How well-placed pots can transform a garden

PUBLISHED: 00:00 03 July 2020

Succulents such as aeoniums are great for a sunny spot, as here at 4 Ben's Acre

Succulents such as aeoniums are great for a sunny spot, as here at 4 Ben's Acre

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Containers allow wonderful scope for creativity and almost any plant can be grown in them – from flowering annuals to compact fruiting plants.

Short on space? Use the vertical optionShort on space? Use the vertical option

Well-placed pots can transform a garden. They can set the style and tone, make strong statements or act as ephemeral highlights. Consideration therefore needs to be given to the choice of containers and the plants that will reflect and enhance the mood of your garden as well as the architecture of your house. Bold pots with architectural plants can look stunning in a courtyard, while an eclectic collection of different sizes, colours and textures is more suited to a cottage garden. Even if your space is limited to a windowsill, balcony or tiny plot, there are endless ideas to try.

Container plants can act as focal points or to draw the eye to different areas. They are also practical for growing tender plants that can be displayed then overwintered inside, as well as allowing you to grow plants for different soil types that wouldn’t do well if planted in the open ground. The advantage of container gardening is its extraordinary flexibility. Seasonal displays can be moved around. Filling gaps in the borders with potted blooms is a great trick, and where space is limited, such as down the side of the house, long planters are a good solution. Pots allow you to place plants where no plant could normally grow, such as on windowsills, rooftops, walls, transforming and softening a bare patio, or encircling the paved perimeter of a pool.

Select your containers for their design as well as functionality, and try to visualise the effect you are after as certain materials and styles have a natural affinity to particular settings. Don’t be afraid to be creative though – the range is diverse, with new and recycled options including metal, wood, ceramic, stone, terracotta and plastic. You don’t need to restrict your choice to bought containers. Anything can take your fancy, such as old baskets lined with plastic, olive oil cans, coalscuttles, crates, ancient watering cans, chimney pots or industrial salvage. Consider the visual balance between the plants and the container as well as the arrangement of pots. Whatever you choose, ensure that your pot is large enough for your chosen plants. Practical considerations include the durability, porosity and weight of the container.

Many of our wonderful Sussex gardens have inspiring displays of containers. Geoff Stonebanks, publicity volunteer for the Sussex National Garden Scheme, uses a plethora of pots and containers in his coastal garden Driftwood in Bishopstone, Seaford. It was the joy of experimenting with containers through trial and error that actually helped Geoff learn about gardening and the conditions in his terraced back garden, which measures 100ft by 40ft. Their potential to be moved and combined in different groupings allowed him to format colour schemes and make decisions on where they looked best. There are around 300 in the matured garden, ranging from simple plastic pots, through terracotta theatres, to teacups planted with succulents and cacti. Some even now have a dedicated irrigation system. It’s intriguing to discover that much that appears to be planted in the ground at Driftwood is actually in containers, so densely planted, positioned and hidden it is quite an illusion. Geoff says: “If you plant like me on the central steps, you don’t need expensive, good-looking containers either, as no one can see them once the blooms tumble over them. Containers are so versatile, offering the chance to grow anything from bedding plants to shrubs, fruits, vegetables and even small trees. They are great gap-fillers too. I have about ten containers, which I store out of sight in the early summer, then, as other plants go over, I can bring out the chrysanthemums and drop the container in place to flower into the late autumn. Other invaluable annuals for me are the petunias. Some of them are not keen on heavy rain, which can beat them down to a pulp, but on balance, I find them well worth including in my planting schemes. Verbena and bacopa are two other regulars, both of which, in my experience, can last through the winter, providing it is not too harsh.”

A town garden in Horsham, 
4 Ben’s Acre, also opens through the NGS and is notable for the creative way owner Pauline Clark uses containers to form charming vignettes. Set on a slope with steps and terraces, the garden belies its size of 100ft by 45ft, and gives lots of opportunities for visual punctuation from containers in a range of different micro-climates – some sunny, others shady – forming a series of smaller enclosures or rooms. It’s not just the placement of containers that is inspiring, but also the range of quirky up-cycled finds, many discovered in markets, including vintage glazed pots, baskets and even a pair of old running shoes. Containers are assembled in themes of colour, plant types and seasonal combinations and all carefully thought through so they will thrive in each micro-climate. A collection of succulents in terracotta pots accompanied by terracotta jugs and tiny pots placed on their sides line the steps; a group of ornamental grasses with long flowering perennials draws the eye; and an eclectic theatre of small containers by a Buddha creates a contemplative corner.At Great Dixter in Northiam, one of the most exciting gardens of our time, containers are used to mark the seasons. Clusters of early bulbs in spring give way to summer colour, followed by autumnal delights, with the displays changed or reassembled every four to six weeks. 
Some 50 pots may be clustered 
by the door, others nestling on paved areas in the garden, all artfully gathered.

The beauty of containers is that if a pot is not looking its best it can simply and easily be swapped out for another. A tip here is to have pots waiting in the wings, ready for their starring roles. Although the containers are different sizes, continuity is provided by all being terracotta. Another wonderful design element to emulate is that as with a border, the element of height is carefully considered. There are tall plants, sometimes just used for foliage rather than flowers, or even with vines on trellises, positioned at the back, layered down to groundcovers in small pots at the front of displays. Textures and shapes are always positioned for variety and design. Drama may come from cannas, movement from grasses, or 
colour from vibrant pelargoniums and poppies. At every visit the effect will be different, and as with the mix of traditional 
and experimental gardening across the site, this brings people back regularly.

Finally, for instant mixed displays that celebrate the season, take a visit to your local garden centre for inspiration. My advice is to choose a centrepiece plant, then don’t be afraid to take some pots off the shelves and create a combination on the ground before simply putting back the plants that don’t work in your scheme. Keep in mind that arranging plants in pots is similar to arranging flowers in a vase, except that these plants will grow into your arrangement and as nature is unpredictable there may be some surprises in shapes and growth patterns. Once home, set aside a spare hour or so, grab your handful of plants and paint a picture of colours and textures that appeals to you. Whether your style is minimalist, contemporary, classic or rustic, whether you are a gardening beginner or an expert, you can achieve success in a pot – and in next to no time.

Vibrant pelargoniums thrive is summer's heatVibrant pelargoniums thrive is summer's heat

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