Lacking the traditional garden – or one of adequate size – a gardener must use whatever is to hand. He will be anxious not to wait too long before achieving at least something like til desired effect, so he will not be particularly drawn to propagating plants from the start (either by seed or small tip cuttings) if it will take several years before any recognizable plant or shrub of the type chosen is produced.

And because space is limited on a patio, balcony, rooftop or other small paved area, tubs, raised troughs and pots must be used. Choosing the right plants for the right containers, then, is the answer.

wooden container gardening

Creating a container garden

A small greenhouse – preferably one that is heated – is the best possible adjunct to a con­tainer garden. Plants for use in the containers can be begun in the structure, and the more deli­cate plants can be housed there during the worst winter months.

With or without a greenhouse, one of the great advantages of container gardening is that it need never be monotonous. Plants can be moved around to suit the grower. The grower without a greenhouse need not feel disheart­ened by the lack of one as he can buy a wide selection of suitable plants, often in an early stage of growth when they quickly acclimatize to the growing conditions available.

Containers for plants grown out of doors can range in scope from raised beds, such as might be appropriate as the main feature in a tiny paved garden, to a shallow dish in which Bonsai trees are grown. The link is that the plants are not growing in the open ground -they do not have a free rootrun.

Container gardening is most appropriate to small spaces such as town gardens, flat roofs, patios, balconies, courtyards, flights of steps and window boxes, but a well-placed con­tainer can look exactly right in a large garden and there are many such gardens which have gained an extra dimension by the use of a well-sited urn, tub or vase. Most great gardens use containers quite freely.

The uses to which plants in containers can be put are endless; when carefully planted and well placed they can make a dull outlook, such as a flight of steps, a thing of beauty. Many such plantings not only give considerable pleasure to their owners but also great joy to passers-by who chance to see them. Some of the most successful plant groupings are those which can be seen at close quarters. Much of the joy of container gardening is obtained from the close proximity of the plants and many of these should be viewed close up. Sink gardens, for instance, enable the grower to examine the fine detail of a plant’s delicate leaves or tiny flowers – points perhaps passing quite unnoticed in the long border or large group planting.

Too many pots, tubs and urns can look a mess. Often it is better to do some multiple planting rather than have too many single con­tainers. Positioning is often half the battle; try a tub on either side of an entrance door, or a few placed with care at the top of a low wall or one on either side of a flight of steps. Train a climbing plant along a balcony railing or up the bannisters of a stairway and against a house wall; use window ledges and rooftops to bring 2 life to paving, concrete or tarmac.

Too many containers can spoil an effect, but containers themselves usually look best if they are overflowing with plants. One or two plants strikingly placed to complement or vie with neighbouring ones and a number tumbling over the edges and down the sides can create this effect. The opulence of a still life by a Dutch Master might be the target. Conversely, one of the best ways of showing off a plant is to isolate it. I know of one house where outside each window is a perfectly grown, perfectly proportioned, evergreen Bonsai – beautifully displayed in an attractive and appropriate container.


Small trees and shrubs are usually used to form a backbone to a garden. This can also be the case with containers. They offer height and substance to the plan but they should not be too numerous. They also need quite substantial root space. The small shrubby plants (includ­ing naturally dwarf trees, especially conifers) form the main body of the layout. They are more easily replaced than their big brothers. Climbers and trailers can also provide height to the composition or break up sharp edges and hard lines. The small stuff is for filling in corners, covering expanses of bare soil and for spots where the diminutive is appropriate and will not be overlooked.

A degree of compatibility is essential when mixing plants together. It is pointless to attempt to grow plants in the same container if they have opposing likes and dislikes of soil condi­tions, sun, shade and water. Nor is it possible to allow a shy grower to be smothered by a rampant one.


One of the shallowest containers in use is the sink. These first came into general use when old houses were being stripped of a very pleasant-looking, but totally inadequate for its purpose, shallow stoneware kitchen sink. It was already provided with drainage having a bottom that sloped to the plughole; all that was needed was for it to be raised on a pedestal, for gravel or crocks to be placed at the bottom of the sink to assist drainage and for soil, plants and rocks to be set in place. These old sinks are, however, becoming a rarity, and simulated sinks can be purchased in a number of different and lighter materials, such as asbestos cement and glass fibre. Any shallow type of container can be given a stone sink appearance by coating it with cement and leaving it rough.

container garden on patio

container gardening with climbers




containers for container gardening


Plants can be grown in virtually anything that holds soil – even discarded tin-cans such as the garden centres tend to use and which are standard containers along practically the length of the Mediterranean coast. An attractive holder does, however, add a great deal to the appearance of the whole and as the container is often half the picture, care should be taken to see that the choice fits the plants to be used and the situation and conditions available.

Containers need not be the traditional clay or plastic pot; all types of everyday objects can be brought into service. Such things as old glazed earthenware – or unglazed – bread or egg-preserving crocks, tall casseroles and stew-pots are often seen in markets and can add interest to the grouping. There are lovely large khaki-green pottery tubs to be had from Chinese shops which have been emptied of the ancient pickled eggs that come from Hong Kong and China and decorative jars from all

sorts of places. A lot of these distinctive con­tainers provide a different shape and addi­tionally can be picked up for a song. All such containers must, however, be provided with drainage holes (and plenty of them) – unless they are to be used as planters, which merely hide the actual growing pots. Drainage can easily be provided by using a hand drill and masonry bit or the chore can be passed on to a semi-professional.

