Choosing your plants

When choosing plants for containers there are various factors you should consider:

The purpose of the plant

First of all you need to consider why you want this container. Is it to look pretty, to grow food, or to brighten up a shady spot? Do you want it for year round effect or just for a particular season? Do you want to focus on specific colours, or have a real mix up? Should the plants be eye catching, or blend in with the surrounding garden? What is the size and type of container – and what sort of plant would suit it? Do you want to create an alpine style garden? All of these answers will help to define the types of plants you want to buy.

Where your container will go

Take a look at the spot where you want to put your container. How much sun does it get? Does it benefit from the warming effect of a house wall? How easy is the access for watering? The answers to these questions will help define the types of plants you need. Here are some example locations for containers and the advantages/disadvantages of each:

Around the outside of your house

Houses provide both shelter from winds and warmth to plants, so can be ideal spots for more tender species. However, this also means that temperatures in the summer months can be higher against a house wall, which can damage roots and cause a water deficit. The house wall and roof overhang may cause a ‘rain shadow’, preventing rain reaching the containers. You need to consider the aspect of the house wall in question as north facing walls will provide significantly less sun, limiting your choice of plant. Frost tender, drought tolerant plants are a good choice for next to a house.

Next to other walls or fences

Other walls or fences may not provide the same warming effect as houses but may give shelter from winds. They can still cause a rain shadow and may be too shady for many plants, particularly if the spot is north facing.

On a patio

If you are siting your container on an open patio you need to take into account the lack of shelter, and therefore look at tougher, hardier plants for that location. As the site is more open you will benefit from rainfall reaching plants (there is no rain shadow) and you are less likely to have a problem with shading. So open patio sites are great for hardy, sun loving plants.

In a bed or border

In these locations the conditions can be variable, depending on the height and density of surrounding plants. The more open the spot the quicker the container will dry out, but it will have less competition for sunlight and rainfall. Conversely, containers within more crowded borders may be more shaded and receive less rainfall, but the additional shelter should help them conserve the water they do receive.

On a wall

Containers on walls (eg window boxes) tend to be smaller (due to weight restrictions), hot (as they are usually against a house) and buffeted by winds. Not very nice conditions! Plants for these containers need to be drought tolerant, heat tolerant and flexible so they will bend with the wind, not snap.

Roof garden

As well as the weight restrictions inherent in roof gardens (you should seek professional advice to ascertain the type and number of containers your roof can hold) they tend to be very open and, therefore, windy spots. The plants you use need to be very tolerant of exposed conditions and drying winds.

How much time you have to look after it

The amount of time you want to spend maintaining your container display should be considered before you choose your plants. If they might have to survive a couple of days without being watered in the summer then you should select drought tolerant plants. If you don’t have time to deadhead plants, then go for ones with pretty foliage, or which will carry on flowering without deadheading.

You also need to consider whether you want to change the plants for each season. There are different ways to deal with this – below are a few ideas with the lowest maintenance ones first:

  • Plant containers with perennial plants, including at least one which is evergreen, giving you interest year round.
  • Have two containers, one with perennial plants which look good in spring, the other with perennial plants which look good in summer. Swap them around in May and October, storing the ‘out of season’ container somewhere suitable (where it will still get sun and water).
  • Grow perennial plants for your container display in separate, cheap plastic pots. Simply remove the pots from the previous season’s display and replace with the pots for that season.
  • Have an evergreen, perennial plant in the container surrounded by annual bedding plants. Change the bedding plants in May to summer/autumn flowering plants and in October to winter/spring flowering plants.
  • Completely change the container each May and October to maximise the display for each half of the year. If you’re really enthusiastic you can add extra changes in February and August, so you really do have different plants for each season!

When choosing perennial plants you should consider whether the plant will need to be divided every few years. The flower display from many Aster plants, for example, will progressively reduce unless the plant is divided every three years.

Remember, there’s no point creating a beautiful container with high maintenance plants if you simply don’t have the time to look after it.

Ready to choose your plants?

Once you have an idea of the style and purpose of your plants, where they will be growing and how much time you can dedicate to them, you simply need to pick appropriate plants. We have some suggestions:

Before you visit the garden centre or nursery, check out our guide to buying plants to ensure you get the best value for your money.