Summer is the time to push the box topiary aside and have fun creating container plantings. Master of the art is Harriet Rycroft who, as gardener for Whichford Pottery, created more than 7,000 ornamental container displays and now has an online course on the subject at my-garden-school.com.
“A potful of pansies is a wasted opportunity,” she says. “You need to think of the height and not just the surface area of the pot, so pick one big, tall plant, which might be a fuchsia or salvia, then three medium-sized bushy plants, such as petunia or heliotrope, and several smaller, spreading or trailing plants, such as isotoma, bacopa or helichrysum, which will thread their way through and tie everything together.”
Mixed plantings need to be in a large pot that will dry out less quickly than several small pots, and will have far more impact, says Rycroft.
She also recommends positioning large containers while they’re empty and taking plants and compost to the pot in situ, so that you don’t need a chiropractor on speed dial.
Avoid having to replant after a few weeks by choosing plants that flower right through the summer, such as pelargoniums, argyranthemum and osteospermum, which will also do well during hot, dry periods. Don’t forget foliage, adds Rycroft. “Interesting leaves such as solenostemon, foliage begonias and plectranthus add colour, texture, structure and movement.”
Choose plants that really appeal to you. “Good planting has nothing to do with fashion,” says Rycroft. “People are sniffy about begonias, but they are fantastic plants for shade and flower for months. Dahlias were out of fashion, but with their wonderful colour range make great container plants.”
Avoid the box of sweets look by limiting your colour palette to two or three colours, such as blue and white, or orange and purple, and adding one or two foliage colours. “Use plants like paint. If it all starts to look a little safe, throw in a ‘clasher’. A little bit of yellow goes a long way.”
And plant generously. “Stuff them in,” says Rycroft. “You can take plants out if they become overcrowded, but once their roots start to grow, it’s hard to put more in.” Try the one-pot method if you’re daunted by mixed planting. “Put one type of plant in each pot, then group them together, moving them around until you like the effect,” advises Rycroft. “Having a few one-plant pots handy will also stop a group of mixed plantings looking messy.”
Don’t be tempted to play designer and place a pot in each corner of the patio, or line them up in a row. Summer containers are about abundance and exuberance.
“Scattered pots look lost and will be a nightmare to water. Group them in bold clusters,” advises Rycroft. “They will look much better, will shelter each other and create a more humid microclimate so you won’t have to water so frequently.” Water every two to three days rather than sprinkle daily. “Deadhead flowers and pick off dead leaves weekly to keep plantings looking good for longer,” she says. “This is one of the few gardening jobs that you can do with a drink in your hand.”
Above all, experiment — don’t limit your choices to the patio plants section at the garden centre. Try grasses, bulbs, edible plants, houseplants and climbers, such as compact clematis, which you can grow on obelisks. In fact, Rycroft reckons you can grow any plant in a container.
“As you turn to ask at the garden centre whether the plant you are holding will grow in a pot, stop for a moment and look at the pot it is growing in.”