Growing plants in containers is far more than a substitute for ‘proper’ gardening. Yes, it does allow someone with no garden to grow things – on a window ledge, balcony or paved terrace – but there’s a role for containers in gardens too.
I have quite a large and pretty labour intensive garden. This is by choice – I’m seriously addicted to the pleasure of growing things – and containers in many shapes and sizes are essential to give the garden its style and atmosphere. I think of my garden as being clothed with trees, shrubs and herbaceous borders, with the containers a bit like pieces of jewellery, drawing attention to a particular feature, as well as being beautiful in their own right.
My personal taste is for what could be described as ‘romantic abundance’ with flowers tumbling out of pots and twining up willow supports, but containers can make a contribution to the sleekest of urban gardens when planted with architectural specimens, used as a water feature, or even left empty, the better to admire the beauty of the pot. The great thing about pots is that they can be used to change the mood of the garden without spending a fortune on hard landscaping. A terrace or balcony with identical pots planted with the same type of plant will look very different from a collection of quirky containers, each planted with something different. There is no right way – it’s a matter of taste.
Scale is an important consideration though – too many small pots can create a cluttered effect, especially if they are made from a variety of materials. If you do want to have lots of pots, it works best if they are made from the same material, for example terracotta, glazed earthenware, or metal. In a small garden a single really large container can create the illusion that the garden is a fragment of a larger space and will be much more effective than several smaller containers, especially if you fill the space with large scale planting too.
Containers can be used for permanent or seasonal planting – I have a mixture of both. There’s quite a lot of shade in my garden, especially in the summer, so I’ve have containers permanently filled with ferns and foliage begonias that love the cool shade and look just as decorative in their own way as the seasonal spring bulbs, or summer’s sweet peas and salvias that thrive in the sunny areas.
As ever, it’s a case of right plant, right place – watch your garden carefully for where the sun shines and the shade lingers and your containers can be tailored to suit the conditions perfectly. This will save time and effort in the long run – and avoid disappointment. I do appreciate that the Australian climate is a different matter entirely – far more extreme and dry – but with designers like Phillip Johnson pointing the way to climate-friendly gardening and using native plants wherever possible, it has been found that even the trickiest environment has plants adapted to the conditions.
Flexibility is another virtue of container growing – the soil in a pot can be anything you want it to be – acid, alkaline, moisture retentive, free-draining – just add the right ingredients and you are no longer limited to your local soil-type. This means that you are free to grow the plants you like rather than just those that find your garden soil acceptable. You can even turn a large pot into a pond. Simply plug the drainage hole with plumbers epoxy resin, fill with water and grow miniature water lilies or marginal plants in it.
I have three of these pot ponds because a real pond is too complicated and engineering task in my steeply sloping garden and each summer I am rewarded with a succession of flowers and the pleasure of dragonflies hovering above the water.
On the subject of water, this is a real issue with containers as they generally do need more water than the garden. Small containers are particularly thirsty, so fewer, larger containers will reduce the amount of water needed. Gravel filled saucers beneath each pot will stop water wastefully running away and help create a moist micro-climate, as will grouping several pots together. Container composts tend to be lightweight and prone to drying out, but mixed half and half with a soil-based compost will be far more moisture-retentive. Adding a mulch of gravel, shells or stones will also help – and look nice.
Finally, remember that most potting composts contain a very limited amount of nutrients and that you will need to feed container-grown plants regularly if they are to thrive. I’ve lost count of the times I have been asked to look at an ailing plant and discovered that the poor thing has never been fed. My recipe is a weekly feed of liquid seaweed during the growing season and a top dressing of general purpose fertiliser in the spring – I use fish, blood and bone.