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Ultimate Container Gardener: All You Need to Know to Create Plantings for Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter

Ultimate Container Gardener: All You Need to Know to Create Plantings for Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter

by Stephanie Donaldson

This is an essential guide to successful gardening in containers, outside and inside the home.


This is an essential guide to successful gardening in containers, outside and inside the home.

Product Details

Anness Publishing, Ltd.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
9.26(w) x 11.92(h) x 0.98(d)

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Chapter One

The Techniques

Types of Container

One of the challenges of container gardening is finding the right
container for the right setting. You can now quite readily buy a
whole range of lovely containers, for example, waist-high, Italian
olive oil jars make a terrific focal point — big and bold and stylish.
At the other end of the scale, you can be as imaginative as you
like. You could use a Wellington boot or an old shoe for an
engaging, quirky touch. In between, of course, the choice is huge:
rustic terracotta, voguish metal or brightly painted tins,
Mediterranean style.

    It is important to consider the final setting when you are
buying a container. A rustic tub may look charming under
the window of a thatched cottage, but inappropriate outside
a formal town house. Bear proportions in mind and, for
example, choose a window box that exactly fits the sill. It is
also worth noting that the weight of a container, when filled
with compost and freshly watered, will be considerably greater
than when empty. Think twice before
packing your roof terrace or balcony
with heavy pots: the structure may not
be able to cope. And never leave a
container on a window-sill from where
it could fall down into the street.

Stone troughs

Not so readily available but
definitely worth looking at.

Advantages — durable and

Disadvantages — very heavy
and expensive.

Pots and barrels

Versatile and practical.

Advantages — maintenance-free
and versatile.

Disadvantages — heavy to move.

Wooden window boxes

Give a wooden container an
original look with your own
colour scheme.

Advantages — you can change the
look to suit any new planting

Disadvantages — the boxes require
occasional maintenance.

Terracotta window boxes

Available in a wide range of sizes
and styles.

Advantages — look good and
appear even better with age.

Disadvantages — heavy, and may be
damaged by frost.

Types of Hanging Basket

Before you choose the plants and how to arrange
them, decide what style of hanging basket you
are going to display them in. Garden centres
stock a huge variety, which are all easy to work
with and hang. Hanging baskets are made from
plastic-coated wire, wrought iron and galvanized
wire. Plants can also look great trailing from
window boxes.

Galvanized tin

Tin has moved from the
utilitarian to the fashionable.

Advantages — an interesting
variation from the usual materials.

Disadvantages — drainage holes

Lightweight fibre window boxes

Plain and practical

Advantages — took rustic, and have a rich
brown colour.

Disadvantages — short life-span.


Can be used as window boxes
provided they are generously
lined with moss before planting.

Advantages — lightweight and

Disadvantages — plant pots must
be removed for watering, or the
base of the basket will be soaked
and rot.

Hanging baskets

Varied and practical.

Advantages — look lovely planted.

Disadvantages — need to be
lined before use.

Novelty containers

Hugely underrated. Use anything from
watering cans or tyres to shoes.

Advantages — witty and fun.

Disadvantages — possible short life-span.

Propagation Techniques

Most containers and plants are available from garden centres but raising your own plants from
seed or cuttings is far easier than you may think and can be very rewarding. Buying young plants
from mail order catalogues is an increasingly popular way of starting a collection.

Seed Sowing

One of the cheapest ways of getting a mass planting is
by growing plants from seed. It is fun, can be easy
(when growing marigolds, for instance), and you don't
need a high-tech greenhouse. Furthermore, if you
get hooked on the plants, you can collect your own
ripe seed in the autumn for a spring sowing the
following year.

1 Fill the seed tray with
seed compost. Gently
firm and level the surface
by pressing down on the
compost using a tray of the
same size. When sowing
large seeds, such as
sunflowers or marigolds,
use a dibber, cane or pencil
to make holes for each
seed. Plant the seeds and
cover with compost.

