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.