How to plant in pots and containers

Containers and pots are gardens in miniature. If done well, they can give us fabulous scent, scale (the little or the very large are often the best), texture and pure colour, or a luscious mix of tones. I like pots threaded all through my garden. I want them lining the steps, sitting on either side of the paths, on the edge of the lawn, in a crowd by our main house door, and enclosing and decorating our outside table. I always think containers are like the garden’s make-up. The whole place looks fine without its pot inhabitants, but it is definitely enhanced by them.

At Perch Hill, we divide our pots into three main categories. The first are the substantial head-turners, the whopping pots in strategic places. The second are the table centres – the low, round pots that you can talk over, or small pots in a line down the centre as a semi-permanent flower arrangement. The third type are the window boxes and doorstep containers, jolly and long-lasting, which are really more part of the house than the garden.

Over the years, we have collected pots for particular places in our garden, mostly in terracotta or zinc. We also have a huge stone sink – an investment but hugely worth it – and a couple of old copper ones. They suit our farmhouse garden. We avoid bright glazed pots. Unless earthy brown or grey, that extra colour vies with what is growing in them and distracts the eye. As a person who loves colour from flowers, I think adding these extra splotches fusses things up, so I avoid them.

As for the prominent bedding areas of the garden, we have a plan for our pots, season by season. Winter is obviously the least colourful and abundant, but it can still be beautiful. We plant our large, prominent pots with what I call ‘bulb lasagna’, with the earliest, smallest bulbs (crocuses and winter irises) planted just below the compost surface, and the larger, later-flowering ones (hyacinths, tulips and narcissi) in another single or double layer below. All are planted at the same time – usually in October.

The top layer of bulbs is designed to flower from January onwards to cheer us all along until the start of the main bulbs of spring. We use different varieties of crocuses, packed in, selecting the early-flowering forms. Most of the delicate Crocus chrysanthus varieties flower a bit later, so it is the showy purple ‘Flower Record’ and pure white ‘Jeanne d’Arc’ we usually go for. Iris reticulata ‘George’ and the softer blue ‘Harmony’ are also late-winter stalwarts, with flowers throughout February. With crocuses and Iris reticulata, the flowers come first and then the foliage, which is a good foil to later tulip or narcissi combinations.

Also ideal for winter containers are hellebores. I am obsessed with a couple of varieties at the moment: ‘Maestro’ and ‘Merlin’. They both have matt, emerald-grey leaves all year round, with magnificent flowers that open a pinkish-grey colour, gradually deepening to crimson and turning almost black after four or five months of flowering. ‘Maestro’ flowers from October to March, ‘Merlin’ from February to June, and with their stem ends seared in boiling water for 10 seconds, they make magnificent cut flowers. The fact that hellebores thrive in shade is a bonus. You can combine winter bulbs and hellebores with shade-loving perennials and transform a dank, dreary space.

One of the most marvellous things for a huge winter pot is a combination I saw in the garden of Julian and Isabel Bannerman and we now have something similar at Perch Hill. Galanthus nivalis ‘Sam Arnott’ is under-planted by Cyclamen coum, the leaves of which look beautiful all through autumn. Then, in January and February, dazzling pink flowers appear. ‘Sam Arnott’ is one of the largest snowdrops and its flowers last for many winter weeks. As permanent planting, this is happiest in dappled shade.

We use Cyclamen coum in its most handsome, silver-leaved forms for a winter table centre and I love forcing grape hyacinths and narcissi for our outdoor tables. If you plant bulbs such as Muscari armeniacum ‘Valerie Finnis’ or Narcissus ‘Cragford’, ‘Avalanche’ or ‘Tête à Tête’ in September or October and keep them in a cold frame or greenhouse, they flower in January if forced by keeping them just above 5°C. Pretty winter-flowering pansies work well on a sheltered outside table. Viola cornuta ‘Sorbet Antique Shades’ and ‘Sorbet Phantom’ can be sown in the early autumn; we plant ‘Sorbet Phantom’ in window boxes lining the greenhouse. By January, the pansies are joined by Anemone coronaria – we trialled ‘Jerusalem Blue’ and ‘Jerusalem Pink’ last winter and they flowered until May. We also grow pots of the elegant Saxifraga stolonifera ‘Kinki Purple’. This has handsome evergreen leaves in winter, then develops a web of runners, followed by butterfly flowers in May and June.

You might think winter would be tricky for pots, but all these plants will give you a cheery and beautiful container garden right at the beginning of the year.

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