The Power of the Planter

February 14, 2018


Text by Kaitlin Madden

You might find Matt McKenna, the creative director of garden design for Boston-based Winston Flowers, meticulously plotting out plant material to complement a contemporary facade, or using landscape techniques to architect a visual path to a million dollar view. But while he’s an expert in all things botanical, much of what goes into his plans has nothing to do with the plants themselves.

“We put a lot of thought into the containers we use in our spaces,” he explains. “Containers are an essential design element, because they serve as both a vessel and a sculptural piece.”

So much so, he says, that the plant material can be almost secondary in some projects: “The vision becomes not so much about the mix of plants that go into the containers, but more about the combination of the plants with the planter.”

How does one achieve the right pairing, then? Here, McKenna shares his top considerations for choosing planters that complement both home and garden.

Look at the big picture.

The first cues McKenna takes when designing container gardens are from the home itself. The goal: to choose planters and plant material that feel like a natural extension of the home’s facade, existing landscape, and interior spaces.

“A lot of the clients we work with have really high-style furniture and the home is beautifully decorated, or they live in a home with very distinctive architecture, so the gardens have to meld and blend with that. It’s about picking the right vessel for the style of the home,” McKenna says.

What works for a traditional home often clashes with contemporary design, and vice-versa. “Classic spaces lend themselves to mixed plantings with six or seven elements in one planter,” says McKenna. “In a modern home, though, a mixed planting and the traditional dotted composition might feel too old-fashioned. It creates a bolder stroke in a modern space to do a simple planting in a large container.”

Create function.

The right containers can add both beauty and functionality to a space. McKenna says he commonly uses planters to define functional areas in a larger outdoor space, such as separating a seating area from a dining area. Or, he’ll use them as visual markers to highlight—or barriers to hide—a certain feature or view on a property.

“We always consider how a space is being used when we choose the types and placement of planters,” he explains. “If it’s a lounge space, we might use different vessels to frame out the seating area, but at the same time we consider where we can place them so they can be admired from a number of vantage points within the space. Or, the area might be a small terrace where the next-door neighbor is on the other side, so we’ll use planters to screen the space and make it feel more enclosed.”

Play with proportions.

Proportion plays a major role in creating a high-impact container garden, but the best plant-to-planter ratios often go against natural instinct. “People are used to creating height in a planting by choosing a low container and a high plant. But a more updated look is to choose a taller vessel and a planting on the shorter side, so you get that height, but you don’t need a tall tree,” McKenna says.

An arrangement of fewer, larger containers prevents another common issue that arises from choosing smaller planters: clutter. “Too many small containers feels busy, which goes against the cleaner, more contemporary look that a lot of our clients are leaning towards,” McKenna says.

The modern shift in aesthetics has also created a trend toward simpler plantings within the planters themselves. Even when creating mixed plantings for traditional spaces, McKenna will typically group flowers into swaths of color and texture instead of blending varieties together throughout the planter.

In contemporary homes, McKenna and his team will often forgo flowers in containers completely, instead choosing textural plantings like a single variety of ornamental grass or a heuchera. To achieve visual interest with these simpler plants, McKenna relies on groupings of containers to make a composition. “It’s simple, but the look is bolder and more graphic than traditional planter arrangements,” he says. “It’s definitely a style more and more of our clients are asking us to create.”

For more information on Winston Flowers’ container gardening program, visit

Find A Resource

Search from hundreds of home services, products, destinations, and real estate opportunities.

View All Resources