2 When sowing small
seeds they should be
thinly scattered on the
surface of the compost and
then covered with just
enough sieved sand and
compost to conceal them.
Firm the surface, using
another tray. Water from
above, using a fine rose on
a watering can, or by
standing the tray in water
until the surface of the
compost is moist.

3 Enclose the seed tray in
a plastic jar or bag
to conserve moisture and
cover with a black plastic
bag, as most seeds
germinate best in a warm
dark place.

4 Check daily and bring
into the light when the
seedlings are showing.


If you want to increase your stock of the plants you
are already growing in the garden, you can get quick
results by taking spring cuttings.

    When the cuttings have rooted — this will be
immediately obvious because they suddenly perk up — wait
for the roots to fill the pot, and then transfer to
individual pots.

1 Remove the new softwood
growth when it
is about 10 cm (4 in) long,
just above a leaf node.

2 Using a sharp knife,
trim the cutting just
below a node and trim
away the lower leaves.

3 Dip the end of the stem
in hormone rooting
powder, and plant up in a
small container, using
cuttings compost.

4 Fill the pot with
cuttings, water, and
place in a warm, bright
place, out of scorching

5 To create a moist
microclimate for the
cuttings, it's a good idea to
enclose the pot completely
in a plastic bag. Secure it
with an elastic band around
the pot.

Mail Order

Send off each year for the latest seed and plant
catalogues. You will invariably find a wider range than
you can buy in a garden centre. Young plants are
packed into special packages, which minimize damage
during transit, but as they are restricted and in the
dark they are initially weakened and some care is
necessary to encourage vigorous growth.

1 Open the package with care. Leaves will probably
unfold from the confined space. Each plant should be
intact and clearly labelled.

2 Lift the plants out of
their travelling box.
Labels tucked underneath
the root ball reduce the
necessity for handling it
directly and helps to keep
the compost intact.

3 Plant in a small pot.
If the plants seem very
wilted, remove some of the
larger leaves.

Potting On

After several weeks your young plants, whether grown
from seed, mail order stock or cuttings, will need
potting on. This simply means giving the young plant
its own larger, individual container.

1 Young plants are ready to move into larger pots when
the roots start to emerge through the holes in the base
of the pot. Gently remove the rootball from the pot to
check. If there is more than one seedling in the pot,
carefully tease away each individual football. (Some plants
hate to have their roots disturbed. The information on the
seed packet will tell you this. These seeds are best sown
individually in peat pots or modular trays.) Lower the
rootball of the plant into a pot marginally bigger than the
existing one.

2 Holding the plant
carefully so as not to
damage the stem, gently
pour potting compost
around the football,
firming lightly.

3 Dibble the compost
down the side of the
pot to eliminate air spaces.
It does not matter if the
stem of the seedling is
buried deeper than it was
previously, as long as the
leaves are well clear of the
soil. Water, using a can
with a fine rose.


Composts come in various formulations suitable for different plant requirements. A standard potting
compost is usually peat-based and is suitable for all purposes. Peat and peat substitutes are relatively
light in weight, and are therefore the obvious choice for hanging baskets. Regular watering is vital
when using peat-based composts, as it is very difficult to moisten them again if they have been
allowed to dry out completely. Different composts can be mixed together for specific plant needs.

Standard compost

The majority of composts available
at garden centres are peat-based
with added fertilizers.

Peat-free compost

Manufacturers now offer
a range of composts using
materials from renewable
resources such as coir fibre.
They are used in the same
way as peat-based composts.

Ericaceous compost

A peat-based compost with no
added lime, essential for
rhododendrons, camellias and
heathers in containers.

Container compost

A peat-based compost with
moisture-retaining granules and
added fertilizer, specially
formulated for window boxes and

Loam-based compost

Uses sterilized loam as the main
ingredient, with fertilizers to
supplement the nutrients in the
loam. Although much heavier than
peat-based compost, it can be
lightened by mixing with peat-free
compost. Ideal for long-term
planting as it retains nutrients well.

