Container gardening has never been more popular. Increasingly, we’re seeing our patios and decks as extra “rooms”, where we can entertain or relax. Pots and containers are the perfect way to decorate these exterior living spaces. Flexible and relatively low-maintenance, there’s a style to suit every garden and a price to match every budget!

Top Tips

  • Mix pellets of slow-release fertiliser into the compost when you plant up your containers. The pellets will feed your plants for around six months.
  • If you can, fill and plant your containers when they’re in their final position. Once they’re full of compost, they’re very heavy to move around!

The Right Choice

Choosing a container is quite a challenge: there are so many on offer. You’ll have more success if you start by deciding where you want the container to be and what sort of display you’re aiming for. That way, you’ll have an idea of what you’re after when you start looking. Generally speaking, go for as wide and as deep a pot as you can, to give your plants as much room as possible. Standing containers on feet will help prevent water logging.

For more advice, see Container Planting.

Planting Up

John Innes Number 2 soil-based compost is a good choice for larger plants and shrubs that need the extra weight for stability. In areas where weight is an issue (balconies and roof terraces, for example), opt for peat-free, multi-purpose compost. There’s a huge variety of plants on offer to provide year-round interest. One planting strategy for larger containers is to anchor the arrangement with a perennial, changing the other plants as the seasons dictate.

Hanging Around

Hanging baskets make a great summer display but you won’t get the best out of them if you site them somewhere shaded. Traditionally, sphagnum moss was used to line baskets but we should avoid using it now, as supplies need to be conserved. Garden centres sell a variety of alternatives.

For more on this subject, see Hanging Baskets.

Group Therapy

Arranging your containers in groups will give them far more impact than dotting them around a patio. Grouping pots of different heights together will increase the visual interest still further. Don’t feel obliged to stick to traditional containers like pots and troughs. All sorts of objects can be re-purposed as containers, including wheelbarrows, buckets, sinks and chimney pots.

See Unusual Container Planting for more off-beat ways to accommodate your plants.

Containers, large pots and troughs planted with flowers make appealing decorations on patios, decking and paths. Attractive containers are widely available at reasonable prices, but if you are looking for a more distinctive look, here are some unusual alternatives. There is little that cannot be used as plant containers – the limits are your own imagination!

Basic requirements

The only essential requirement of a container is the ability to hold compost – enough to avoid drying out too quickly. Drainage holes are desirable to allow surplus water to escape and prevent water logging.

Unusual planters

  • Wicker baskets: As long as the basket is strong enough, any size will do. A plastic liner with drainage holes will make the basket last longer.
  • Zinc baths: These give an attractive alpine look. Be sure to put in plenty of drainage holes before filling with compost.
  • Painted wheelbarrows: These look good and have the advantage of easy portability.
  • Buckets: Add drainage holes a few inches above the base to provide a reservoir of water.
  • Large chimney pots: Make attractive rustic focal points.

From the kitchen

  • Teapot/kettle/jugs: It can be difficult to make drainage holes in these sorts of containers, so are best used for water plants.
  • Colander: Useful for plants requiring good drainage!
  • Milk bottles: Paint with an opaque paint to disguise the compost. As drilling holes in glass is difficult, water sparingly.
  • Egg cups: These can be a fun way of supplying fresh cress for your egg sandwiches!


  • Bin liners: Tie into a sausage shape and plant strawberries or bedding plants through the holes.
  • Old shoes or clogs: Plastic shoes are better than leather as the latter will go mouldy, and well-worn shoes should come with their own drainage holes!
  • Children’s toys: Try planting a plastic pram – useful for a first garden and can be taken for walks.
  • Bricks: Use one with three central holes, insert compost and plant with cacti.
  • Bidet/lavatory: Definitely for the more adventurous garden! Try planting with trailing plants to hide the container.
  • Cow sculls: Scrub out well before planting – cacti look good in these.

Most gardens have plants in containers – from a few on a balcony outside an upper storey flat to many on the patio of a large garden. Colourful containers can enhance paved areas and bring a display of choice plants closer to the eye. So how do you go about planting a container?

You will need:

  • Container
  • Broken plant pot pieces
  • Compost
  • Plants

Tips: Summer bedding should be planted when the risk of frost is over in your locality. If possible plant earlier and keep in a greenhouse for a few weeks, leaving outside during warm periods and back inside the greenhouse at night.

Permanent plantings can be done at almost any time of the year – but better in the spring when plants will become quickly established.

