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The Lady - Top of the Pots

Geoffrey Smith shows you how to make the best of your containers

My introduction to growing plants in containers came about during the first year of my professional gardening life when I was given a large stone trough to plant up as a permanent feature.
That my instructor was interested in mountaineering and a lover of plants that grow in high places was fortunate, for alpines have provided a lifelong interest. That those same mountain flowers grow quite happily in a tub, or terracotta pot, means that anyone can enjoy a glimpse of the Alps in a square yard of space.
A ‘Noah’s Ark’ pine, Juniperus communis ‘Compressa’, neatly upright and so slow growing that it will take 20 years to top the foot-high mark, will help form the framework to a miniature landscape.
TURNING CONCRETE INTO A GARDEN Saxifraga burseriana ‘Gloria’, so named according to Reginald Farrer who introduced it “as a tribute to its inordinate beauty”. The foliage is a glaucous green in colour forming tight, thorny-looking, three-inch-high cushions that are topped in February by large, pure white flowers carried on four-inch long stems.
To ensure the area immediately below the saxifraga is free draining, take two stones that fit into a container and plant the root between them. The bulk of the growing media is made up of John Innes No 2 loam-based compost four parts to one part crushed gravel or Shap granite.
Aubrieta ‘Red Carpet’, planted so as to hang a curtain of flowers down the container side, takes April through to May in proper style.
For the summer, all except an alpine purist will be spoiled for choice so I stick with tradition by planting a Phlox douglasii, a tuft-former small enough for stone troughs or mini-container rock gardens.
‘Boothman’s Variety’, with its mauve petals, or ‘Rose Cushion’, rich pink, are both of proven worth. A form of Phlox subulata, or moss phlox, being a more vigorously spreading, though prostrate growing, species would also be suitable.
‘GF Wilson Mauve’ or ‘Model’ clear rose were both varieties I cultivated in my first trough garden. A catalogue given to my grandfather by Dartington Hall Nurseries some time in the 1920s lists both varieties at 9d each: that the same catalogue lists ‘Fortune’ daffodils at 45 shillings each keeps progress in perspective.
For the autumn, Sedurn cauticola, at six inches and a spread of 12 with crimson-cerise flowers, opening over grey-green leaves during August and September, is a worthy climax. Dwarf bulbs can also be planted to provide seasonal interest.
VIOLA, SIMPLE YET EFFECTIVE Filling containers with perennial shrubs or herbaceous plants is a sound policy where there is a large garden to maintain. In addition to the alpine trough idea, there is a huge range of other suitable plants that have been specially selected by hybridists for planting in containers as patio garden decoration, such as roses and fuchsia.
One of the most decorative features here last year happened to be a Spiraea japonica ‘Gold Flame’, which was planted in a half-wooden barrel. Golden foliage shaded with bronze from April through to late October is decorative in its own right, then, in mid-summer, there are the long lasting dark red blooms. While ‘Golden Princess’ is more neatly compact with bright golden foliage throughout the summer and pink flowers.
In the interests of harmony it is advisable to restrict the choice of containers to a limited few, otherwise the patio grows to resemble a by-product from some car-boot sale. In my case, containers are either made from reconstituted stone or wood.
Ensure that all have holes in the base or low down on the sides to ensure free drainage. I put a layer of roughage in the bottom of each, then top-up with whatever growing media has been chosen. For those of a DIY persuasion a mix of humus-rich garden soil, well-rotted compost or leaf mould, plus enough sand depending on whether the soil is light or heavy to keep the mixture open serves the purpose. Add slow release fertiliser, following the manufacturer’s instructions, or a five-inch pot full to each barrow load of organic fertiliser.
The mix is suitable only for lime-tolerant plants, not for camellia, rhododendron and any other of a calcific nature which will require a compost that is acid in reaction.
PETUNIA ARE THE MOST POPULAR CHOICE Different fuchsia make very good summer decoration, as they flower over many months with little attention beyond regular watering. The colour range and shape of flowers available are so diverse. See a selection in bloom though I suggest that ‘Claudia’ pink, ‘Royal Mosaic’ purple and pale pink and ‘Dollar Princess’ will deserve a second look.
Hanging verbenas are in the top five terrace and patio plants being suitable for container, window-box or hanging basket cultivation. Verbena ‘Bicolor’, with its magenta-pink petals, striped white, bloomed beautifully from early June to late September. Even more impressive the mix of rudbeckia ‘Toto’, whose bright gold-yellow flowers have a dark brown central cone borne aloft on stems 12 inches high and a trailing Verbena Tapien Violet. There is one routine task with verbena if they are to be kept in bloom continuously and that is regular deadheading.
Roses and peas epitomise summer’s scent; both were featured in a garden that I visited last year. The rose ‘Papi Delbard’ exuded a compelling fragrance from its flowers that were a complex shade of apricot and pink with a hint of orange. The sweet peas were planted in a wooden trough on the west side of a patio; the rose, growing in a tub, was trained over the house wall.
Surfina petunia have become the most popular of all summer bedding. Their trailing habit of growth makes them ideally suited for growing in all types of containers, though especially hanging baskets or window boxes.
HANGING BASKETS BY A REAR ENTRANCE Last summer, I used Surfina petunia ‘Lime’ and ‘Burgundy’ to fill up a hollow wall fronting the terrace. They provided a display of colour from early June to mid-October and one of the flower-covered stems measured 42 inches in length. All are remarkably resistant to weather damage.
Trailing lobelia is also a suitable choice for hanging baskets, or window-boxes. A mixture of those familiar blue, lilac and white flowers with a sprinkling of scarlet is effective enough without any additions.
Last year, I was shown a photograph of a large hanging basket filled with a most unusual colour combination. The centrepiece was a “fire vine” with silvery, blue-green, needle-like foliage and orange lobster claw flowers planted round with trailing lobelia in shades of blue and white. I had grown the fire vine (lotus) as a foliage plant yet only once had it bloomed - in the exceptional summer of 1974.
Trailing pelargonium, still mistakenly sold as geraniums, have featured in hanging baskets and containers since Adam was an apprentice gardener. They provide a colourful display of bloom continuously through summer and are virtually trouble-free. That they are easily propagated makes them a profitable investment. The dark, shiny, evergreen leaves form a perfect foil to the flowers.
There are several varieties on offer with two-tone petalled blooms. In ‘Happy Face Mex’ they are carmine, veined in white and those of ‘Rouletta’ white predominates with just an edging of red.
Single-coloured varieties include deep red-petalled ‘Tom Cat’, scarlet ‘Katrine’ and pale pinkish-cream ‘Blanche Roche’. All will repay the purchase price 10-fold in the first summer.
My abiding memory of ivy-leafed pelargonium is of them covering a 15-feet-high tree fuchsia (Halleria lucida) in what at first sighting looked to be carmine butterflies - a verse of floral poetry.

    All images provided by Geoffrey Smith
  1. Plant Phlox douglasii 'GF Wilson', a tuft-former suitable for troughs or mini-container rock gardens
  2. A little of everything can lead to overuse of colour; but in containers it turns concrete into a garden
  3. Viola (pansy) provide a simple but effective summer arrangement
  4. Petunia have become the most popular choice for pots and beds
  5. Hanging baskets can make a rear entrance more welcoming

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