The Essential Fertilizer Elements

All plant fertilizers contain three key elements, nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P), and potassium/potash
(K), with extra trace elements. These three promote, respectively, foliage growth, flower development,
and fruit ripening and root development.

    When buying a packet of fertilizer you can easily check the balance of the ingredients. It is printed as
an "NPK" ratio, for instance 12:5:12. But don't be fooled into thinking that a reading of 24:10:24 is
stronger, giving twice the value. It won't, of course, as the ratio is the same. A fertilizer with a ratio of
10:5:10 provides a sound, balanced diet. (You can purchase meters from garden centres that give a guide
to the nutrient levels in the soil but they are not, to date, particularly accurate.)

    Besides feeding, you can also trick some plants into a prolific display of flowering. Plants packed into
small containers, with restricted (but not crippling) root space, feel that they are in danger of dying.
Their immediate response is to do what all flowering plants are programmed to do — flower and set seed
to continue the species.

Feeding Container Plants

It is not generally understood that most potting composts contain sufficient food for only six weeks
of plant growth. After that, the plants will slowly starve unless more food is introduced. There are
several products available, all of which are easy to use. Many of the projects in this book use slow-release
plant food granules because they are the easiest and most reliable way of ensuring your plants
receive sufficient food during the growing season. For these granules to be effective the compost
needs to remain camp or the nutrients cannot be released.

Slow-release Plant
Food Granules

These will keep your container plants in prime
condition and are very easy to use. One application
lasts six months, whereas most other plant foods need
to be applied fortnightly. Follow the manufacturer's
recommended dose carefully; additional fertilizer will
simply leach away.

Watering Container Plants

Watering plants in containers is an acquired art, and an incredibly important one. You cannot leave it
entirely to nature because rain tends to bounce off the leaves of the bushiest plants, soaking not into
the pot but into the adjoining ground.

    Outside, pot plants dry out very quickly on roasting hot days. Unlike plants in the ground, their
roots are encircled by heat; some thirsty plants might even need two waterings a day, so keep checking.
You have to get the balance right between over- and under-watering.

    Trial and error is one way, but there are a few key tips, one of the best and simplest being to stick
your finger deep into the soil to test for dryness. If you are unsure, wait until you see the first signs
of wilting, then give the plant a thorough drink, letting the water drain out of the bottom of the pot.
And always water plants either first thing in the morning or, better still, late at night, so that the
moisture does not quickly evaporate. At all costs, try to avoid over-watering, which is a bigger killer
than pests and diseases combined.

    The best water is either rainwater or cold, boiled water, but it is not essential to use these unless
your tap water is very hard, or you are growing lime-hating plants such as camellias. Don't allow your
potted plants to become waterlogged. If there
is any water remaining in the saucer half an hour
after watering, tip it away.

Window Boxes and Pots

Don't rush the watering. Though you might think one
soaking is enough for a big window box, it might only
wet the top few inches of compost. Wait until the water
sluices out of the bottom. Container composts include
a water-retaining gel and if the compost remains wet in
cold weather it can cause the roots to rot.

Hanging Baskets

Summer hanging baskets need daily watering even in overcast
weather and on a hot day should be watered morning and
evening. Once they have been allowed to dry out it can be difficult
for the compost to re-absorb water. In these circumstances it is
a good idea to immerse hanging baskets in a large bucket or bowl
of water. Winter and spring hanging baskets should be watered
only when the soil is dry.

Water-retaining Gel

One of rte main problems for most
container gardeners is the amount
of watering require to keep the
plants thriving in the growing season.
Adding water-retaining gels to
compost will certainly help reduce
this task. Sachets of gel are available
from garden centres.