Step 1: Preparation

If re-using a container ensure that all traces of soil are cleaned from the inside to prevent carry-over of pests and diseases. Terracotta pots often develop green and white marks on the outside – clean off using mild detergent and a scourer.

Tip: Position your container in its final location before planting. There is no point carrying it around when it is full of heavy compost and plants!

Step 2: Fill the container

Ensure your container has sufficient drainage holes. To prevent these becoming blocked by compost, place curved pieces of broken plant pot or similar over the holes.

Add the compost – if the container is very large and you are planting bedding then you can reduce the amount needed by adding large lumps of polystyrene packing material at the bottom. Do not do this with smaller containers or where the planting is dense.

Firm the compost lightly. Loam-based composts can be firmed more after planting, but take care not to over-compress loam-free composts.

Tip: Ensure there is a gap of 2.5cm (1in) at the top as a watering space when the container is finished.

Step 3: Plant up

Select good quality plants – start with good-looking well-rounded specimens and thoroughly soak by immersing in a bucket of water.

Arrange plants on top of the container to compose the best design.

Remove from pots. Ideally, the plant’s roots should just be reaching the outside of the pot. This means they are not pot bound and are growing vigorously. If there is a dense rootball, tease larger roots apart to encourage them to grow into new compost.


Plant from the centre of the container outwards. Start by making a hole big enough for the rootball of the central plant. Lower the plant in, firming the compost to remove any large air gaps. Add the rest of the plants in similar fashion around the edges.

Level the surface of the compost and water thoroughly until water emerges from the base. Add a mulch of decorative gravel.

Tip: Use a similar size pot to make a hole and firm the compost around so you can drop in the plant when removed from its pot. All the plants should end up at the same depth as they were in their original containers.

Cascading, colourful hanging baskets – what could be more reminiscent of an English cottage garden? It doesn’t matter how small your outside space is, hanging baskets are a simple way to instantly introduce colour and create interest all year round.

You will need:

  • Hanging basket and liner
  • Compost
  • Water-retentive granules
  • Selection of plants eg trailers, climbers and upright bedding plants
  • Slow-release fertiliser

Tip: Many basket types are available, from solid plastic with a water reservoir, to woven baskets and also the traditional type – a wire basket consisting of an open galvanised plastic coated wire framework. These take longer to plant but will produce a better result if you follow our guide.

Step 1: Prepare the compost and liner

Never use garden soil which is too heavy, badly drained and lacking in nutrients. Always use new compost – many plants are packed into a small area and they need the best conditions available. Pick a compost without soil, although you can add a small amount of loam-based compost improve fertility.

Add water-retentive granules to the compost. These swell up into a glutinous mass, acting as a water reservoir, and claim to reduce the need to water so often. Incorporate slow-release fertiliser to reduce the need for extra feeding later.

An open wire basket needs a liner to prevent compost falling through. Traditionally, sphagnum moss was used, though many substitutes are available and work just as well, such as ones made of coconut fibre, or you could even use an old woollen jumper!

For a cheap liner, try a black plastic bin liner inside a thin layer of fresh grass cuttings. These start off green but soon turn to a straw colour and look fine even if they are not covered by trailing plants. Add some drainage holes a few inches above the bottom of the base to create a small water reservoir.

Step 2: Insert trailing plants

Stand the basket on a large plant pot for easy access and fill to about 1/3 with compost.

Make holes 50mm (2in) apart at this level and pass the roots of trailing plants through so they lie on top of the compost with the plants hanging outwards.

Add more compost and trailers, staggered between those below until you are a few inches from the top.

Cascading plants can be added around the top, every 50mm – 75mm (2in – 3in). Gently flatten and spread the rootball so more plants can be added. Firm compost around the plants.

Step 3: Plant the top

Add upright plants, placing carefully in the gaps in the centre and add a few climbers to grow up the chains.

Leave a gap at the top for watering, or push a plastic funnel in the centre to use as a watering point. This will soon be covered by plant growth.

Step 4: Hanging the basket

Water thoroughly, using a fine rose so as not to disturb the compost. Baskets dry out very quickly so water at least daily.

If the plants have not been previously hardened off, gradually acclimatise to outside conditions.

Fit the chain in place and suspend the basket on the supporting bracket. Take time to rotate the basket so that its best side faces out.

Six weeks after planting start a weekly liquid feed. Remove dead flowers regularly to prolong flowering.