Best container plants: 14 top picks for pretty summertime pots

We've rounded up the best container plants for creating a show-stopping display on your patio, deck, or windowsill

Nemesia Fairy Kisses ‘Boysenberry’
(Image credit: P Tomlins/Alamy Stock Photo)

Picking out container plants for summer displays is a compelling project. Pots provide the opportunity to create gardens in miniature, using only a few species of flowers and foliage. There is no bending to the ground, plants fill the space to block out weeds, and color is brought to areas that need it. Whether you want to brighten up a tiny patio or frame your front door, you can't go wrong with a container or two.

By late spring and early summer, when there is no more danger of frost, bedding plants can live outdoors. This is the green light to dust down empty pots ready to receive a wide range of tender perennials and half-hardy annuals bred to bloom all summer and up to the first frosts of autumn. 

Gardeners who yearned after specific cultivars and colors of begonia or bidens will have ordered their plants for delivery and may have been nurturing them under glass or on windowsills since mid-spring. Yet, impulsive visits to garden centers, shows, and stores nearer to setting-out time are also worth doing. Plants will be larger with their flowers opening. Plus, it's fun to wander around picking out complementary shapes and colors, a pot or trough to match, and container plant compost.

However you go about it, we've rounded up our must-have plants for summer container gardening ideas – there's sure to be something you'll love in this mix.

14 best container plants to introduce to your garden

A mixture of types, shapes, and colors in one container brings variety but sticking to a mass of just one is sometimes easier on the eye – it all depends on your individual style and the look you're trying to create. Don't forget about the preferences of pollinators, too, if you want a more wildlife-friendly garden: single-flowered cultivars are much better for them and also have a simplistic beauty and form.

There are lots of ways to get creative with garden color schemes in pots too – whether that's with vibrant brights or cool whites. And you can always tone down dazzling colors or add to a dreamy pastel arrangement by adding foliage fillers like Artemisia 'Oriental Limelight', spider plants, or trailing, silvery Dichondra argentea 'Silver Falls'.

These top picks will get you inspired for your own summertime displays.

1. Nicotiana 'Perfume Mix'

Nicotiana Perfume Series Mixed

(Image credit: MrFothergills.co.uk)
  • Height: 18in (45cm) 
  • Spread: 12in (30cm)
  • Hardiness: USDA 9b–10a (UK H3)

Perfect for cottage garden ideas and modern planting schemes alike, tobacco plants are usually cheap, cheerful, and sold in modules. Choose tall N.sylvestris or N.mutabilis (the color-changing tobacco) at 5ft for drama. 

The shorter tobaccos such as 'Lime Green' at 2ft (60cm) and this mixture above make good fillers. The well-branched plants deliver a summer of open, scented blooms in pinks, white, and red in sun or light shade.

2. Phormium cookianum subsp.hookeri 'Tricolor'

Phormium cookianum subsp. hookeri 'Tricolor'

(Image credit: mike jarman/Alamy Stock Photo)
  • Height: 5ft (1.5m) 
  • Spread: 5ft (1.5m) 
  • Hardiness: USDA 8b–9a (UK H3–H4)

Where height is needed, a robust foliage plant acts as a foil for summer flowers. Cannas add showy blooms as well as exotic foliage and young silvery eucalypts have an ethereal quality. 

Meanwhile, the smaller New Zealand flaxes withstand a bit of crowding and survive all but the coldest winters ready for another year. This one bears red leaf edges and cream stripes of various widths and works well in a modern garden display.

3. Bidens ferulifolia 'Golden Eye'

Bidens ferulifolia ‘Golden Eye’

(Image credit: Hayloft.co.uk)
  • Height: 10in (25cm)
  • Spread: 10in (25cm)
  • Hardiness: USDA 9b–10a (UK H3)

For exuberant container plantings, sun-loving bidens are perfect. Their long stems of finely-divided foliage push outwards and downwards, throwing warm-hued blooms to the edges of the planting. 

Cultivars offer blooms of white, yellow, and warm fiery-orange tones but this one has a modest spread with petals that are yellow at the base and a warm, creamy ivory at the tips.

4. Calibrachoa 'Starlight Blue'

Calibrachoa ‘Starlight Blue’

(Image credit: MrFothergills.com)
  • Height: 19.5in (50cm)
  • Spread: 12in (30cm)
  • Hardiness: USDA 10b (UK H3)

The trailing stems of sun-loving tender perennial calibrachoas are smothered in masses of small, petunia-like blooms available in many colors from pale pastels to vibrant hues. 

They're ideal for pouring over the edges of troughs and pots and they're definitely one of the best plants for hanging baskets, too. For hot colors, Calita 'Apricot Shades' is hard to beat, but these electric purple-blue flowers marked with yellow are equally eye-catching.

