How to…plant up a container

by Rhiannon James

Whether you’ve got a roof terrace, a courtyard or a patio area in your garden, containers are a quick and easy way to add greenery and colour to the space.

Things you’ll need

A selection of plants: You can plant almost anything in a container so there’s a huge range of options to choose from. You could use a selection of annuals, which will only last for one summer, or go for perennials for a long-lasting display. These plants die down over the winter but reappear each spring, growing gradually bigger and bushier each year. For all-year round interest, use a small evergreen shrub and plant around it with summer annuals which can be replaced later in the year with autumn and winter-flowering plants.

Almost any combination of types will work, as long as you pick a selection of plants which enjoy similar conditions. So depending on where you want to put your pot, pick all sun-lovers, or all shade-lovers, and try to combine plants which like the same kind of soil.

Once that’s covered, you’re free to unleash your creative side to find plants which will create interesting combinations of colour, height, shape and texture. We’ve used Imperata cylindrica ‘Rubra’, Lobelia cardinalis ‘Queen Victoria’ and a new variety of Gaura (similar to ‘Tutti Frutti’) for a striking mix of purples, burgundies and reds.

A container: There’s a vast range of containers to choose from, just make sure you pick one that’s big enough to comfortably house your selection of plants. If the pot has been used before, you will need to wash it thoroughly with soapy water and then rinse it before you start. If you think it might have housed any pests or diseases, give it an extra-deep clean with Milton sterilising fluid (which is normally used for cleaning babies’ bottles).

Compost: A multi-purpose compost is fine for annuals, but if you’re planting perennials or shrubs, John Innes Number 2 or 3 or a non-peat alternative works best.

Slow-release plant food

Clean pieces of broken pot

Horticultural grit


1. Give your plants a good water before you start and allow the excess water to drain out.

2. Make sure your container has drainage holes in the bottom. If not, you will need to drill these yourself.

3. If possible, it’s best to put your container into its final position at this point, so you don’t have to move it when it’s weighed down with compost, water and plants.

4. If there are large drainage holes in the base of the planter, cover these with the pieces of broken pot, turning each piece so the curve faces downwards. This will stop compost falling out through the holes in the bottom of your pot, but will still allow water to drain out, so the compost doesn’t become waterlogged. Add some extra pieces for better drainage.

5. Then, you can add some horticultural grit to the bottom of the pot to further improve drainage.

6. You can then start adding your compost. Start by firming some compost into the edges of the pot, and then gradually fill. Try to make sure each layer of compost is reasonably firmed in, without being squashed– this will prevent the compost settling too much when you water it without squeezing all the air out, which will harm the plants.

7. Add the slow-release fertiliser granules as per the instructions on the pack and mix into the compost.

8. Stop adding compost when you reach the point where the plants will be sitting at the right level in the container (a few centimetres below the top edge to leave a bit of room for watering). You can sit the plants into the pot to check.

9. At this point, it’s good to play around with the arrangement of your plants, until you get a look you’re happy with.

10. Once you’re satisfied, add some compost around the plants, while they’re still in their pots. Then, when you take the plants out of the container, you’ll still be able to see where each one needs to be placed.

11. Then you can begin planting. If you’ve got a central plant in your arrangement, start with this, or otherwise with the largest, most dominant plant in your selection.

12. After removing any dead or damaged foliage, take each plant out of its pot. Gently tease out some of the roots so they are encouraged to grow out into the new compost.

13. Put each plant in turn into the container, check the depth, and fill round with compost. Try to make sure the compost comes no further up each plant’s stem than when it was in its original pot.

14. Once you’ve finished planting, water your pot thoroughly.

15. Adding a mulch will create an attractive finish, deter weeds and reduce evaporation. Just try not to pile mulch up around the stems of your plants.

16. Keep your container well-watered and your plants should flourish. If you’ve used perennials as we have (or shrubs), in a year or two, you’ll either need to pot the whole arrangement on into a larger container or move the plants into separate pots or into the garden so they’ll have the space to keep on growing.



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