Gardening in Pots, Tubs and Containers

The enjoyment of spring bulb and summer annual flowers need not be restricted to garden beds and borders. Both are eminently suitable for growing in outdoor containers of many kinds. Plant bulbs in autumn for spring flowers, and when they have finished flowering plant annuals. In this way you will have almost non-stop colour all through spring, summer and early autumn.

For both bulbs and annuals, ensure that the pot, tub or box has a drainage hole in the bottom, and cover this with ‘crocks’ — pieces of a broken clay flower pot or a similar material — to prevent the hole from becoming clogged with soil. The pot should be almost filled with moist compost; use a proprietary lightweight compost for potting or John Innes No. 3. The lack of weight, if soilless composts are used, will facilitate moving pots around in the garden. Bulbs should be planted in the pot in the same way as in the garden, with the pointed end uppermost, but can be planted quite close together, provided that they are not touching each other or the sides of the pot. Gently firm the compost over the bulbs and water well. Water fairly regularly in dry weather and ensure that the compost does not dry out.

Bulbs in a container will not be damaged by the weather conditions of an average or mild British winter, but during very cold spells it is advisable to protect them by covering the pot with several thicknesses of newspaper or sacking.

Additional bulbs can be grown in ordinary flower pots sunk into soil in an odd corner of the garden. In spring these can be transplanted — keeping the soil and roots intact — into your decorative container to fill any gaps or give a succession of flowers.

When the bulbs have finished flowering, they can be lifted from the container and replanted in a corner of the garden to allow the leaves to die down naturally. This will leave the container free, so that it can be planted with annuals. If you buy these as bedding plants, in boxes, pots or trays, they can be planted directly into the container, firming the compost around them and watering well. As with bulbs, it is possible to position plants slightly closer than you would in the garden, to achieve a bushy display with maximum impact.

If you want to use flowers that you have grown from seed yourself, it is a good idea to sow the seed in the normal way, but transplant seedlings to grow on individually in small peat pots; these should be kept moist at all times. When the young plants have been hardened off, the peat pots can simply be planted into soil in the container, where they will eventually rot away, leaving the flowers to flourish.

The soil surface in a container is generally such a small area that a selection of one or two different plants is adequate. More would look too fussy and detract from the decorative use of the container and plants as a harmonising unit.

If you are selecting a combination of flowers, consider both shape and colour. Salvias could, for instance, be combined with Helichrysum lanatum. The upright red flowers are a pleasing contrast to the horizontal stems and silver leaves. Similarly, white petunias can be edged with dark blue lobelia.

Containers planted with bulbs are, in our opinion, most successful when devoted to a single type of plant. Even an old bucket can look attractive when it is topped by a mass of daffodils. Hyacinths are bold, distinctive flowers and are not always easy to fit into a garden planting scheme, but in a container they are ideal. They look perfect from any angle, need no staking and are heavily perfumed. Planting a single variety will ensure that all bulbs bloom simultaneously.

Selecting the container

If you have only a tiny garden or paved courtyard where there is little or no space for plant beds, then containers will be especially important as a means of bringing plant colour and interest. They are, of course, almost equally valuable in a larger garden since they add a decorative touch in many contexts.

However, as with the selection of other garden materials and accessories, they should be chosen to complement the style of the layout and the house itself, rather than presenting a contrast that jars. The colour of terracotta pots gives them a warm appearance that can enhance both modern and older properties, particularly houses that are built in red brick, since the shade and texture will blend. Containers made from terracotta are available in a wide range of shapes and sizes, from the humble flowerpot to a large, bulbous form with ring handles attached. There are also pots to hang against a wall, bringing something of a Mediterranean feel.

Terracotta allows the roots of plants to breathe, but the soil will dry out more quickly than in containers made from a less porous material.

Concrete or reconstructed stone containers are often made in traditional shapes that would not look out of place in a stately period home. They are, therefore, not easy to blend with the garden of a small, modern house since both size and style are inappropriate.

They can, however, be more suitable for a Victorian house or even a newer house built in the ‘Georgian5 style that has become popular during recent years.

Containers made from lightweight fibreglass cement are, on the other hand, more modern in appearance. Many have a simple, architectural form such as a basic square or cylinder and are ideally suited to a newer property, although care should be taken not to select a very large pot for a very small garden. A shallow, rectangular container can be used to make a sink garden with alpine plants, small rocks and pebbles. This will thrive in a sunny position.

Plastic, too, is a modern material and is often more successful in simple forms than as a copy of a typical traditional urn. Plastic is generally lightweight, both in feel and appearance, and it is therefore wise to avoid planting a container with a heavy, bushy shrub. Smaller plants with a slightly more fragile form look better and are more practical.

Timber is expensive nowadays, but wooden tubs and boxes are hard to beat for planting with a shrub or small tree. They are not only substantial, but look sufficiently solid to balance the appearance of the heavier plant.

The types of containers mentioned by no means represent all the possibilities for objects that will hold plants. It can be fun to innovate, using an old barrel sawn in half, or almost any clean, sound container that can be left outdoors and has holes drilled in the bottom.

Pots made from ceramic material and some types of plastic may be susceptible to damage from frost and cold temperatures. They can therefore be planted with subjects such as fatsia or a bay tree, which can be left outside during the summer and taken into a porch or hallway for the winter months.

Hanging pots and baskets

A hanging basket can brighten up any view that lacks eye-level interest. Hang one outside the kitchen window, on a bracket attached to the wall, from the roof of a porch or even a car port.

Baskets are generally available in either solid plastic or wire mesh. The solid type can simply be filled with compost, but it is necessary to line a mesh basket with moss. Recent years have seen the introduction of self-watering hanging pots, which slowly take up water from their own reservoir and simply need topping up from time to time. However, few of these will stand up to cold weather and should therefore be used outdoors only in summer.

