Where does the love of gardening begin?
The love of gardening often begins in our childhood. It maybe gardening grandma or grandad, but that moment often starts with a pot, some soil, and some seeds. You sow your seeds and then wait in anticipation for them to germinate. The excitement then builds as you watch the compost lifting as the first signs of plant pushes through. It is in that moment that your excitement and confidence grow to be a gardener. My early childhood memories are of our large balcony on the side of the house in Mombasa. My dad had large pots commissioned for the balcony. These were planted with roses, strelitzia, jasmine, and various other plants. However, my love of gardening started when I was recruited by my brother to help him dig and maintain a vegetable patch. This went onto spark an interest in house plants. My parents had bought a lovely plant stand on which all sorts of house plants could be placed at different levels. I managed to turn our small porch into a little bit of Eden. I had a huge pot of African Violets that seem to continue to flower throughout the year. We also had the usual spider plant and a prayer plant that had the most strikingly marked leaves. In the corner of the porch a beautiful climbing jasmine that gave us an abundance of flowers.
Photo Credit: Paul Debois Design Credit: Manoj Malde
This roof garden designed for a client in Hampstead is essentially a container garden. The garden experiences a lot of heat during the summer but also cold winds during the winter. Plants have been chosen to cope with those extreme conditions.
How to approach a container garden
Creating a container garden is rather like designing and setting up a show garden. It is like a stage set. The wonderful things about it is that you are the producer and director of the show and as the seasons change you can change the set. No matter how big or small a space you have, there is a huge range of pots, containers, and plants available to create a container garden. It is a wonderful way to have flexibility to change, swap and add pots and plants to change your displays when you want. You must remember that bigger pots are less easy to move especially when filled with soil and plants. However, you can still change the look by swapping the smaller pots around your large pots. Container can also be placed at different heights. You can create tiers of planting using podiums to position your pots on. You can also attach containers to walls and make them part of your display. Windowsills provide staging for containers. Another advantage to container gardening is that you can mix plants in a display that would not naturally grow together as their soil requirements are different. However, in a container you can control the type of soil you put in each pot. The possibilities are endless.
Photo Credit: Manoj Malde Design Credit: PlantyJane
This beautiful garden at the Chelsea Flower Show uses mainly old whisky barrels as containers. It shows how a small space can be converted into a lush green space. The designer has managed to use a small tree, ferns, heathers and even a large Gunnera. The natural stone cladding on the rear wall really sets the garden off so it is worth thinking not just about your plants and containers but also the backdrop.
Setting the stage for a container garden
Garden designers will often begin the design journey of a garden with a theme to create a look and mood for the space. They look at how the space sits cohesively with the home and interiors. The same applies to creating a container garden. Whether it is an indoor or outdoor container garden, think out how you will create that link with your home and interiors. For example, if you live in a contemporary style property, look for containers that are made of modern materials. Think about metal, fibreglass, resin mixes or plastic. The metal can be steel or aluminium. These can come in beautiful powder coated colours. The fibreglass, resin mixes and plastic also come in beautiful colours, but these materials can also be moulded into incredible shapes. The advantage of these is that they are also light weight.
It is not just the containers you want to think about. The backdrop for the containers can also have a profound effect on your display. What backdrop colour will make your pots stand out? You may want to paint a wall a particular colour to complement the colour of your containers. You may want to add some texture on the backdrop by cladding with tiers of natural stone or timber slats. For the evening you might want to position some lights that create dramatic shadows on the backdrop.
Think about the shape of your containers. Tall pots can allow you to raise the height of your plants. They also allow you to grow plants that can overflow down the side. Plants like clematis and arums that prefer a cooler root run will also benefit from being grown in taller pots.
Photo Credit: Manoj Malde Design Credit: Bea Tann Construction Credit: Gareth Wilson
This impressive garden shows how small shady courtyard space can be turned into a stunning garden using the right materials and the correct choice of plants. I love the stone troughs in this garden that are covered in moss. Although a small space the designer has opted for large planters that make a statement. The eye is elevated through the clever use of Cornus kousa and the evergreen jasmine climbing up the wall. The troughs are overflowing with a limited planting palette of ferns, hosta and forget-me-nots. In some cases, less is truly more.
Can I create a container garden indoors?
To start growing plants in containers, first you need to have a look at the space you have. Do not be discouraged if your space is small. Look at how in Japan, where space is limited, people practice the art of bonsai. During the pandemic I had a few people say to me I have a flat and no garden. My reply was “Create an indoor garden”. As mentioned above, I turned my parent’s porch into a little indoor garden.
A windowsill can be used to create a container garden.