A number of wooden tubs and baskets that have been used for packing fresh fruit, vege­tables and fish can look charming when properly matched with the right plants and situation. Most of these will not last forever but they will last for several years for such things as annual climbing plants, which are finished when the worst weather begins, and as planters. Paint them all with a wood pre­servative before use and take indoors during the winter when they are empty.

Planters outdoors range from the very beautiful lead urns into which flowering plants are dropped for the few weeks when they are in their heyday to rather open wicker baskets used to hide such unsightly containers as tin-cans and plastic pots the grower happens to dislike.

Unglazed clay flower pots are the most popular and usually the most suitable con­tainers for use out of doors. They are heavy enough when filled with soil not to be blown over easily in wind; they are tough enough to stand up to normal handling and quite severe frosts; they are absorbent and well drained. They are, however, rapidly being replaced by plastic pots, and will often have to be sought out at markets and bric-a-brac shops. Glazed pots are on the market and, while more

wooden plant container


expensive, do have the advantage that they do not dry out so quickly.

Plastic pots are the most commonly-seen containers for indoor plants and in that field have all the advantages – lightness, ease of cleaning and cheapness. Outdoors the thinner plastic pots cannot give much protection to the roots of the plants during severe weather, do not have the stability of their heavier brothers and in strong sunlight can get quite hot. Some of the larger plastic tubs are made of sturdier material and thereby overcome some of the snags of the smaller ones.

Wooden tubs, both small circular ones like fire-buckets and square shaped ones, can be very useful when large containers are called for. Fewer wooden barrels are being produced than previously but barrels cut in half can still be had and these have an attractive shape and good capacity, especially when a mixture of different plants is contemplated. If not already present, drainage holes must be provided and the wood treated to stand up to outdoor conditions.

Like everything else that is made of wood they are subject to decay, but if properly treated with preservative and raised off the ground by blocks or bricks to allow a free flow of air beneath them they will last tolerably well. Wood does not heat up in sun like terra­cotta and is more suitable in sunny spots.

Square and circular seed-pans also make good containers for use when wishing to grow some of the smaller plants. Shallow pans of sempcrvivums (the name means ‘live forever’), commonly called Houseleeks, can be very attractive. Although supposed to live forever, the individual rosette of leaves sending up the inflorescence dies when it does so, but there are a mass of other rosettes to take its place.

In some cases a container is needed to fit a particular position and the best solution is to have something in wood or another material made to measure. With timber this need not be so difficult and can be attempted in the home. Many timber merchants are prepared to cut any number of pieces of wood to exact sizes -particularly if they are given a list in advance of the number and size of pieces required. The grower then only needs to prepare the timber and assemble the box, tub or bucket – it is not necessary to be the complete carpenter and joiner to make simple containers.

Alternatively, containers can be cast in con­crete. The walls of these need be no more than

2.5cm/lin thick if they are reinforced with wires or wire-mesh and are not man-handled too much. If the concrete used is mixed with very coarse sand it becomes much more porous and weathers beautifully. Inexpensive timber is used to knock up the mould and a number of ‘pots’ can be taken from the same mould over a period.

outdoor container garden scheme


Window Boxes

Window boxes are popular. They are practi­cally obligatory for the country cottage, are seen all over towns, are invaluable to the apart­ment dweller who is without a garden and are an attractive feature of some office buildings. They can be stocked in a seasonal way, first with spring flowers and bulbs, then filled with summer bedding plants, and finally with such plants as chrysanthemums or solanums and ivies. Some are stocked pretty permanently with dwarf conifers, ivies and hard-wearing green plants. Window boxes must be com­pletely secure and additionally should not con­stitute a nuisance to other people down below who naturally might object if they are deluged each time the plants are watered.

Courtyards, Patios and Terraces

These three situations are possibly slight varia­tions on the same thing. The word patio evokes sun-drenched, wall-locked southern gardens for some. Terraces can be raised or sunk or level with the areas outside the French windows of large country houses, and courtyards are en­closed by walls on all sides and usually refer to the small back areas of old houses in built-up sections. All are, as far as we are concerned, places in which to sit and places in which to garden. Perhaps the exotic-looking plants should be chosen for the patio, the classical lead urns for the terrace, and a mass of lovely cool green plants for the courtyard.

Small Paved Areas

These are perhaps most common in towns and cities. They are paved because they are too small to support the formal lawn, however small, flower borders and the usual garden features. With containers, otherwise com­pletely daunting areas can be transformed into oases; they can provide sitting areas in either sun or shade (or luckily both) and a place in which to potter. Many small paved areas are blessed with the finest backcloth – old brick walls. When these can be clothed with interest­ing climbers as a permanent feature it is often sufficient if a few plants can be grouped together in one area allowing the owners the rest of the space as a sitting area or a place in which a small number of guests can saunter.

Roof Gardens and Balconies

These, too, are places that should allow the owner to potter; they can provide that break from the house and balconies can supply that view from the rooms they serve. The weight of the filled containers, gardener, guests, etc., must be considered in all instances and also the ease of access to a water supply and disposal of garden rubbish.

gardening on roof terraces and balconies


make your own window boxes

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