Container gardening

Some people garden solely in containers on balconies, terraces and patios, others have a few dotted around the garden. Containers can be an opportunity to grow things which don’t like your normal garden soil, such as Camellia in acidic compost, or sunny Mediterranean herbs in well drained gravelly compost.  


Containers come in all shapes, sizes and materials. Go for the look you like, keeping in mind that some containers will last longer than others, e.g. frost proof terracotta or glazed pots will resist harsh winter weather. People use all sorts of things as containers - an old colander, a bag for life, old sinks, washing tubs… have an eclectic array, or go for a uniform look, it’s personal taste at the end of the day.

Some materials are lighter, such as fibre glass and some metals, so you will be able to move containers more easily.

If you are using metal containers in a very sunny position, think about lining it with layers of newspaper, bubble wrap or something to protect the roots from the hot sun. You only need to feel the metal on a sunny day to realise how hot the plants must be.

Terracotta is slightly porous, glazed terracotta is more water retentive. Plastic is lighter, retains water well but may not be as attractive as pot.


In the summer months, place a saucer under the container to help retain water. In winter months, raise the container onto pot feet or something similar to aid drainage. If the container is going to be too large to lift, put pieces of wood underneath it, to raise it from the ground for drainage, before you fill the pot with compost.


Use the right compost for your plants. A multi-purpose compost is great for winter or summer bedding plants, which you will change at the end of the season. For permanent planting of shrubs or small trees, use a loam based compost such as John Innes no 3, and some good organic compost. For camellias, rhododendrons, heathers and other plants requiring acidic compost, use ericaceous compost.


Rain water doesn’t reach containers sufficiently if they are full of leafy plants. You need to provide water and nutrients regularly, especially through the growing season.

New compost contains nutrients for 5 or 6 weeks, so you need to use a liquid fertiliser after that. Alternatively, incorporate slow release fertiliser into the potting compost when you plant. Ask for advice on which fertiliser to use if you aren’t sure.

How much to water? It’s impossible to give a simple answer because this depends on light, humidity, sun, wind, size of container, plant varieties, type of container and more. A general rule of thumb is to feel the compost with your finger. If it’s dry an inch below the surface, it’s time to water. To ensure that water has reached the roots, keep going until water runs out of the drainage holes. Overwatering is as damaging as under watering, so get to know what your plants need.

If you have a lot of containers, are away from home a lot, or find it hard to carry a watering can, think about installing an irrigation system. There are a number of different systems on the market, at varying prices.