How do I garden with containers?
Small is beautiful - Even if you have a garden you probably have an area that needs softening with foliage or brightening up with flowers. Whether it is in a seating area, by the door or on the window ledge you will benefit by adding some colour or scent. For those of you with no garden or who live in a flat you can still enjoy the sights and smells of a planted container by having hanging baskets or window boxes. There is no reason why you can't have the best of both worlds by planting flowers and vegetables in the same container as long as you feed and water regularly.
Container gardening allows you to change the look of an area with the seasons. Even if you have a small space you can base your planting on the use of small shrubs or evergreens for height and structure highlighted with seasonal planting. The highlights you choose depend on your personal taste and change through the year starting with spring bulbs and flowers then summer annuals which can go on flowering until the first frosts. Colour theme your display for greater impact, cool colours such as whites and blues really stand out in shady areas whilst hot colours are best for full sun. Alternatively you could choose to have a permanent low maintenance display of foliage plants and shrubs with different textures and colours.
There is a huge choice when it comes to selecting your container but apart from budget and personal taste there are a few things to consider.
Size - large containers mean less frequent watering but are also less easy to move around. If you need to protect your plant by moving it under cover in the winter make sure you can move it easily. It is often better to have a group of containers of differing sizes displayed together to make a focal point and to stop them being overwhelmed by the hard landscaping. Groups of containers also cut down on water evaporation and are easier to water.
Durability - remember that you may well be leaving these containers out all year so they need to withstand freezing conditions or you could try wrapping them in bubble wrap, although this is not very attractive. Frost-proof or glazed containers fair better or try light weight resin which comes in a variety of styles and colours.
Design - ensure that the pot has an adequate drainage hole in the bottom. Make sure it is the right shape and size for the plant(s) or shrub you are going to put in it. In the case of shrubs you will possibly need to get a larger container as they grow bigger. Choose containers that look good together and also look good in their setting. Modern steel containers may not give the look you are after if you are going for a cottage garden feel however they would look good in a formal minimalist planting area. If you are using your patio as an extension of your living space you may want to carry your colour scheme from the outside to match the interior design.
Once you have chosen your container you need to fill it with the correct growing media for the plant you have chosen, especially if it will be there for some time. Remember that you are confining it to an artificial environment that needs to provide essential growing conditions for the months ahead. Read up about the plant or ask in the garden centre when you purchase it. Put some drainage material into the pot first, use broken pieces of pots or polystyrene packaging. For a long-term planting use a soil-based compost and, if required to delay drying out, mix in some water-saving gel crystals and possibly horticultural sand or grit, for plants requiring a very free draining soil. Soil-based composts will feed your plant for longer than a non-soil based ones but once this is exhausted you will need to feed your plant regularly with a general or specialist feed. Double check that your chosen plant does not need a specific type of compost or feed, if you have chosen a Rhododendron such as the slow growing 'Everred' it will need ericaceous products.
Each spring you should check you plant to see whether it needs repotting. Either pot into a larger container or topdress - remove and replace the top 5cm (2") of old compost. For more mature plants which will stay in the same container, either topdress or remove outer roots and loose compost to reduce the rootball by about a quarter then pot up again.
Siting your container is also important and dependant on the plant you have chosen. Consider it's exposure to the sun and wind, not forgetting to check how these conditions change as the year progresses. Most important of all - keep on top of watering, if it is very dry you could use saucers under your pots but make sure your plants aren't sitting in water for long periods.
If you are looking for something new to put in your containers here are a few suggestions of plants that would be ideal.
Buddleia 'Blue Chip' - the patio buddleia
Everyone loves buddleias: they are easy to grow, their fragrant flowers attract clouds of butterflies and they flower for months. But, until now, they have been too large for small gardens, had a tendency to seed everywhere and were not suitable for pots. ‘Blue Chip', the world's first dwarf buddleia, now means that anyone, even with just a balcony, can enjoy the spectacle and fragrance of buddleias. ‘Blue Chip' is truly dwarf and only grows 80cm (32in) high and 70cm (28in) across. One plant will fill a 40cm (16in) pot with colour from July to September. Masses of compact spikes, crowded with purple-blue flowers, will attract butterflies to your patio. An added bonus is that it does not set seeds so it keeps on flowering, and it won't spread everywhere! ‘Blue Chip' grows and flowers best in full sun and in well-drained soil, but can be grown in partial shade and is both drought and frost tolerant. When planting in a pot, use John Innes No 3 compost. ‘Blue Chip', like all buddleias, will struggle in wet soil so, if your garden is poorly drained, grow it in a pot and enjoy this new plant for yourself. It is easy to look after too. Like other buddleias, all it needs is hard pruning, cutting back all the stems to about 15cm (6in) in spring. Give some general fertiliser and it will soon be producing another flush of new growth and the promise of a mound of flowers.
Because of its compact habit, ‘Blue Chip' opens up a new world of planting possibilities. It is perfect for the front of large borders. It is neat enough to add to mixed borders with other herbaceous plants. Ideal companions include echinaceas, dierama, asters, eryngiums, day lilies, phlox and many more. The choice of exciting plant combinations is endless. 'Blue Chip' was recently voted the second most popular variety of Buddleia by the public at RHS Wisley.
Fuchsia Delta's Sarah
Fuchsia Delta's Sarah is a hardy bush variety with semi-double blooms, approximately 4-6cm (1½-2½ inches) in diameter that are freely produced from midsummer into autumn. It has an elegant, open habit with fabulous semi-double flowers with a pure white calyx and striking cobalt-blue petals, fading to lilac-rose with age. It likes sun or partial shade in a free draining soil and grows up to 1m. The dainty bi-coloured pendant flowers of this upright fuchsia make it ideal for a large container, or plant it in pride of place close to the front of a sunny border. Although hardy, some protection from very low temperatures is best, using straw pinned down with netting or a thick mulch of bark or compost around the base of the plant.
Clematis ‘Bijou has large pale violet / mauve rosette shaped flowers with a slight pinkish bar, from early to mid summer. It is ideal for small gardens, containers or at the front of a border, growing through other plants. It is a very free flowering mound forming clematis which needs no support and attains a height of 30cm (12") after 4 years. It is hardy and will grow in any position except north facing aspects. It is part of a low growing dwarf clematis collection from Raymond Evison. It can also be grown in a well lit living room or conservatory, as well as outdoors.
From the same collection as Clematis ‘Bijou' is Clematis ‘Filigree'. It is another mound-forming, herbaceous clematis which is ideal for small gardens and patio pots, having a low growing habit. It produces wonderful single to semi double silvery blue flowers with ruffled edges from early to mid-summer. It needs no support and attains a height of 30cm (12") after 4 years. It is hardy and will grow in any position except north facing aspects.