Tips for potting plants

Looking for low-stress gardening options? Simply contain yourself.
Tips for potting plants

I have a brand new fashion accessory. It’s called a hose and has been permanently attached to my right hand since the beginning of the year. The reason is that our winter was so wet and so long that we didn’t get much planting done until last month – including, optimistically, a new stretch of lawn – so everything is now crying out for water.

Fortunately we have an almost endless supply of water, but unfortunately it has to be pumped to the tap, and someone then has to aim the hose when she would far rather be sitting in the sun with a book. All of which brings me to containers. From here on in, everything I plant for the rest of summer is going in pots, and they will all be within spitting – or, more precisely, sprinkling – distance of each other.

The first good thing about this idea is that several pots grouped together create instant lushness in an outdoor living space. If you haven’t room for a gang of containers on your terrace, you can stand them in a row to define a car parking area or dress up a plain fence. If you’re doing groups, have odd numbers rather than even.

These flaxes look bold and dramatic in a set of three square containers.

Professional landscape designers always tell you this and I agree that it does look better, although once you’re up past the half a dozen mark it probably doesn’t matter at all. Many people would suggest that choosing the plants you want to grow should be the first step in creating a container garden, but being big on instant gratification, I’m all for getting the pots first.

Happily, this need not be a back-or bank-breaking experience. I reckon terracotta pots are far cheaper now than they were when they first came into fashion in the seventies, and they’re far more stylish, too. Buy a hand-truck at the same time – mine cost about $15 five years ago and it’s still saving my back on a daily basis.

No matter how much you want that gorgeous, glazed ceramic urn, don’t buy it unless it has at least one hole in the bottom so your plant will have adequate drainage. And don’t buy it at all if the top is narrower than the bottom, because you will never get the plant out again, and it may well end up cracking your pot as it outgrows its environment.

Choose good quality potting mix from the garden centre. Lots of specially formulated patio or tub mixes come complete with slow-release fertiliser and water-storing crystals. I like to throw a bit of regular old topsoil from the garden in as well – it creates a slightly firmer environment and the taller plants will be less inclined to take on an unsightly drunken lean.

Urn-shaped, glazed pots are tempting, but large plants will be almost impossible to get out when they have grown, and may crack your pot. Shallow-rooting plants are a possibility.

If your container has only one hole in the bottom, throw in three or four handfuls of loose gravel to increase drainage, and fill half of the pot with potting mix. Sit the plant on it, and back-fill to the original level of the soil when the pot was in its bag. Press down firmly. Leave a good two or 3cm margin at the top of the pot for watering – if you overfill it the soil will spill out when you’re watering and make a mess on your pavers.

If you’re using terracotta, you can seal the inside with a coat of water-based polyurethane to help retain moisture, and it’s also not a bad idea to add water-retaining crystals in case you lose interest in using the hose as weeks go by.

You can plant practically anything in a pot, but keep a sense of proportion. Don’t plant tall plants in shallow pots. They are constantly at risk of falling over and I’m sure they know they look silly. You can plant small things in big pots if you’re sure they’ll grow, but I find the bare soil around the edges of the plant is a magnet to cats, so I prefer to pack ‘em in (the plants, not the cats) and take some out later if I need to. And of course, the less bare soil you have, the fewer weeds. More time for sitting in the sun with a book, then.

You needn’t limit yourself to one variety – companion planting in containers gives you a mini-garden.

Other handy hints

  • Make sure you put your potted plants in places where they’d normally thrive – for example, succulents won’t do well in a cool, shady spot.

  • Remember you can put more than one plant in a pot. Choose like-minded specimens and mix and match for colour, texture and shape.

  • The pot should always be bigger than the planter bag – no point moving out of one house into another the same size.

  • Prop your pots up on little pot feet so they don’t stain whatever they’re sitting on. In the summer, use a pot saucer to help retain some water.


No idea what you can plant in containers? Consider these options:

Scented container plants: daphne, chamomile, rosemary, miniature Australian frangipani (Golden Nugget).

Shade lovers: impatiens (look for the double), cyclamen, ferns, fuchsias, ivy.

Heat lovers: succulents, festuca grass, lavender, Dracaena draco, yucca, marigold.

Super shrubs: Metrosideros Tahiti, hydrangea, camellia.

Small trees: puka, Japanese maples, olive, some magnolias, bay trees.

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