Pot wisdom

I love what they do with pots in the UK and through North America – the large, mixed pot thing, in which a whole lot of complementary plants are thrown in together, and jostle it out for the summer.

I’ve played a bit with doing the same back here, with moderate success.  There’s a couple of things against us, such as the lack of this sort of material for sale in spring (ie tubes of stuff, that is therefore pretty cheap, that have no point-of-sale appeal but are ready to hit the ground running), and occasional fierce temperatures that may mean watering pots a few times of day, or wheeling them under cover.

An old copper (which has appeared in several other guises on this site) planted with a mix of stuff given me for trial purposes.

But these hurdles are anything but insurmountable.  Failure is more likely to be a simple result of laziness or ignorance.

What I’ve learned over time (over way too much time, as I’m definitely not one of those people that manages to get straight to the best source of info and experience, and can fast-track their way to proficiency in anything they pursue) is that:

  • Pots need water, and loads of it.  Everyday.  The best practice is to have a time of day when you water, everyday.  Maybe in your jim-jams over your first coffee in the morning, or with a glass of wine in the gloaming.  On really stinking hot or windy days, they may need it twice.  It’s also useful to know that their need for water will be in direct proportion to the amount of foliage the pot is carrying ie a whole lot less when you first plant them up than several months later when the pot is jam-packed full of roots, and the foliage is three times the bulk of the planting medium
  • Pots need food, and loads of it.  A friend’s daughter swims competitively, and when the whole squad come around for breakfast, apparently what they tuck away has to be seen to be believed.  It’s not that different to your mixed pot.  You’re expecting huge results, and you want them fast.  It can’t happen without fuel.

It took me years to understand that no potting mix is going to be able to provide this, without supplementation.  Some of the cheaper potting mixes (even with five Aussie standard ticks) contain no nutritional additives, and plants inthem will immediately start to starve.  Even the best and most expensive of potting mixes is unlikely to provide more than a couple of months of a moderate level of food.  You’ve got to pump those plants like body-builders in full training – like those guys that put away three roast chickens at morning smoko.  I always fight this reality, and always suffer for it.  I’m not like a friend of mine who was caught pouring yet another watering can of strong-tea-coloured seaweed extract on to a particular favourite pot, and feeling the need to break the awkward moment, chuckled, and stated, a little guiltily, ‘I just love gross feeders’

  • Pots don’t last more than a season or two.  The reason why the best pots and hanging baskets are seen in the coldest of climates is simply because the winter forces a renewal of all contents every year.  In our relatively benign climate (as far as winters go, at least) we expect stuff to last much longer than it can.  We have no perception of use-by-date.  The truth is that if you plant up a big pot in spring, and it hits its strides in summer, then lasts into the autumn, you’re doing really well.  It could then be planted up for a winter/early spring show.
A mix a few years back. I’m not that into fuchsias in the garden, but they’re charming dagging around in pots

If you’re organized enough (as I will be, one day), you can save money on the replant by taking cuttings or divisions from this years plants for next years planting, but you’ll probably want to do something different then, anyway.  In my case this years contents are mostly relegated to the garden, particularly the shrubby contents, or the herbaceous perennials.  The annuals just go on the compost.

(For those who made it this far, apologies for the ridiculous layout of this.  I’d edit it, then after publishing, photo and text would reassemble themselves apparently at random)


  1. This year I actually tapped the watering system into the pots.. lazy I know but they get watered every day now without me having to think about it and the plants are looking great… might try some fertilizer and they won’t know themselves!

    1. Lazy? – no such thing. Sounds v sensible to me. And try the water/food combo – you won’t know them either.

  2. Hi Michael. It’s such a pleasure reading your blog. I spent a year at RHS Wisley and had the chance to do a few days with Fergus at Great Dixter, and reading your blog post reminds me of my time in the UK. Pot’s are such an asset in any garden, and should be treated as ongoing projects (you make this point very clearly and I thoroughly agree) – one hit wonders for a season and then mix it up – and try anything! Pots keep gardening and life interesting!

    1. Wish I’d spent a year at Wisley (followed by wistful sigh..)
      Being from PMA, I’m guessing that you recognised a few of the plants in that pink/orange/lime combo pot. Don’t know why we don’t use more perennials and smaller shrubs in really big pots like this – particularly the long-flowering ones that you guys tend to develop/manage/promote.

  3. My husband & I spent five weeks cycling through the Loire Valley and across to Zurich last July/August, and I totally loved the amazing floral displays in Europe as well! Not only were they on the ground but hanging off the rails of just about every bridge in the charming little French towns. It was gorgeous, and the really bright flowers made the most impact. My favorite pots were definitely the ones that had masses of trailing ivy geranium in them (I am now cultivating a great collection!), combined with petunias and dwarf gaura! The whole cycling trip I was staring at the ground at plants growing randomly that I had only ever read about! Cannot wait to go back, in the meantime I’m just making massed flower window boxes 🙂

    1. It’s amazing, isn’t it. A sort of horticultural carpe diem.
      And it’s all incredibly simple to achieve ie success = food + water

  4. These look fantastic. So much more interesting than the ‘one plant per one pot’ look. I look forward to experimenting with colour and texture too. cheers

    1. That’s exactly it – the chance to play with textures, and different forms. If I can manage it (by which I mean if I can access the plants, and then, if I can fit them into the pot), I like to include something upright, one or two rounded things, and several pendulous things around the edge. I’ll also try to use something strappy, like a grass or flax. While too much colour diversity can make a mess, the same isn’t true of textural diversity. You simply can’t overdo it.

  5. I love your pots of colour and yes, the french love to use pots galore!! Recently visited my relatives in Annecy, France, and took a picture of this fabulous flower shop in the old town – amazing. I should really do a post about it. Oh, the old copper pot – found one on eBay – scored it for $40 – a bargain, I thought. Haven’t planted it out yet, so you’ve given me some great ideas – thanks!!!

    1. The old copper looks incredible with the verdigris-green of young sedum foliage, and the leaves of certain tulips (check out the pic in my earlier post from September last year)

  6. You are so right. After visiting Great Dixter in June 2011, I decided I needed to have a grouping of pots like the one in the Sunken Garden there. Not as big, obviously, but a bit similar. I have struggled, for the very reasons you talk about: not enough watering and feeding, expecting plants to keep going for more than a year, and most frustrating of all, not being able to get small, interesting plants at the time I want them. Unless I only wanted pansies for winter and petunias for summer, of course. There are always plenty of those. Why do they call purple petunias blue, anyway? I was caught out by ‘Crazy Blue’. Should be called ‘You’re Crazy If You Think These Will Be Blue’. But the “Potted Garden” is gradually improving and I’m going to persevere.

    1. Pansies and petunias – that’s about the dismal sum of it, isn’t it. I always trawl through the tube section of my local nurseries, and very occasionally they surprise me. But it’s so different in the UK, Europe and North America, where in the first few months of spring, nurseries are teeming with small, tender (frost tender plants that is, that need to wait until the danger of frost is past) plants, ready to jam into mixed pots and hanging baskets. To get a decent choice, we’d have to buy 15cm pots, and at ten bucks each, the cumulative cost is too high. When you consider that the rule of thumb with hanging baskets in Canada is to jam in as many plants as you can, then add one more.. (BTW, the hanging baskets around Victoria, Vancouver Island, are watered every day with a dilute liquid feed)

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