Suitable plants for hanging pots and baskets include ivy-leafed geraniums and hanging fuchsias; these can be edged with trailing lobelia.

Permanent plants for containers

We have discussed at some length the use of plants of a temporary nature for pots, tubs and other decorative containers. However, there are also many permanent shrubs and even trees that can be successfully grown in this way. Particularly valuable are plants that have attractive qualities as an individual specimen, and some-thing of interest to be seen all round. There are suitable dwarf and low growing conifers that will retain their shape in a restricted space for many years. However, we like to experiment a little with beautifully shaped plants that might normally grow to a larger size.

A young specimen of Cedrus atlantica glauca, which normally grows as an upright plant with narrow branches, was spotted growing unstaked as a container plant in a garden centre; it had assumed a slight lean that was rather appealing. It was planted in a decorative container of about 3ft diameter and 12in in height, and was regularly fed. In spring some of the new growth was cut back to restrict the plant’s size; the process resembles somewhat the Japanese craft of Bonsai. The plant formed an attractive, established feature and will continue to do so for many years. Ultimately such a shrub, if not cared for, would become rather large and could then be transplanted into the garden, where it would in time grow on to its normal, unrestricted size.

Both Phormium tenax, the New Zealand flax, and Yucca filamentosa have long, spiky leaves and their striking outline makes them ideal for a container, especially one with a narrow neck and wider body, since this echoes the shape of the plant and creates a feeling of balance. However, one point to bear in mind is that once a permanent shrub has established its root system in a container with a narrow neck, it will be virtually impossible to remove without causing damage to the plant or effecting the destruction of the pot. A small, slow growing tree is a good choice for a container that is large and heavy. Most suitable perhaps are acers; their leaves are delicately feathery, in shades ranging from yellowish green to deep, russet reds, and the trunk can become twisted and full of character. A small, weeping, flowering cherry is another good choice, and its trunk can be underplanted with small bulbs for added interest.

When you buy a tree or shrub from a nursery or garden centre, it will probably be growing in a polythene or fibre pot. When you are ready to transplant it to your decorative container water the plant well and allow to drain. Meanwhile put crocks over the container’s drainage hole and a layer of compost in the bottom. Remove the plant from its own container by carefully making one vertical slit in the side and one around the circumference of the base. The container can easily be pulled away, leaving the roots and soil intact.

Place the plant, with roots and soil, in the container and fill with moist compost so that the base of the stem or trunk is just 1-1/2 – 2in below the rim of the container. Gently firm compost and water well.

The soil in a container will obviously dry out more quickly than that in a garden bed. Containers therefore need regular watering. It is impossible to dictate the frequency, since water should be given when the soil begins to feel dry, and the speed of this will depend on weather conditions and the material of the container.

Water liberally, so that the water drains freely from the base of the container, and feed plants with a general purpose liquid fertiliser. This should be diluted according to the instructions on the bottle and given at weekly intervals from April to October.

Positioning containers in the garden

A patio is often the flattest and most open part of the garden, and yet it is also most often the feature that presents an immediate view from the house. Planted containers are therefore ideal for introducing height and interest on the patio, close to the house windows. They also create a more pleasant atmosphere for relaxing and soften a hard surface.

Containers can effectively be placed in groups of two or three to create a greater impact, but ensure that the plants will also look better together than individually. If all three are planted with different plants, they will appear to have been grouped together by accident rather than design and the object will have been defeated.

It is also a good idea to move pots and tubs to create a change of scene or to enjoy them at their best. For the handyman this can be made easier by the construction of a simple timber base with castors, upon which the container is positioned.

The front of the house should not be neglected. A planted tub by the front door adds a touch of style to the entrance, and gives a welcoming feel, assuming, of course, that there is adequate space. Your guests will not feel welcome if they fall over a pot getting to the front door!

Alternative forms of garden decoration

Planted pots are just one form of decoration in the garden, but are by no means the only way of adding the vital, personal touches to your layout. Indeed, a pot can sometimes be so attractive that it is worthy of consideration as an ornament in its own right, and plants seem superfluous. This is particularly true of containers with a distinctive shape, such as a terracotta ‘Ali Baba’ pot or an elaborate stone urn. Position them as a focal point in the design, or consider partially concealing them in a plant bed, to create an element of surprise.

A statue can equally be seen either as an object that arrests the eye, being displayed in a prominent position, or one that is combined with plants. Part of its appeal in this context will be the contrast between living plants and a solid, inanimate object.

Many garden centres sell mass-produced stone figures as garden ornaments. If one seems right for the layout you have planned, then by all means introduce it as an attractive feature. However, if you would prefer something unique and individual, it may be worth approaching a local art school to see whether any of the students’ work appeals.

If your taste indoors is for older furniture, then you may be attracted by an object in an antique or ‘junk’ shop that could, with imagination, be put to good use as a garden ornament. A cartwheel is a possibility, or even an old chimney pot.

Decoration of a flat area of paving need not take the form of either a pot or a statue. By simply varying the surface material and texture a decorative contrast can be achieved. Leave out just two or three slabs, and in their place position a piece of rock surrounded by shingle or large cobbles. Consider practicalities at the same time, for young children in the family will almost inevitably run or fall over such an interruption if they use the patio for playing.

It may be safer — and equally attractive — to break the appearance of the paving by planting areas of ground cover plants, such as camomile or thyme. These will not take regular foot traffic, but can be walked over occasionally, and both give off a pleasant aroma.

07. August 2013 by Dave Pinkney
Categories: Fruit Trees | Tags: | Comments Off on Gardening in Pots, Tubs and Containers

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