1 Pour the recommended amount of
water into a bowl.

2 Scatter the gel over the surface,
stirring occasionally until it has
absorbed the water.

3 Add to your compost at the
recommended rate, and mix the
gel in thoroughly before using it for


A mulch is a layer of protective material placed over the
soil. It helps to retain moisture, conserve warmth,
suppress weeds and prevent soil splash on foliage and

Bark chippings

Bark is an extremely effective mulch
and as it rots down it conditions the
soil. It works best when spread at least
7.5 cm (3 in) thick and is therefore
not ideal for small containers. It is
derived from renewable resources.

Clay granules

Clay granules are widely used for
hydroculture, but can also be used to
mulch houseplants. When placing a
plant in a cachepot, fill all around the
pot with granules. When watered, the
granules absorb moisture, which is
then released slowly to create a moist
microclimate for the plant.


Gravel makes a decorative mulch
for container plants, and also provides
the correct environment for plants
such as alpines. It is available in a
variety of sizes and colours which can
be matched to the scale and colours
of the plants used.


Smooth stones can be used as
decorative mulch for large container-grown
plants. You can save stones dug
out of the garden, collect your own
from beaches and riverbeds or buy
stones from garden centres. They also
deter cats from using the soil as a
litter tray.

Pests and Diseases

Container plants are every bit as susceptible to aphid and slug attacks as those grown in the garden.
But they are generally easier to keep an eye on, so the moment you see a pest attack, take action.
Most pests multiply at a staggering rate, and once a plant has been vigorously assaulted, it takes
a long time to recover.

Common Pests


These sap-sucking insects feed on
the tender growing tips. Most
insecticides are effective against
aphids such as greenfly or blackfly
(shown above). Choose one that
will not harm ladybirds.

Red spider mite

An insect that thrives indoors in
dry conditions. Constant humidity
will reduce the chance of an
infestation, which is indicated by
the presence of fine webs and
mottling of the plant's leaves. To
treat an infestation, pick off the
worst affected leaves and spray the
plants with an insecticide.

Mealy bugs

These look like spots of white
mould. They are hard to shift and
regular treatment with a systemic
insecticide is the best solution.

Vine weevils

These white grubs are a menace.
The first sign of an infestation is
the sudden collapse of the plant
because the weevil has eaten its
roots. Systemic insecticides or
natural predators can be used as a
preventative, but once a plant has
been attacked it is usually too late
to save it. Never re-use the soil
from an affected plant. The picture
above shows an adult weevil.


The occasional caterpillar can be
picked off the plant and disposed
of as you see fit, but a major
infestation can strip a plant before
your eyes. Contact insecticides are
usually very effective.


Snails cannot generally reach
hanging baskets, but are more of a
problem in wall baskets and
window boxes: they tuck
themselves behind the container
during daylight and venture out to
feast at night. Use slug pellets or
venture out yourself with a torch
and catch them.


These tiny, white flies flutter up in
clouds when disturbed from their
feeding places on the undersides
of leaves. Whitefly are particularly
troublesome in conservatories,
where a dry atmosphere will
encourage them to breed. Keep
the air as moist as possible.
Contact insecticides will need more
than one application to deal with
an infestation, but a systemic
insecticide will protect the plant
for weeks.

Common Diseases

Black spot — mast commonly seen
on roses; dark spots on leaves
occur before they fall. Burn all
affected foliage, and treat with a

Botrytis — immediately evident as a
pernicious, furry grey mould.
Remove and burn all affected parts,
and treat with a fungicide.

Powdery mildew — most likely to
affect potted fruit trees. Remove
and burn affected parts. Treat with
a fungicide.

Rust — high humidity causes
orange/dark brown pustules on the
stem. Remove and burn affected
parts. Treat with a fungicide.

Viruses (various) — the varied
symptoms include distorted, misshapen
leaves, and discoloration.
Vigorous anti-aphid controls are
essential. Destroy affected foliage.

Pest Control

There are three main types of pest control available to combat common pests.

