Planting in containers is a skill all gardeners should learn. You can create beautiful displays using many kinds of garden plants for seasonal interst. Containers come into their own when space is limited and you can move and arrange plants more easily than those in the ground. There are a few tricks and techniques to master, so you can create containers to impress.
Container types: advantages, disadvantages and uses
Clay or terracotta
Looks very attractive, but tends to dry out more quickly than plastic. Clay or terracotta pots are also prone to cracking caused by frost. Look out for frost-proof pots, or stand pots on ‘feet’ over winter to prevent them becoming waterlogged, therefore reducing the risk of frost damage. May be more expensive.
Pots are lighter than clay and don’t dry out as much as clay or terracotta. There is now a wide range of plastic pots available – some even look like terracotta pots and may be cheaper but not as authentic in appearance.
This is a very popular material, with a modern look. Metal containers are frost-proof and won’t dry out like clay. The problem is they heat up quickly in summer, and likewise, are very cold in winter. The other potential problem is corrosion.
Half barrels are popular for growing fruit trees. Wood is problematic in that it rots. You can extend the lifespan of a wooden container by lining it with plastic sheeting with holes in the bottom and painting the wood with a preserver.
Empty compost bags are ideal for growing potatoes. Other household items such as old pots, baths, jars and tins also make quirky containers. Feel free to experiment; it’s fun and resourceful.
How do I do it?
- Choose a robust container: as large as you can handle (or move) to allow plants to flourish.
- A pot with multiple holes in the base is ideal to allow excess water to drain out.
- If the pot has only one central hole, add crocks at the bottom of the pot; this will prevent soil from leaching out the hole.
- Add a peat-free multi-purpose compost to about three-quarters full. Now you can add plants.
- Consider a central focal plant: perhaps a tall plant with notable foliage or an annual climber climbing up a central support.
- Contrasting colours or contrasting textures make intriguing displays. Try trailing plants, Helichrysum or Lysmachia to spill over the container edge.
- Leave 5cm (2in) between the top of the soil and the top of the container. This will prevent compost from spilling over the edge when watering.
- When placing containers in their final position consider placing them on pot feet so that excess water drains freely away; they are also easier to move into another position when slightly raised.
How do I keep my pots healthy?
You will need to pay more attention to plants in containers than to those in the open ground. Containers restrict root growth and mean plants are unable to tap into moisture as easily as those in the ground.
Maintain an even water supply and ensure good drainage to prevent waterlogging (use pot feet).
A spell of rain may be insufficient for plants in containers, as the plant leaves act as an umbrella for vital rain. Check the moisture level of the soil after rain to see if you need to water the container manually. More information
Install an automatic watering system (available at DIY/home stores) if you are often away from home.
Apply a high-nitrogen liquid fertiliser if plants look yellow or tired and high-potassium liquid fertiliser for flowering and fruiting crops.
What else can I learn about pots?
More on planting containers
More on maintaining containers
More on growing trees in containers
More on growing roses in containers