Container gardening: A survival course


At last, dear reader, I have managed to get back in the garden. Don’t get me wrong – I spend the better part of all day every day working with plants but, of late, most of that time has been spent in the nursery, not the garden.

Mark, who had been watching Take A Leaf on the Living Channel, was suggesting we could do a similar format TV show here. Mimicking the gentle British commentary, he had himself located in the vegetable garden, Lloyd demonstrating lawnmower maintenance, and “Abbie is preparing her feature plants”.

I hadn’t thought about my activities in those terms before, but he was quite right. I have been preparing my feature plants. I refer to it as “doing the containers”. It took me a good couple of hours and the help of Mark to do the containers (or prepare the feature plants) for our new entrance way. There are only five of them and the little one was already there. In fact the whole operation also involved our small tractor and two wheelbarrows to manoeuvre four rather large pots into place and then repot the chosen plants. There is nothing spontaneous or random about the selection and placement of these items.

I try to re-do all my containers every year. We ask a lot of plants when we expect them to thrive in pots with inadequate drainage, getting soggy in winter and bone dry in summer. It is better not to ask them to survive being totally rootbound and running out of fertiliser as well. Because a stressed and hungry plant in a container looks considerably worse than the same plant in a garden border, I make an effort to give them the best possible conditions.

I will readily admit that I probably have an easier task than most readers in this area. Access to more than one wheelbarrow, a pile of sterile potting mix, large workbench under cover, fertiliser aplenty and the ability to choose from an entire nursery of potential plants probably gives me advantages many may envy. But the principles are the same. A plant in a pot is a feature. It needs to be worth featuring and it needs to be in optimum health to justify being featured. And it needs to be placed in a position where a feature is warranted. But it is fun sorting out and moving the containers to a slightly better spot and arranging groups or pairs of containers

Feature plants can disguise unwanted eyesores by distracting the viewer towards something more aesthetic. They can enliven a dead area or draw the eye towards a view. They can soften a hard space or they can provide a sculptural interest. Plants in pots are elevated so they can give height to flat areas or they can add a splash of colour. They add detail to the garden.

Over the years, my taste in pots has become considerably more restrained.

It isn’t that long ago that the choice was only the traditional terracotta or plastic. The early glazed pots were often very expensive. At that time, I bought pots when I saw them cheap and I bought with scant regard to their level of ornamentation or colour. Some of those early pots with fruit designs or suns glazed on the sides just don’t do it for me now. I shall pass them on to someone less picky than I have become. They can follow the path out the gate that my bright blue pots took last year.

I have gone back to terracotta mostly. In our climate they age gracefully with moss and lichen and they allow the plants to be the feature, not the pot. And, in general, I prefer the plants to be centre-stage in the garden, not the receptacle. I have made the odd exception for pots that are soft white – there is a rather nice white glaze around. Gardens can take quite a bit of white and the pale pot is an interesting foil to a leafy green plant.

So what have I been putting in my pots over the long weekend? Character camellias. Quite a few of these actually, mostly in sets of pots. They make good matched pairs. Interesting bulbs in little pots. Weeping dwarf conifers in a pair of middle-sized pots (the weeping cedar of Lebanon – a gem) and rather large weeping cedars in a pair of large pots (Cedrus atlantica glauca pendula, if you really want to know). A couple of obscure fig trees. Two golden cane palms that didn’t like being in the garden.

Different cordylines. That is for starters. I have more to do.

I don’t do annuals in pots any more but they can be very effective and have brought me much pleasure in the past. I have a real fondness for petunias, even if the preschool tune about the lonely little petunia in the wretched onion patch starts singing itself to me every time I think of them. And I have given up on hanging baskets. I have seen enough of these, ranging from absolutely magnificent to downright embarrassing and I know they do not survive on benign neglect. I don’t think I give them a high enough priority so I leave them to those who do them well. But one such aficionado tells me that bigger is better when choosing your hanging basket. Load them up with plants so that they are like little timebombs of vegetation. But because the basket is so overplanted you have to provide all their nutrients by frequent liquid feeding and very frequent watering in hot weather (twice a day).

As a postscript to my previous column’s references to correct gardening garb in years gone by, a reader sent me the following piece:

“In 1895 the first lady gardeners arrived at Kew and caused a mild sensation. The all-male preserve of professional gardening had been entered, and by girls wearing trousers.

They gardened in bloomers, the newspapers said,

So to Kew without waiting the Londoners sped,

From the tops of the buses they had a fine view

Of the ladies in bloomers who gardened at Kew.

The novelty was short-lived. They were ordered to wear long coats to hide the bloomers.”

Thank you, Marie from Opunake, for that little gem. *

*Abbie and Mark Jury have a garden and nursery at Otaraoa Rd, Tikorangi.