5. Brachyscome angustifolia 'Brasco Violet'

Brachyscome angustifolia Brasco Violet

(Image credit: Helen Cowles/Alamy Stock Photo)
  • Height: 12in (30cm)
  • Spread: 12in (30cm)
  • Hardiness: USDA 9b–10a (UK H3)

Known as Swan river or rock daisies, the brachyscome tribe make wonderful sun-loving filler plants, producing soft mounds of fine foliage joined by pretty daisy-like blooms in shades from white through pale sky-blue to purple and pink. 

They are equally lovely filling a low trough or pot on their own, or between pelargoniums and petunias.

6. Nemesia Fairy Kisses 'Boysenberry'

Nemesia Fairy Kisses 'Boysenberry'

(Image credit: P Tomlins/Alamy Stock Photo)
  • Height: 10in (25cm)
  • Spread: 6in (15cm)
  • Hardiness: USDA 9b–10a (UK H3)

Bearing clouds of small, fragrant, jewel-like flowers, nemesias are deservedly popular. 

For window box ideas, the variety 'Wisley Vanilla' is especially recommended for its most pervadingly sweet scent. But, for vibrant color, the perky burgundy, pink, and yellow flowers of 'Boysenberry' are hard to beat. 

Although sun is appreciated, plants will thrive in partial shade.

7. Angelonia angustifolia 'Archangel White'

Angelonia angustifolia Archangel White

(Image credit: Hayloft.co.uk/Ball Colegrave)
  • Height: 20in (50cm)
  • Spread: 16in (40cm)
  • Hardiness: USDA 9b–10a (UK H2)

From the foxglove and snapdragon tribe, angelonias are tender perennials originally from Central and South America. The plants are happy in sun or partial shade and large, structural blooms are produced from summer to autumn held on upright stems. 

The color range is impressive, from the creamy white flowers above through to blue and purple to red. They're ideal if you're on the lookout for adding more height to your container display.

8. Calceolaria 'Kentish Hero'

Calceolaria ‘Kentish Hero’

(Image credit: CHRIS BOSWORTH/Alamy Stock Photo)
  • Height: 2ft (60cm)
  • Spread: 18in (45cm)
  • Hardiness: USDA 10b (UK H2–H3)

Bred from a tender Mexican subshrub, this slipper flower makes an unusual but striking choice for garden planters

Tall, upright branching stems of many pouched, brilliant reddish-orange flowers are produced throughout summer, especially after deadheading. Place in sun for the best results, along with purple flowers such as fragrant Heliotrope 'Marine' or other hot colors.

9. Scaevola aemula 'Surdiva Light Blue'

Scaevola aemula Surdiva Light Blue

(Image credit: MrFothergills.co.uk)
  • Height: 12in (30cm)
  • Spread: 18in (45cm)
  • Hardiness: USDA 9b–10a (UK H3)

Known as fairy fan flowers, the sun-loving scaevolas have their origins in Australia. Bright green stems of small leaves tend to reach out sideways rather than straight down, adding width to your container planting. 

The flowers are shaped like small fans in white and shades of blue, mauve, and pink, together forming almost circular shapes over the plants.

10. Diascia sundiascia 'Sakura Pink'

Diascia Sundiascia Sakura Pink

(Image credit: Hayloft.co.uk/Ball Colegrave)
  • Height: 18in (45cm)
  • Spread: 18in (45cm)
  • Hardiness: USDA 9b–10a (UK H3–H4)

The diascias or twinspurs have a mat-forming, slightly trailing habit especially as they mature and are smothered in many prettily-formed flowers in shades of pink. 

'Sakura', meaning cherry blossom, is a clue to the gorgeous shade of this variety. Place in full sun and, using your best secateurs, deadhead after a flush of blooms to enhance its form.

11. Begonia 'Summerwings White'

Begonia Summerwings White Elegance

(Image credit: Martin Hughes-Jones/Alamy Stock Photo)
  • Height: 16in (40cm)
  • Spread: 16in (40cm)
  • Hardiness: USDA 12 (UK H3)

There are many begonias suitable for containers. And, as long as they get plenty of sun for a third of the day, they can thrive in light shade. 

Some are fiery, such as mound-forming 'Glowing Embers' whose single orange blooms show well against dark, bronze-green foliage. This one, however, bears shell-pink buds against green foliage, opening to white blooms. A lovely pick for elegant hanging basket ideas.

12. Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola'

Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola'

(Image credit: Holmes Garden Photos/Alamy Stock Photo)
  • Height: 14in (35cm)
  • Spread: 16in (40cm)
  • Hardiness: USDA 6a-1 (UK H4)

The golden hakonechloa is a highly decorative and deciduous type of ornamental grass that looks magnificent in a container. 

Hardy and perennial, it dies back for winter but makes new growth in spring. Grow it on its own, as the arching green-striped yellow leaves will completely cover the pot. The foliage turns russet-red in autumn.

13. Impatiens 'SunPatiens Compact Electric Orange'

Impatiens SunPatiens Compact Electric Orange

(Image credit: Provenwinners.com)
  • Height: 20in (50cm) 
  • Spread: 12in (30cm)
  • Hardiness: USDA 12 (UK H1B)

New-Guinea-type impatiens have an exotic look to them and thrive well in shade. Their foliage is lush and sometimes variegated. Blooms are red, pink, lilac, orange, or white. 

This compact orange-flowered variety is eye-catching and perfect to shine out from a container under the shade of a tree in a tropical-style garden.

14. Mimulus x hybridus 'Monkey Magic'

Mimulus x hybridus ‘Monkey Magic’

(Image credit: Thompson & Morgan)
  • Height: 8in (20cm)
  • Spread: 8in (20cm)
  • Hardiness: USDA 8b–9a (UK H4)

Look out for punnets of monkey musk – these tender perennials are shade loving plants, as long as the soil is kept moist. 

Usually sold as mixtures, these produce large 2in (5cm) wide patterned flowers in red, white, pink, and orange but this hybrid bears creamy-white blooms splashed and spotted with red.

What hardy perennials can be grown in containers?

Most bedding plants are withered by the first frosts of fall, though some tender perennials (canna, aeonium, pelargoniums, and begonias) are worth overwintering somewhere frost-free as plants or cuttings. 

Hardy perennials can stay outside during winter but many die back and few flower consistently through summer to fall. Plus, they need regular care to keep them healthy. Try low shrubby plants such as lavender, evergreen holly-like Osmanthus heterophyllus 'Aureomarginata', and Hebe 'Pink Elephant'. 

Perennials with long flowering seasons include penstemon, gaillardia, and Geranium ‘Azure Rush’.

Geranium 'Azure Rush'

Geranium 'Azure Rush' is a hardy perennial that works well in planters

(Image credit: John Richmond/Alamy Stock Photo)

What are good container plants for shade?

Where there is little direct sun, stick to shade-tolerant shrubs and perennials for the mainstay of container planting. 

Pot-grown hydrangeas that struggle in full sun will relish the shade of a garden wall. 

A wide range of hardy ferns including evergreen soft shield fern (Polystichum setiferum), hart's tongue (Asplenium scolopendrium), lowly hard fern (Blechnum spicant), and in sheltered gardens, tree fern (Dicksonia antarctica) will suit. You can learn how to grow ferns with our handy guide.

Potted hostas look great from spring to autumn. Add small pots of begonia, mimulus, and impatiens for bursts of color, with Lamium maculatum 'White Nancy' for silvery foliage.

hydrangea in pot

A potted hydrangea will suit a shadier spot

(Image credit: Buffy1982/iStock/Getty Images Plus/Getty Images)

What container plants do well in full sun?

Most summer-flowering container plants need some direct sun to flower well, yet scorchingly hot conditions can cause stress and difficulties with keeping plants adequately watered.

Plants that thrive naturally in these conditions include pelargoniums such as floriferous Zonal, trailing ivy-leaved, and fragrant foliage kinds. Herbs suited to Mediterranean gardens – think rosemary, sage, and thyme – and South African daisies such as gazania and osteospermum can also take the glare. 

And of course, there are plenty of succulents that will thrive, too. Tree-like 'Aeonium ‘Zwartkop' is a popular tall choice. Surround this with trailing portulacca, Sedum sieboldii, and Echeveria glauca for a gorgeous display.

Anne Swithinbank
Anne Swithinbank

Anne grew up in North Kent on the outskirts of London and from a young age was fascinated by plants and nature in general. Having trained at Kew, worked in parks department nurseries and as Glasshouse Supervisor at RHS Wisley, she has been a freelance horticulturist since 1986. The early days were a mixture of small landscaping projects, garden maintenance, writing and presenting alongside Geoff Hamilton on Gardeners’ World. Other TV highlights were two series of ‘Bloom’ for Channel 4 and ‘Gardens of The Caribbean’. Anne has been a regular panelist on BBC Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time for 27 years and began writing for Amateur Gardening at the same time as moving from a dry, sandy soil in Surrey to clay with flints in East Devon 23 years ago. A large plot full of wildlife habitats, edible and ornamental plants is Anne’s workshop and inspiration.