Turn a little space in your flat into a garden corner. You can group various containerised plants together. Place the plants at different heights to reflect what happens in an outdoor garden. Use a tall plant to reflect the trees of an outdoor space. Like plants in a garden grow at different heights, you can place your containers at different levels using some stools. You might even want to consider a plant hanging down from the ceiling.
Indoor container allows you the opportunity to grow some tender plants. Like growing plants outdoors, you do need to consider where you will position your containers. Will the plants get sufficient light, or will they be in shade? You can then choose your plants accordingly. When grouping plants together choose those that like similar conditions. They will be easier to look after, and you will have more success. For example, some plants require a humid environment. They need to be misted. Far better to have a group that all prefer humidity.
An alternative is a small garden in a bottle. Yes, the 1970s terrariums have become very popular again but now there are some incredibly glass container designs that you can create a garden inside. There are very good workshops also where you can learn to make a terrarium and look after it.
Photo Credit: Paul Debois Design Credit: Manoj Malde
A section of the roof garden showing the wisteria successfully climbing up along the metal beams. The Pittosporum tobira Nanum is over overflowing from the container and must be pruned and managed carefully to keep its voluptuous shape. All the plants are grown in containers. In this group there is evergreen jasmine, scabious, senecio, festuca, lavender and Mexican flea bane.
Can I create an outdoor container garden?
Whether you have a balcony, basement courtyard, a city garden, a patio, roof garden or a large suburban or rural garden, you can create a container garden.
A balcony is a great place to create a container garden. If you have some railings or balustrade, there are some containers designed to sit securely over them. You can also have some containers at ground level but be sure to keep space for seating. Afterall, you want to enjoy your garden too. Use the wall space. Consider a living wall or containers that can be attached to the wall. To create a balcony garden, think about the aspect of your balcony. Is it bright and sunny or is it shady. Often you will have shade from the balcony above. Does your balcony get windy or very cold? Understanding the conditions of your balcony will help you choose the right plants for the right place.
Roof gardens tend to be container gardens. It is the easiest way to create a garden on a roof top space. However, like a balcony garden you do have to consider the conditions. For balconies and roof gardens it is worth looking at drought-tolerant and coastal plants. Plants that have evolved to tolerate water evaporation work well for in these conditions. I have planted five mature olive trees on a roof garden that are doing really well. Lavandula, Salvia rosmarinus, Erigeron karvinskianus, Perovskia, Nasella tenuissima, Pennisetums, Salvia nemerosa Caradonna have also performed well in containers.
Basement courtyards are often damp and shady but can be turned into an oasis. Perfect conditions for growing shade loving plants in containers. Look at Ferns, Hellebores, Epimediums, Tellima, Tiarella, Liriopi, Hydrangea, Acers, Cornus, Hosta and Hakonechloa.
City gardens are often small courtyards that are sheltered. These are also perfect for creating container gardens. If access allows it is worth investing in large containers to be able to create a mini garden within each container.
One tip is to keep your containers raised off the ground to allow the water to drain through. You can use put feet, small tiles, or rubber pads.
Photo Credit: Manoj Malde
Old, galvanised metal have been repurposed as planting containers in this garden. Container gardens do not just have to be for ornamentals. You can plant herbs and edibles also.
What containers can I use?
I have already discussed some of the containers in contemporary materials, but containers can come in so many different materials.
As a garden designer I always like to choose containers that work well with the theme or mood of the garden that I am trying to create for my clients. If I am designing a Mediterranean or an Italianate Garden, be it for a modern or traditional looking home, my choice of containers will be terracotta or dark clay. Some may be given a bit more character by limewashing the bottom half of the pots. For a French Country Garden, I would use terracotta and vintage style French oil jars. Japanese style gardens don’t often have containers but if I were to choose any then it would be either granite carved it a round shape or dark clay shaped like a low wide round open dish. For period properties you really want to relate the design of the containers to the historical period. Lead planters look beautiful but not only are they heavy but also very expensive. However, you can get faux-lead planters that are lighter and much cheaper.
In addition to the pots already mentioned, you can also get glazed pots and reconstituted stone pots. Whiskey barrels look beautiful set in a courtyard of a Country Cottage Garden. The interior is normally already charred making it waterproof. If you do choose to use other styles of timber pots, they will need to be waterproofed inside.
Photo Credit: Manoj Malde Design Credit: Adolfo Harrison and Darryl Moore of Cityscapes
This garden was created as a community space for the charity St Mungo’s. Colour in a garden doesn’t just have to be through flowers. Using beautiful bold containers can also help to lift people’s spirits.
