For many people gardening in small urban spaces, containers will almost certainly form a key part of their planting space, and may be the only option if there is no open ground available. In my own garden I have two small beds either side of a paved area but I have always supplemented these with the use of containers to provide an opportunity for temporary planting including edibles and seasonal displays. This blog post is focussed on some recent Autumn planting I have undertaken in my own garden.
Containers: general considerations
Containers come in all shapes, sizes, materials and colours, from cheap plastic pots, to hanging baskets, to larger planters, so it will always be possible to find something suitable for your space, budget and purposes. There are advantages to using containers in any garden which include:
- the environmental conditions in containers can be controlled through the choice of growing media and where they are located which means you can create the appropriate conditions for a wide range of plants
- smaller containers can be moved around so you can rearrange your displays, group them in different ways or follow the sun at different times of year
- containers are versatile and can be used to create temporary seasonal displays to add a splash of colour to your space or to house more permanent planting such as shrubs and small trees
- in addition to the choice of planting, containers can be an interesting feature in their own right and can be used to create a focal point which attracts attention to a particular area (or distracts from the less lovely features of your space)
Although they provide great opportunities, containers also have some specific maintenance requirements:
- containers will almost certainly require some form of irrigation, particularly during the summer, but even in the winter during dry periods occasional watering may be needed
- the use of fertilisers to maintain nutrient levels will also be necessary. Again this is of greater need during summer when plants are growing rapidly, but for winter planting an initial application of slow release fertiliser (or the use of compost with this incorporated) will be needed
Smaller containers will dry out more quickly and will therefore need more regular watering (and feeding). They may also be more susceptible to frost damage during the winter, so size should be a consideration in relation to how much time you wish to spend on maintenance.
Home made planters
A few years ago I built some wooden planters for my garden in order to create more planting space. These are essentially small raised beds which I use for temporary planting. I made them using lengths of pressure treated timber for the sides, screwed into corner posts and with a gravel board base, leaving small gaps for drainage. The sides are lined with polythene and I put chunks of polystyrene in the bottom of the planters to create a drainage layer. The planters were then filled with general purpose compost. I usually top the planters up each year with spent compost from other pots and add slow release fertiliser prior to each new set of planting. Sometimes I use these during the summer for edibles such as salad leaves, herbs or tomatoes and sometimes I use them for seasonal decorative planting, as in this case.
Autumn 2017 Planting
I freely admit, my usual approach to Autumn/Winter container planting has been to buy a few trays of cheap Winter Pansies and Primroses and plant these up in pots which are clustered in various parts of the garden. Sometimes I have underplanted the bedding plants with Spring bulbs such as dwarf Daffodils or Iris but that’s about as creative as it’s got. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this approach: Pansies and Primroses are widely available in a range of colours, inexpensive and with a bit of care and attention will provide some colour when we all need it throughout the Autumn and then again later Winter/early Spring.
However, this year I decided I would try something slightly different with two of the aforementioned planters by focussing far more on foliage which will provide interest even when nothing is flowering. For each planter I chose a hardy perennial to act as a centre-piece:
Around these I then used the following plants:
- Ornamental Kale
- Cyclamen varieties
- Senecio cineraria ‘Silver Dust’
- “Bud-blooming” Heather: Calluna vulgaris (Beauty Ladies Series)
- Variegated Trailing Ivy: Hedera helix
- Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’
I also underplanted these with some groups of Spring bulbs which will hopefully add another layer of colour from around February:
- Crocus ‘Blue Pearl’
- Iris reticulata
- Grape Hyacinth: Muscari latifolium
- Daffodil: Narcissus ‘February Gold’
I am pleased with the results though there are few aspects to watch out for. As I planted these up in mid-September, and it is currently still quite mild, I would expect that there would be a certain amount of growth before the the cold Winter weather closes in, so I have left a reasonable amount of space around each plant for expansion. It may be that denser planting would be more appropriate for this time of year though. Other potential issues include the fact that Senecio cineraria ‘Silver Dust’, which provides a lovely ‘oak-leafed’ silver foliage is only half-hardy and may therefore perish if it turns out to be a harsher winter than last year.
Mindful of the potential for slug damage, particularly in relation to the Ornamental Kale, I have also incorporated a ‘slug trap’ consisting of a mushroom box with half a bottle of beer in the bottom. Thus far this seems to have done the trick (even though it is non-alcoholic beer)! The other ‘pest’ which I have most difficulty with is cats, including my own, finding these planters and any pots with bare soil an irresistible toilet opportunity. If this becomes an issue I may have to introduce some barriers such as netting to deter them but this does tend to undermine the appearance of the display.
In addition to the planters I have also planted up a few pots with any remaining bulbs, a spare Cyclamen and some more Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’ left over from summer planting. I have left two Santivalia procumbens which continue to flower in situ for the time being but expect them to die back once the cold weather arrives, by which point it will be time to plant Tulips for late-Spring flowering. Oh yes, and I couldn’t quite resist one tray of Viola ‘Pink Halo’ which have gone either side of the back door – well it seemed churlish not to!