We often get asked about plants for pots and, honestly, it can be something that we struggle to offer advice on. The success of a pot is dependent on a wide number of variables – soil, plant choice, light, exposure, care, etc. In principle anything will grow well in a pot for a while – obviously everything we sell comes in a pot, and most of them can spend months in those pots with no problems.
But when it comes to suggesting plants for customers, we have to assume that the plants are going to suffer a bit. Here they get watered on a more or less regular basis and, I know from personal experience, the pots at home… don’t. So we’re conservative in our suggestions to avoid complaints about this or that shade plant burning to a crisp on this or that patio. There are things we can’t control.
The traditional response to plants in pots is bedding. This works. They flower forever until they don’t and then you chuck them. It works, but our ethos is slow and sustainable – plants that will hopefully last for years. It’s rough on the environment to be pumping water and chemicals into bedding plants only for them to be thrown out come autumn and we don’t do it.
But with all that said, there are plants which will work brilliantly in pots – at least for a season or more, and which, with our plants, you can then put in the ground for many more seasons to come. As ever, to find them we look to plants in the wild. Not just prairies and mountain tops, but urban corners when plants have naturalised. The moss on your car. The Campanula in your brickwork. Some plants don’t mind it tough!
The first port of call, certainly for sunny pots, is herbs. Mediterranean plants thrive on exposure. Hot, stony, poor soil. This, makes them ideal pot specimens, where forgetting to water them here and there won’t trouble them too much. Aloysia triphylla – lemon Verbena – can be grown as a half hardy shrub with amazing candy-lemon flavoured leaves. Mint, Rosemary, and Thyme, with Satureja spicigera (savory) spilling over the edge smell, and taste great, and also flower beautifully if let.
For ornamentals, in place of bedding plants, hardy Geraniums like Geranium ‘Rozanne’, Geranium ‘Jenny’ and Erigeron karvinskinanus are long flowering, and will flower again next summer. Coreopsis ‘Full Moon’ and Coreopsis ‘Star Cluster’ are excellent pot specimens, flowering from late June until frost.
For shady spots, you can create wonderful points of interest. You just need to accept that in shade, the palette you’re working with is mostly green and textural. Nobody wants to hear this, but you won’t get the colour of an extravagant summer border in your shade garden. But you won’t miss it when you see the amazing and much longer-lasting textural beauty you can create. Pots let you experiment, and create little mini landscapes. You can make crevice gardens or use different potting mixtures from that which you have in the ground. In shady pots, Hostas are excellent. So too are many Hydrangeas, drought tolerant ferns like Dryopteris, shade-friendly grasses like Carex and Hakonechloa, and drought-tolerant evergreens like Epimediums and Buglossoides. Terracotta in shade develops a beautiful patina in time with moss and lichen.
For more structure, you can use dwarf shrubs or conifers. Weeping Japanese maples (Acer palmatum dissectum) change their leaf colour throughout the year and have great shape in winter. dwarf cherry trees, Prunus incisia ‘Kojo-no-mai’, have masses of flowers in early spring and great form thereafter. Weeping Styrax like S. ‘Fragrant Fountain’ have summer flowers and do great in pots.
Some bamboo varieties do well in containers. They tend to dry out in full sun and defoliate in exposed windy sites, but in a sheltered spot in part shade they can be wonderful specimens and be used to screen an unwanted sight.
For very small spaces, think about creating a single vignette to catch the eye. A water feature, such as our carved stone troughs combined with an arching potted shrub like a Japanese maple will give you your own miniature Japanese courtyard garden.
So forgive us if we’re not always that enthusiastic about suggesting plants for your pots. People have visions of trailing Petunias which (by design) we can’t meet, and we see people go away in a bit of a huff. But this isn’t because you can’t create beautiful pots with our plants. Just that your vision for the pot needs to meet the desires of the plant. These are living things which will be with you for years, and, with a little creativity, there is no end to the scenes you can create.