Seeds, Fertilizer, Various Varieties, Spring, Fall
Easy-to-grow flowers for containers, garden beds, and window boxes. Petunias are fuss-free and come in a rainbow of colors from pink to purple to white. Newer varieties are low maintenance and don’t need deadheading or regular pruning to keep blooming all summer.
A small garden rarely has the benefit of a surrounding hedge or views, so usually you rely on plants to block out unsightly visions. A good skeleton is vital, therefore, if you’re to have year-round interest and screening.
In my first flower yard, every pot was planted with just tulip bulbs each autumn after taking out the summer annuals in haste, meaning that the garden was a very unstable, flash-in-the-pan creation, as well as being expensive and needy. To treat a garden like this is not only hugely demanding, it’s also, arguably, not sustainable. Just one type, one group of plants making up the garden’s entirety, is an unnatural monoculture too reminiscent of the often sterile Victorian bedding displays – the opposite of what a healthy, biodiverse garden should be, which occurs by having a large array of curated plants, reminiscent of the traditional mixed cottage garden.
More and more, it’s important to me for the garden to have some good bones, provided by woody stems that in turn create canopies that give shelter to garden birds and other wildlife; decay and self-seeding are welcome now.
By ensuring plant diversity, a plant tapestry forms and this finds its own magical and invigorating rhythm of growth. Admittedly, most of my largest pots are still designated for annual glamour, which is the spring bulb display replaced with flowering summer and autumn annuals, because the injection of these is exciting and creates drama. But the garden is no longer just an annual display in its entirety. Instead, other pots which swell around these firework-like pots contain more constant, perennial appearances to ensure there is constant form and interest.
My flower yard characters
This is a list of my favourite characters for my pots and why I love them, but please note I can grow these because my garden gets a good amount of sun. If you are in a shady situation, you won’t be able to grow everything that’s listed here; instead, see below for some suggestions for a more shaded flower yard.
Canopies and climbers
Plant for shelter, shade, scale, fruit and blossom, autumn colour, concealment and privacy, and to encourage pollinators and garden birds.
- Small trees and shrubs include figs, crab apples, eucalyptus, holly, roses, hawthorn tree ‘Prunifolia’.
- Climbers include ivy, Hydrangea petiolaris, passionflowers, honeysuckles, climbing roses, star jasmine, pyracantha.
- Annuals include runner beans and pumpkins.
Structure and form
- Plant for scale and effect, autumn colour, winter interest, clout, glamour, harvest, privacy and garden birds.
- To create a rib cage and a backbone of constant form through the year, plant cardoons and artichokes, yew and bay, cornus, ferns, rosemary, sage, lavender and hardy herbs, kales and chards.
- For billowing and moving clumps and seedheads, plant Panicum ‘Frosted Explosion’, Chasmanthium latifolium ‘River Mist’, fennel, salvias, agapanthus.
- Plant for glamour, colour, craziness, harvests and to encourage pollinators.
- In winter, plant violas and spring bulbs such as tulips, narcissi, alliums.
- In summer, plant dahlias, sunflowers, cosmos, tagetes, lilies, gladioli, alstroemeria, honesty, amaryllis, viper’s-bugloss.
- Plant for the senses, herbal teas and for pollinators
- Try hyacinths, narcissi, honeysuckles, roses, all herbs, lemon verbena, scented-leaf pelargoniums.
Plants for shady gardens
My list for a shady balcony or basement garden, belonging to someone who might get into the habit of watering their pots once a week during the summer months.
- Ferns – Athyrium niponicum var. pictum ‘Metallicum’, Matteuccia struthiopteris.
- Japanese acers.
- Hellebores ‘Merlin’ and ‘Maestro’ and Helleborus argutifolius.
- Holly – as either standard or bush, but buy in the berry to be sure of having a decorative female!
- Ivy – ideal for growing in pots up permanent metal tepees.
- Mahonia eurybracteata ‘Soft Caress’.
- Hydrangea anomala subsp. petiolaris – useful self-clinging climber for walls.
- Acanthus mollis, bear’s breeches, ‘Rue Lodan’.
- Seeds to scatter about – nicotiana and foxgloves.
- Spring-flowering bulbs – snowdrops, Cyclamen coum, crocus, Iris reticulata, aconites and hyacinths.
The power of pots
The actual magic of pots is that, regardless of what you might have in them, you can move them, you can even completely rearrange the display as if it’s a posh garden centre’s entrance foyer, if you want to. You can’t do that with an herbaceous border, or if you do start digging it up it’s often a year’s wait before you can see whether your meddling has paid off. With pots, though, the result and satisfied feeling of having achieved something can be immediate, and that is probably why I like gardening this way the most.