Recycling and upcycling for container gardens
Consider a bit of upcycling. I once created an alpine trough from an old butler’s sink. Don’t throw away those empty cans of baked bean. Clean them up, take the label off, and use them as containers. You can get creative with them by painting them in which ever colours and patterns you want. Be sure to put holes at the bottom. The same can be done with larger metal cooking oil containers. The graphics on the outside will add character to your container garden. Ever wondered what to do with that odd, chipped teacup and saucer? Make a couple of holes at the bottom of the cup and plant a sempervivum in it. A line of these odd cups planted and place on your outdoor table adds a bit of character to your furniture. Equally a China teapot could be used as container.
Old chimney pots make great containers as do coal scuttles. They are perfect for adding some seasonal planting and colour into your outdoor space. Galvanised buckets also make good containers. Plant this with spring bulbs and violas. When using metal containers, it is advisable to line them with polystyrene sheets so that the roots of your plants don’t get burnt as metal can heat up with the sun. You could even use old metal watering cans or a wheelbarrow as containers. Old oil drums can also be upcycled to containers. Clean them out thoroughly and then waterproof them inside with butyl paint.
Timber crates and drawers can also be used as containers. However, they do need to be waterproofed inside. You can use butyl paint or line the container with a black plastic liner but do punch some holes into the plastic to allow the water to drain. Commercial concrete pipes make great planters. These can be large enough to grow small trees and additional underplanting. Clay pipes and old rubber tyres can also be recycled as containers.
A word of caution if you a creating a garden on the 10th floor or on a roof. Make sure the containers you are thinking of fit through all the access ways and you can handle their weight.
Photo Credit: Manoj Malde
This small courtyard show garden was stunning. Just three sculptural containers cleverly positioned and beautifully planted not only created a private hidden space but also a more open social space. A living wall also helps to further enhance the garden with greenery.
What can I grow in my indoor containers?
If you are looking at containers for indoors and are new to growing plants, start with some easy to look after plants to build your confidence. Plants such as Senseveria trifasciata (Mother-in-Law’s Tongue) or Crassula ovata (Jade Plant or Money Tree) are very easy to look after. If you are confident with plants and would like to create a small garden corner indoors, think about Ficus lyrate (Fiddle Fig), Kentia palms or a Strelitzia nicolai to give you stature and height. You can then create some hierarchy in your scheme by adding in Monstera deliciosa and Aspidistra elatior, set at different level. This is starting to develop a jungle vibe. You could have a plant hanging from the ceiling such as Tradescantia. If you want to have a touch of colour and that exotic vibe look at Anthurium andraeanum. These plants do like some light but not direct sunlight.
If you are just starting out with container plants and don’t feel confident, why not try a group of cacti and succulents. They are pretty robust, so it really does not matter if you forget to water them. In fact, with these plants overwatering is the problem. If you do not have any outdoor space, then these are great for indoors on sunny windowsill.
What can I grow in my outdoor containers?
For outdoor container gardens you can grow pretty much anything, even edibles. Most plants can grow successfully in a container given the right conditions and if the pot allows for sufficient root growth. When selecting plants for you scheme, you want to use some plants that will provide structure and winter interest. Others that are good doers, ones that provides froth and movement and others that give you the frills and fireworks. Choose plants that can move one season into the next and whilst some die back others take their place. Leave some space for adding seasonal colour so that you can change the stage set as I wrote about before. Add spring and summer bulbs as they always add the element of surprise in any garden.
To give your planting scheme structure and backbone, use multi-stem trees. If you choose to use deciduous trees look for interesting bark, flowers berries and great autumn leaf colour. This will give you a prolonged season of interest. Silver birch, Crataegus, Carpinus Betula and Euonymus Red Cascade are good choices. Evergreen trees such as Arbutus unedo, Prunus lusitanica or Olea europea will work well. Evergreen shrubs such Pittosporum tobira Nanum or Golden Ball. Euonymus Jean Hughes or Green Spider will also work well. Hebes are a good option too.
For froth and movement, I love to use grasses like Nasella tenuissma, Pennisetums, Panicums, Deschampsia and Calamagrostis. Perennials are just very good value for money as they come back every year and provide floral colour. Consider hardy geraniums, Coreopsis, Salvias, Perovskia, Gaura, Campanula, and Dianthus.
Seasonal bedding such as petunias, osteospermum and bedding pelargoniums are real value for money. Keep dead heading them and they will continue to flower until the first frosts. Annuals such as Cosmos, Cleome, French Marigolds, Zinnias will give burst of colour.
For spring bulbs Narcissus, Muscari, and Tulips are a must. Summer bulbs can include Fritillaria, Eucomis and Lilies. You can also include tubers such as Dahlias and Cannas.
Photo Credit: Manoj Malde
One of my favourite container gardens is this little front garden that has be created Daniellie who is not only an extremely talented and creative potter but has a real interest in growing things. He has the most beautiful collection of cacti and succulents growing outside his pottery studio.