How to ensure your pots look gorgeous

Arthur Parkinson book extract

“Pots, that’s real mental health” says my neighbour, Charlotte. She loves her pots, despite having a big garden because, as she puts it, the work is instantly done, either by emptying and replanting, or by preening the existing plants and containers; it’s instant gratification. I suppose I could portray my pots as being that, as they have certainly witnessed enough of it.

The actual magic of pots is that, regardless of what you might have in them, you can move them, you can even completely rearrange the display as if it’s a posh garden centre’s entrance foyer, if you want to. You can’t do that with an herbaceous border, or if you do start digging it up it’s often a year’s wait before you can see whether your meddling has paid off. With pots, though, the result and satisfied feeling of having achieved something can be immediate, and that is probably why I like gardening this way the most.

Understanding pots

Making a hole in a pot
Make drainage holes in the bottom of your containers (unless creating a container pond!)

Every garden pot needs to have at least one hole at its base to allow for drainage – there are no exceptions to this rule, apart from container ponds, obviously! Always fill up pots properly, even big ones unless there is a concern over their weight, such as on balconies. There was once a popular habit of filling up pots halfway with the gubbins of old plastic or terracotta pots and polystyrene to scrimp on the amount of compost required to fill them, but this isn’t beneficial to the plants. You want the bulk of your pots to be full of compost so that the roots of your plants can grow as deep as they wish. This also helps to prevent your pots being blown over, especially tall ones, which can happen if all the weight of the compost is towards the top.

Bigger is always better. The deeper and wider a pot is, the cooler and deeper the roots can grow, and the larger a pot is, the more soil and moisture it can hold. This will reduce plant stress, too, which can occur quickly in small pots of hungry plants. Larger pots are also more impactful for a small space and are easier to manage, requiring less-frequent watering because they dry out more slowly. If you inherit pots and don’t like them, don’t live with them – give them away. You can easily get too potty in a small garden and that can ruin the look, as well as make things stressful, with too many containers full of this and that, all needing attention, getting pot bound and being eaten by various pests. Frequent sorting out and rearranging through the year is very beneficial for a little garden and your mind. A good fettle about is a great tonic.

How to lay out your pots

Tulip bulbs in pots
In small gardens use a table as a stage, gathering pots around and on it

Envisage your pots creating flower beds by grouping them. Only the largest or most ornate of pots can hold court as grand single islands in the middle of a garden, on a hard surface or within flower beds. Grouping small pots on garden tables gives a collective splendour, and this position is also useful for growing things from seed and tubers, since getting them off the ground protects the vulnerable massively from slugs.

  • Lining pots down either side of a garden path from a door or to a gate, or either side of steps works well, as you are treating them as if they are making flower beds collectively
  • For making doorway statements, choose pots as pairs, and go as large as you can afford or have room for. Dinky does not make a doorway look grand. Matching pairs of pots also look great on either side of permanent garden features such as benches
  • A huge island of pots can often look very lavish and imposing, and can be created by encircling lower pots around an especially large one – imagine the pots are forming tiers as on a wedding cake
  • Crowd pots into corners for them to radiate outwards, the largest and tallest towards the back and the smaller towards the front, in a triangle shape.
A large copper pot
Large and commanding pots such as this old copper often look their best positioned alone

Pot materials and extreme weather

The effects of extreme climate change are swiftly being felt around the word. This impacts plants in pots more so than those in the ground, as hard frosts and heatwaves are felt more by plants in containers.

Terracotta

Small terracotta pots will dry out swiftly in the summer heat, so water saucers under them will assist in them surviving, especially if you are partial to having weekends away. This one contains tagetes ‘Strawberry Blonde’.
Small terracotta pots will dry out swiftly in summer, so use a saucer to catch water as it drains

Terracotta is porous and will absorb moisture readily, so large terracotta pots are best lined around their inner sides with old compost bags before being filled, to help them retain moisture over the summer. I have mixed views about the need to raise large terracotta pots off the ground, as newly bought ones are usually considered to be frost proof and none of mine are raised up on ‘feet’. They are, though, sat on gravelled areas. During the winter, I place small terracotta pots on plant stands and tables rather than on the ground in any case.

Metal

Tagetes in a galvanised metal container
Metal containers, like this pot of Tagetes patula ‘Konstance’, benefit from insulation against summer heat and winter cold

These absorb heat very quickly during the summer, so it’s best to line the sides of metal containers, such as old cattle troughs, with upright sheets of recycled polystyrene, which will help reflect the absorbing heat away from the soil and protect the plant roots. In the winter such sheets will then insulate from the cold. Round dolly tubs and dustbins can be lined with wool fleecing, the sort often used for packaging frozen food, as it has very good insulation properties.

In the winter, extremely low temperatures are likely to become more and more common. Warmer city microclimates help, but depending on the severity and what you are growing in your pots some can be protected from frost by being wrapped up with horticultural or recycled wool fleece or bubble wrap around their outsides. Mulching, which is heaping an extra layer of compost on top of the pot during the winter months, will help any plants that are considered to be tender, such as salvias, penstemons and dahlias, if they are going to be left in their pots.

For a mulch to be successful it needs to be heaped on like a molehill or miniature flamingo mud pie nest so that its depth is a good 10cm (4 inches) at least. It can then be brushed off in late spring. You can shove pieces of broken roof slate around the rim on the inside to help mound up the mulch successfully.

Planting a Paradise: A year of pots and pollinators by gardening author Arthur Parkinson. Hardcover, £22
Published by Kyle Books October 2023.
Photography and illustrations copyright 2023 © Arthur Parkinson 

Arthur Parkinson book cover

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