Every pot needs to have at least one hole in its base to allow for drainage – there are no exceptions to this rule. Drainage holes need to be covered over with one large bit of crock or slate completely to stop them getting blocked up by compost that will cause a clog. Then scatter over the top of the covered drainage holes more generous pieces of polystyrene or broken terracotta and slate.
Then cover these big bits with a layer of at least 2.5cm of grit or small gravel. This ensures good drainage by making sure the drainage holes don’t become clogged with soil and by slowing drainage, which allows the pot to absorb more water. In the case of galvanised pots, it’s a good idea to totally cover the bottom with broken-up polystyrene, because this helps prevent rusting.
Always fill up pots properly, even big ones, unless there is a concern over their weight, such as on balconies. There was once a popular habit of filling up pots halfway with the gubbins of old plastic or terracotta pots and polystyrene to scrimp on the amount of compost required to fill them, but this isn’t beneficial to the plants. You want the bulk of your pots to be full of compost so that the roots of your plants can grow as deep as they wish. This also helps to prevent your pots being blown over, especially tall ones, which can happen if all the weight of the compost is towards the top.
Bigger is always better. The deeper and wider a pot is, the cooler and deeper the roots can grow, and the larger a pot is, the more soil and moisture it can hold. Larger pots are also more impactful for a small space and are easier to manage, requiring less frequent watering because they dry out more slowly.
How to lay out your pots
- Lining pots down either side of a garden path or either side of a step works well, as you are treating them as if they are making flower beds collectively.
- For making doorway statements, choose pots as pairs, and go as large as you can afford or have room for. Dinky does not make a doorway look grand.
- A huge island of pots can look very lavish and imposing, and can be created by encircling lower pots around an especially large one, like tiers on a wedding cake.
- Crowd pots into corners for them to radiate outwards, the largest and tallest towards the back and the smaller towards the front, in a triangle shape.
Pot materials and extreme weather
The effects of extreme climate change are swiftly being felt around the world, and it impacts plants in pots more than those that are in the ground.
Terracotta is porous and will absorb moisture readily, so large terracotta pots are best lined around their inner sides with old compost bags before being filled, to help them retain moisture over summer. During the winter I place small terracotta pots on plant stands and tables.
Galvanised metal and metal pots absorb heat very quickly during the summer, so it’s best to line the sides of cattle troughs with upright sheets of recycled polystyrene, which will help reflect the absorbing heat away from the soil and protect the plant roots. In the winter such sheets will then insulate from the cold. Round dolly tubs and dustbins can be lined with wool fleecing, the sort often used for packaging frozen food, as it has very good insulation properties.
Mulching – heaping an extra layer of compost on top of the pot during winter months – will help plants that are considered to be tender, such as salvias, penstemons and dahlias, if they are going to be left in their pots.
Planting a bulb lasagne
Ideally, plant mixed bulb lasagnes (tulips mixed with other bulbs such as crocus, hyacinths and muscari) in late autumn/early November in the UK, with the tulip bulbs as the deepest layer. Plant tulip-only pots during the darkest, short days of January; it’s a nice task to do in the gloom of mid-winter. It can be easier to leave tulips out of a bulb mix altogether when it comes to delicate bulbs such as snake’s head fritillaries, which may be smothered if there are too many broad tulip leaves.
Here are two recipes: one for a perennially returning bulb lasagne with no tulips; one for a tulip bulb lasagne.
No-tulip bulb lasagne
- Crocus ‘Orange Monarch’ and ‘Spring Beauty’
- Iris ‘Purple Hill’
- Snake’s head fritillary
- Hyacinth ‘Woodstock’
- Muscari latifolium
- Narcissus poeticus (pheasant eye)
Tulip bulb lasagne
Combine five, seven or 15 of each variety listed, depending on the size of your pot, and mix together in a bucket before planting to ensure a natural look. This combination will be complemented by overplanting, especially with a mixed layer of Iris reticulata and crocus.
I plant these every season as they are my trusted favourites in the garden and the vase alike:
- ‘Black Parrot’
- ‘Irene Parrot’ and/or ‘Parrot King’
- ‘Brown Sugar’
Make your freshly planted bulb lasagne pots less inviting to squirrels by pushing the prickly stems of holly, blackthorn or hawthorn into the top of the pot so that the surface resembles a thick, sharply thorned bush. Or peg a layer of chicken wire over the top of the pot, or apply a thick layer of chilli flakes.
Planting a paradise: A year of pots and pollinators by Arthur Parkinson (Kyle Books; £22) is published on October 12