Systemic insecticides

These work by being absorbed by
the plant's root or leaf system, and
killing insects that come into
contact with the plant. This will
work for difficult pests, such as the
grubs of vine weevils which are
hidden in the soil, and scale insects
which protect themselves from
above with a scaly cover.

Contact insecticides

These must be sprayed directly on
to the insects to be effective. Most
organic insecticides work this way,
but they generally kill all insects,
even beneficial ones, such as
hoverflies and ladybirds. Try to
remove these before spraying the
infected plant.

Biological control

Commercial growers now use biological control in their glasshouses; this
means natural predators are introduced to eat the pest population.
Although not all are suitable for the amateur gardener, they can be used in
conservatories for dealing with pests such as whitefly.

Natural Predators

Aphidius — a wasp that lays eggs
in young aphids; on hatching
they devour the host.

Aphidoletes — a gall midge that
devours aphids.

Bacillus thuringinesis — a
bacterium that kills caterpillars.

Cryptolaemus montrouzieiri — an
Australian ladybird that eats
mealy bug. It is activated by a
temperature of 20ºC (68ºF).

Encarsia formosa — a parasitic
wasp that lays eggs in the larvae
of whitefly. The young wasps
eat their hosts.

Metaphycus — a parasitic wasp,
activated by a temperature
of 20ºC (68ºF), that kills off
soft scales.

Phasmarhabditis — a nematode
that kills slugs provided the
temperature of the soil is above
5ºC (41ºF).

Phytoseiulus persimilis — attacks
red spider mite provided the
temperature is 20°C (68°F).

Steinernema — kills vine weevils
by releasing a bacterium into
them. Needs a temperature of
12ºC (53°F).

Suitable Container Plants

Annuals and Biennials

Whether you raise them yourself from seed in the greenhouse or on the
kitchen window-sill, or buy them in strips from the garden centre for an
instant effect, fast-growing annuals and biennials will quickly and cheaply
fill baskets and boxes and flower prolifically all summer to produce eye-catching
effects. Choose compact varieties that will not need support.
Trailing annuals such as lobelia, nasturtiums and dwarf sweet peas are all
invaluable for hanging baskets. Some perennial species, including petunias,
pelargoniums and busy Lizzies (impatiens), are normally grown as annuals.

Tender Perennials

Beautiful tender and half-hardy
plants such as osteospermums,
verbenas, pelargoniums, petunias
and fuchsias are ideal for
containers, where their showy
flowers can be fully appreciated.
Raise new plants from cuttings for
next season. If you buy young,
tender plants from the garden
centre in the spring, don't be
tempted to put newly planted
boxes or baskets outside until all
danger of frost is past.

Evergreen Perennials

Evergreen non-woody perennials such as ajugas,
bergenias and Carex oshimensis `Evergold' are always
useful for providing colour and foliage in the winter,
but look best as part of a mixed planting.

    For single plantings, try Agapanthus africanus or A.
with their blue flowers on tall stems. For a
more architectural shape, consider one of the many
different eryngiums (sea holly). E. agavifolium is
particularly attractive, and has greenish-white flowers
in late summer.

Border Perennials

Few people bother to grow perennials in containers,
but if you have a paved garden, or would like to
introduce them to the patio, don't be afraid to experiment.
Dicentras, agapanthus, and many ornamental
grasses are among the plants that you might want to
try, but there are very many more that you should be
able to succeed with — and they will cost you nothing
if you divide a plant already in the border.


Bulbs, particularly the
spring varieties make
ideal container plants.
Bulbs should be planted
at twice the depth of
their own length. They
can be packed in as
tight as you like, and
even in layers, so that
you get a repeat-showing
after the first
display. Note that when
planting lilies (the
white, scented, fail-safe
Lilium regale is a fine
choice if you have
never tried them
before), they need excellent drainage, so put in an
extra layer of grit at the bottom. And to prevent
spearing the bulb later on with a plant support, insert
this in the compost at the same time.

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