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12 Mar 2020

Container gardening

Written by Chris Wardle, Garden and Designed Landscape Manager – Aberdeen and Angus
A stone pot is planted with a green and yellow shrub and a red flowering plant.
Container displays brighten up the darkest of corners © Colin Wren
Containers planted with a selection of foliage and flowers can brighten up a patio or balcony, giving colour and interest over all seasons.

Containers for spring

There’s a huge selection of shrubs, herbaceous plants, bedding and bulbs to choose from. Although spring plants are not as flamboyant as those used in summer containers, you can still make a statement with careful plant selection.

Containers filled with seasonal or permanent plants are extremely versatile. They can brighten up a corner of the garden, provide handy herbs by the kitchen or make an entrance look welcoming. However, life in containers can be tough for plants, so choose the right compost and carry out regular maintenance to ensure they put on a good show.

Containers are the perfect home for colourful annuals and half-hardy perennials – both of which are sometimes called ‘patio plants’ or bedding. Most shrubs, roses, climbers, herbaceous perennials, grasses and even trees can be grown in containers. Fruit and vegetables will also thrive given the right conditions/space and compost selection.

When to plant up containers

Plants take a little while to settle into their containers and begin root growth. Make allowance for more growth from spring- and summer-planted containers compared to autumn or winter plantings. In general, permanent specimens are best planted in early spring as they’ll establish rapidly.

How to plant up spring containers

  1. If using a container with a large drainage hole, place a few stones or broken terracotta (crocks) over it to stop the compost washing out. For other containers there’s no need to add crocks or gravel at the bottom.
  2. Fill the container with compost, leaving room to arrange the plants on the surface.
  3. Carefully remove the plants from their pots, tease out the roots gently and work more compost around the rootballs. Ensure that the top of the rootball is level with the surface of the compost.
  4. Make firm the compost around the plants, water well to settle any air pockets and top up with compost if necessary.
  5. Make sure there’s a gap of about 2.5cm (1 inch) between soil level and the top of the container. This will ensure there’s room for the water to soak in.
A large terracotta pot stands at the side of a park space. It is planted with a yellow flowering shrub and purple bedding plants.
© Colin Wren

Containers for summer

Plant up containers with summer bedding for glorious displays throughout the summer months.

For successful summer displays, choose plants that flower over a long period of time, respond well to deadheading and are tolerant of container cultivation. A wide range of suitable plants should be available in most garden centres from late March onwards. However, don’t plant them out until the risk of frost has passed in your area.

Practical considerations for summer containers

The mainstay of summer containers are tender perennials, often referred to as ‘patio plants’. Those such as fuchsia can overwinter in the greenhouse as plants or rooted cuttings, or can be bought fresh each year.

Annual bedding plants are also good candidates and include nasturtium and pot marigold.

It’s possible to use hardy perennial plants, such as lavender, which can eventually be planted out in the garden.

Choose a focal plant, such as a structural shrub or annual climber grown on a small tripod, for the centre of the scheme. Surround the focal plant with a mix of upright bedding plants and some that trail over the side of the container.

Link the scheme together by repeating some of the same plants in each container and consider restricting the colour palette.

Combine plants that have similar requirements – most summer bedding plants do best in full sun but some, such as begonias and tobacco plants, will tolerate light shade.

Where daily watering is impossible, consider drought-resistant plants such as cacti and succulents.

Ideas for suitable summer container plants

Focal plants: Argyranthemum (marguerite) grown as standards, dahlias, Fuchsia, Lantana, lavender, Phormium and Salvia

Upright (larger) plants: Ageratum, Diascia, heliotropes, Lantana, marguerites, Osteospermum, Pelargonium, Salvia, Verbena and Zinnia

Trailing plants: Calibrachoa (million bells), ivy-leaved pelargoniums, Lobelia, Petunia (Surfinia types) and Verbena (trailing)

Plants that tolerate light shade: Begonia, Impatiens (busy Lizzies), Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’ (golden creeping Jenny), Mimulus × hybridus (monkey flower), Solenostemon scutellarioides (coleus) and Bacopa

Drought-tolerant plants: Aeonium ‘Zwartkop’, Echeveria, Mesembryanthemum and Sedum

Plants with great foliage: Coleus, Helichrysum petiolare (liquorice plant) and Senecio

Scented plants: Heliotropes, Lobularia maritima (alyssum), Matthiola (stocks), Nemesia and Nicotiana (tobacco plant)

Hot tropical plants: Begonia (tuberous), Bidens, Canna, Coleus, Gazania, Lantana and Tagetes (French and African marigolds)

Cool and calm plants: French lavender (Lavandula stoechas), Lobelia, Lobularia maritima (alyssum) and marguerites.

A large green rectangular pot stands in an alcove. It is planted with bright purple flowers and mini conical trees, with ivy trailing down the side.
© Colin Wren

Containers for winter

There’s still a huge selection of shrubs, herbaceous plants, bedding and bulbs to choose from and available in garden centres in late autumn – many at bargain prices!

Practical considerations for winter containers

Remember that plants grow very little in winter, so make sure you start with good-sized plants and use sufficient numbers of plants for the size of container to make an impact from the start.

Position your container where it’ll get as much light as possible during the winter months to ensure plant foliage remains green and healthy.

Water containers carefully in winter, making sure you check the compost regularly as it can soon dry out in mild spells. Smaller plants are more susceptible to over- and under-watering.

It’s not necessary to feed container plants during the winter.

How to plant winter containers

Raise containers off the ground on pot feet or bricks to aid drainage and help prevent the freezing conditions that cause pots to crack. Making sure that pots have adequate drainage will help prevent pots from becoming waterlogged and then freezing solid.

Choose frost-proof pots or containers made of plastic, fibreglass or wood. Protecting containers in severe weather to reduce damage to the plant roots will benefit plants. Bubble wrap or hessian sacking will work for containers that cannot be moved. Placing pots in a sheltered position, against a building or even in a garage for a short time during the worst of winter weather, will also help.

Ideas for suitable winter container plants

Winter bedding plants: These mainly flower in spring, but cyclamen, winter-flowering pansy, viola, primula and polyanthus will flower intermittently during mild spells in winter. The following can also be used: forget-me-nots (Myosotis), large-flowered bedding daisies (Bellis perennis) and wallflowers (Erysimum).

Evergreen shrubs: These retain their green leaves through winter and make a good focal point in a large container, or can be mixed with other dwarf shrubs for a variety of foliage and flowers. Try box (Buxus sempervirens), bay (Laurus nobilis), Skimmia, Euonymus and ivy (Hedera). Ornamental cabbage and kale provide additional foliage interest.

Bulbs: Into newly purchased containers or hanging baskets, consider planting bulbs for additional spring flowers. When you change to a summer display, the bulbs can then be planted in the ground to flower the following spring. Try Narcissus, Muscari, tulips or irises.

Hardy evergreen ferns: Use hart’s tongue fern (Asplenium scolopendrium), common polypody (Polypodium) and soft shield fern (Polystichum setiferum) in containers for shady positions.

Herbaceous plants: Heuchera (coral bells) are an excellent choice for their evergreen or semi-evergreen foliage in green or rich plum shades, some with exquisite markings.

Grasses: Small evergreen ornamental grasses, such as Carex, combine well with winter bedding to give height and a contrast in texture.

A row of wooden barrel tubs on a pavement, all planted with tulips and other smaller flowers.
© Colin Wren

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