How to make pots work

Pots are a bit like roses. You know – popular, pretty much everyone has at least a couple sitting somewhere in the garden, terrific when done well but often a bit sub-par. I do see lots of examples of pots being used beautifully, but all too often one also sees collections of mismatched pots with half-dead plants – begun with the best intentions but somehow never quite working. So what goes wrong?

Here are a few of my thoughts on how to make pots work. I’ll leave out the whole ‘keep them fed and watered’ lecture, this is more about using them for good visual effect.

1. Go LARGE. Get the biggest pot/s you can afford. Large pots don’t dry out as quickly (therefore improving your plants’ survival rates) and provide more nutrients over time through their increased volume of growing media. Yes, your upfront cost will be much greater, including needing more potting mix to fill it, but think of it as an investment – they look great and your plants won’t die. And, relevant to Wellington readers, they don’t blow over, at least if you stay away from tall, narrow ones!

Lightweight planters
This sort of planter is good for decks or balconies, as it is in a lightweight fibreglass material, and won’t topple in the wind.

 

2. Be CONSISTENT. Your pots don’t necessarily all have to be the same size or shape, but choose a unifying theme and stick with it. Generally, where the pots will be seen together, I would select one material or colour theme, and keep to that. Set them up in clusters if they are of differing sizes, or space them at regular intervals if they are identical.

Collection of terracotta pots
I love the unstudied air of this arrangement of terracotta pots in my friend Sally’s Sydney garden. Lovely choice of foliage colours as well.

 

3. Keep it SIMPLE.

Buxus is one of the most forgiving of container plants. The classic simplicity of a clipped buxus ball will always look good, plus it will take all sorts of hardship. Mine is on the south side of the house and gets no sun at all for several months in winter, and no additional watering in summer, poor thing.

If you want colour, put your pot/s somewhere sunny and work out a scheme.

Lime nicotiana
Lime nicotiana. They did well all summer but had to come out this week after finally getting covered in caterpillars.

This was a punnet of lime nicotiana seedlings which I planted in early summer. Great on its own, this also looked lovely amongst a group I had going, including herbs, a lemon tree, white geraniums, white verbena, yellow polyanthus, and a lavender ‘Sidonie’. (As usual a few interlopers arrived – but were allowed to stay if they didn’t spoil the effect).

 

You need a decent size pot for tulips, as they need to be planted at about a spade's depth.
Tulips for spring – what a welcome sight.

I have worked out a simple year-round plan for the large green pots on the deck, which involves minimal work. In early summer I plant the perennial petunia, ‘Bubblegum’, which flowers non-stop for about six months. Then ‘Bubblegum’ goes into the garden bed for a rest over winter, and the tulip bulbs go in. I don’t mind at all that there are a couple of months where the pots look bare. As winter ends I enjoy scanning the soil for the first sign of the growing leaf tips.

Petunia 'Bubblegum'
The same pot in late summer. This is 2 plants of Petunia ‘Bubblegum’, which for me has been a star performer.

 

4. Move them around.

Pots at Alnwick Garden
I took this photo last year at Alnwick Garden in the UK. The delphiniums had all been cut back to encourage a second flush, so the bare spaces were filled with these pots of Agapanthus Tinkerbell.

 

Pots don’t just have to sit either side of the front door. Try putting them into the actual garden beds. You can cover a bare spot, create a lovely focal point, or highlight a plant that might otherwise be overwhelmed in the border.

Mind you, in relation to point no.1, big pots do get very heavy. I once persuaded my husband that all our large pots needed to be rearranged, and its a wonder we didn’t both end up being carried away on stretchers. Since then I have invested in a trolley, which makes things much easier.

So, I hope I have persuaded you. If you have lots of small, mismatched pots, choose a couple of your favourites and bring them inside for houseplants. Give away the rest and start again! And finally, please, use premium quality potting mix!

5 thoughts on “How to make pots work”

  1. Great post, Sarah! I especially like that you’ve chosen just one kind of plant for those large green pots. Sometimes simple is best 🙂

    Speaking of the green pots, what are they made of? If they’re some type of fiberglass or composite–and not real clay–I’ll be shocked, because they look quite substantial and nicely weathered!

    Cheers from the USA

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    1. Thanks! The large green pots are glazed clay – they’ve been amazing. A couple have had to be glued back together over the years after being blown off the deck in gales, but that hasn’t happened since I changed the plantings from large buxus balls, which caught the wind, to the bulbs and seasonal colour. Always fun experimenting with different plantings.

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