosing for textures and shapes

4. Filling your pots: thriller, filler & spiller

5. Picking plants for colour


1. Sun & shade

Some plants aren’t fussy about the amount of sunlight they receive, but most have a preference and if a plant isn’t thriving, it’s commonly due to receiving too much or too little. 

Check-out our guide to sun and shade to learn how to assess the sun in your space.

So, once you have a good sense of the light in your space, you can pick plants that like full sun for your sunny spots, plants that like full shade for your shady spots. And everything in-between!

Most plants are kind of flexible about getting a bit too much or a bit too little. And remember, you can always move plants when you’ve planted them in pots, so stay flexible.

2. Perennials,  annuals, shrubs & trees - what’s the difference  and why should I care?

First let’s start with a quick intro. 

  • Annuals are plants with a maximum lifespan of one year. 
  • Perennials tends to refer to a flowering plant that grows back every year. Some perennials have life cycles of up to 20 years, but this depends on the species of the plant. 
  • Shrubs are small-ish plants with multiple, woody stems. Confusingly, they are perennials, but they are characterised by their woody stems, and they’re actually more similar to trees!
  • Trees have woody stems, but only one of them! I think we all know what trees are, right?

Many people plant a mixture of annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees, as you have lots of  different life cycles and different blooming times throughout the year. This can result in a colourful garden all year round! 

mixed garden

But having annuals, in particular, can also mean more maintenance as they’ll need a bit more tending to than other plant-types. At Box & Sprout, we’re mostly focussed on perennials, shrubs and trees, as they’re much less work for us busy people.

3. Choosing for textures and shapes

Colour and shape play an important role in the garden, but often texture if neglected - plant textures vary from very fine and airy to coarse, with a whole range in between. Texture can refer to the overall plant form as well as the shape and size of leaves and blossoms. Adding texture can also be done through varying colours and contrasts, as well as including garden ornaments and structures. For example, try mixing bold flat leaves, dainty blossoms and thick foliage to add a real spark to your garden!

Coarse textured or large foliage plants often add a tropical touch, even in colder climates. Plants with small leaves and blossoms are generally fine textured - they give a light and airy feeling to a garden. These fine textures and soft colours can often accentuate nearby plants. Textures of nearby trees and shrubs should also be considered. Motion can also play a role in a garden, with fine textured plants such as ornamental grasses, which sway gently in the breeze. 

plant textures

4. Filling pots: thriller, filler & spiller

You can create real magic in pots by creating ‘focal-point planters’, which include 3 key plant proportions all in one pot. 

Firstly, great designs include a ‘thriller’ plant, generally with a strong form and colour, and often larger than the other plants. ‘Filler’ plants then fill the remaining space to hide the soil, before ‘spiller’ plants sweep over the edge of the pot. The result is a three-dimensional arrangement that looks luxurious and elegant.

planting in pots

The options for the plant choice are endless, but it is recommended that you match your plants based on their sunlight requirements. Most ‘thriller’ plants with impressive colours and flowers will require some bright sunlight for at least a few hours per day, so the ‘filler’ and ‘spiller’ plants will also need to be happy with these conditions. 

Thrillers - almost any plant with an upright growth habit can work, including: purple fountain grass, aztec grass, flax lily, iris, lady palms, dracaena, ferns, snapdragon, bromeliads. 

Fillers - can be a single plant species of a mixture of different plants. Bright colours tend to make the pot look larger,  whilst darkers colours sometimes disappear in the shade. The display will last longer if you select plants with longer bloom life, which can be pruned and continue to produce more foliage. Includes: pentas, moss rose, pansy, petunias, alyssum, coleus, moss and various cooking herbs.

Spillers - partly used to fill the pot, spillers have trailing or cascading growth habits, causing them to cascade over the side of the planter. Plants with interesting colours or variegated leaves can make a stronger statement. Includes: variegated ivv, sweet potato vine, trailing begonia, moss rose, weeping junipers, trailing rosemary, fig ivy, creeping jenny, trailing lantana.

5. Picking plants for colour

The colour scheme you pick for your garden can create different moods for different areas. When choosing, take into account the architectural style of your garden, as well as the colours used in the building materials of the house, paths, steps, walls, fences, furniture etc. Also, consider the quality of sunlight throughout the day through the seasons - strong colours work well in brightly lit areas, whereas pale shades can appear bleached out. Pastels look their best in morning light and whites are brilliant at dusk. 

colour wheel

For gardeners, the colour wheel - half hot and warm colours, half cold and cool colours - is useful when thinking about the differences between harmonies and contrasts. Bright colours add drama and bring the area into the foreground. Hot colours work best in sunny gardens, as they appear closer and make the garden feel more intimate. On the other hand, calming, cool colours recede and blur the boundaries, therefore can be used effectively to make an area seem bigger.

Harmonious colours are close to each other on the wheel, whilst contrasting but complementary colours are found on opposite sides of the wheel. Contrasting colours can intensify an effect. Red flowers, for example, look brighter against a green background. 

Green - the colour of nature, which is calm and soothing. It acts as a background for other hues, or can be the main theme. A landscape design of various shades of green can be subtle but beautiful. Our eyes are able to detect more nuances in greens than in any other colour.

Whites - a palette of neutrals is timeless, particularly against lush greens. It adds freshness and purity that is hard to achieve with other monochrome schemes. Luminous, pale blooms add light to shadowed areas.

Blue - true blue is a rarity but can add a touch of cool elegance. Blue extends the view as it recedes, so plant it at the border to make it appear longer. Take care mixing blue-mauve tones with clear blue as it will throw off the colour; it looks best to put blue with definite purple, mauve or pink for a pretty and harmonious combination. Colour opposites orange and blue will compliment each other and hot reds or yellow will jump out against cool blues. 

E.g. irises, with lupins, foxgloves, salvias, alliums, roses, nigella, phlox

Pink - varies from deep magenta to pastel shades. Cool pinks have a hint of blue and warm pinks have a hint of yellow. This means pink can be used subtly or boldly. If you’re feeling brave, scarlett pink and orange can make an eye-popping centrepiece. Varying shades of monochromatic pinks can lift a space.

Red - hot colours provide warmth and energy. Reds are passionate and add strong focus to an area. They work well with opulent purples and complimentary greens.

E.g. crocosmias, with asters, heleniums, grasses OR aconitum, salvias and nepeta

Orange - the colour that elicits the strongest response from the viewer: either maligned by some for being too garish, or loved by others for the vibrant energy it brings to a space. Strongest hues work strikingly against complimentary rich blues and purples, whilst softer apricot tones with gentle mauves are more subtle. Try orange in seating areas as it stimulates sociability and conversation.

E.g. achilleas, with salvias, eryngium, grasses 

Yellow - adds bursts of sunlight to a scheme. Cheerful yellow works well in golden borders, mixed with oranges and bronzes, or contrasted with blues and purples to really draw the eye in. Keep a simple design, as yellow has lots of impact, particularly in glorious light where it glows radiantly. 

E.g. rudbeckias, with heleniums, asters, grasses, verbena, salvias

How to use the colour wheel?

Pick the colour you like most (e.g. red) and then do one of the following:

  1. Go opposite: contrasting yet complimentary colours are found on opposite sides of the circle (e.g. red & blue)
  2. Make a triangle: find the other 2 colours on the wheel that make a triangle with yours (e.g. red, purple & green) 
  3. Follow the circle round: analogous colours are next to each other and therefore more similar in shade; this results in a warmer or cooler range of colours (e.g. red, orange & yellow OR red, pink & purple)
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