Garden Pots at West Dean Gardens West Sussex

Potty Time by Harriet Rycroft

Have you taken a leaf out of West Dean's book and your garden is tickety-boo? Plants firmly pruned, spare pots washed and stacked? Paths swept and seeds sown in a timely manner?

Not many of us reach those standards. I'm quite fussy at workplaces, but I'm a bit slapdash about my own garden and it's usually several weeks behind schedule. Actually my whole life seems to be behind schedule, but that's another story.

I've planted and maintained thousands of pots over the years, both professionally and amateur(ish)ly, and this summer's plantings are brewing in my head at the moment - so I can offer you some useful tips and wrinkles for making the most of your containers:

Top Tips
Most importantly, gardening for yourself is supposed to be fun. Don't beat yourself up if things don't go according to plan and your pots are lacklustre. Make changes, take notes and do it differently next time.

You are ALLOWED to hide things which go wrong. Don't leave that dead potted conifer sitting by your door as a silent rebuke. Chuck it out.

Scattered pots look lost and will be a nightmare to water. Group them in bold clusters, they'll have more impact and will shelter each other, creating a more humid microclimate around themselves which means you won't have to water them so frequently.

Use crocks to cover drainage holes. This is to stop compost from falling out when you plant and to give something for your fingers to push against when re-potting. You do not need a deep layer of crocks, it makes no perceptible difference to drainage, uses up valuable root space and provides a convenient home for slugs and woodlice.

Position big containers while they are empty! Take the plants and compost to the pot, don't hurt your back moving a full pot if you can avoid it. If you can't avoid it phone a friend, don't do the macho thing of trying to lift heavy pots by yourself. I can tell you, it ain't worth the chiropractor bills.

It's not possible to have too many plants. Plant generously!

Limit your colour palette within a certain area - you'll find it will have a better impact than a random selection.

…But fretting about getting colour combinations right is a waste of time. Put together the colours that you like and never mind what the colour police think.

Don't forget foliage - it gives colour, texture, structure and movement: choose plants with excellent leaves.

There is no shame in stealing ideas from other gardens or from displays at garden centres and nurseries.

Do not ask for discounts at nurseries even if you think you are buying a huge number of plants. Nursery people work on tiny margins and every request makes them die a little inside.

As you turn to ask the nursery person "whether this plant will grow in a pot" stop for a moment and look at the POT it is growing in.

Be adventurous, don't just choose "patio plants" and compact varieties, if your containers have a decent volume try some bigger plants and/or climbers. Try tender plants, grasses, bulbs, edible plants, houseplants…

If a plant is popular this is usually because it has proven value. Don't fall into the trap of only wanting unusual plants.

Never move a plant from one pot to another pot while it is dry, you'll cause a lot of damage to the roots and the plant will struggle to establish.

Water new plantings in immediately EVEN if it is pouring with rain!

Check the water status of your containers regularly (especially if it has been windy) by using one of the five digital water sensors on the end of your arm.

Deadhead flowers and pick off dead leaves every week, it'll keep your plantings flowering, healthy and smart. It's one of the few gardening jobs you can do with a drink in your hand.

Enjoy! And invite the neighbours round.

Harriet Rycroft
Harriet was the Head Gardener at Whichford Pottery for many years, she is now a tutor at My Garden School, gardens at The Cotswold Wildlife Park and blogs at