Dermot Ahern: How to transform your garden with creative container planting

Experienced container gardener Dermot Ahern shares practical advice.
Dermot Ahern: How to transform your garden with creative container planting

Dermot Ahern in his garden at home in Cork. Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Dermot Ahern in his garden at home in Cork. Picture: Eddie O'Hare

The smallest patio or porch can be transformed by a crop of vegetables or flowers grown in containers. Hanging baskets, large flower pots, wooden barrels, indeed any object that can contain and drain compost or soil can be used for this purpose, the only limit is your imagination. Have you ever seen plants growing out of a bog-standard pair of old boots? Wonderful.

There are some guidelines when creating your container garden and if they are observed the only after-care required will be the plant-life. Avoid containers with narrow openings as this makes it practically impossible to use your garden trowel when tending your flowers. It also creates a hassle when you need to empty the container.

Potted flowers can brighten up any garden.
Potted flowers can brighten up any garden.

Terracotta pots tend to dry out rapidly but can be sealed successfully if treated with a coat of builders bonding which is available in any DIY store. Of course, the glazed ceramic pots are an excellent choice and are available in an array of colours and designs, don't forget to bore several drainage holes at the bottom.

A little tip, cut four pieces of timber about one-inch square and place under the edges of your containers in a north, south, east, and west fashion, this will protect your patio or decking allowing any excess water to evaporate, also, it is a good prevention for insects and other pests to take up residency under the pots.

When placing flower pots on your patio, decking, or indeed balcony, extra height can be obtained by turning some empty pots upside-down on which potted plants can be placed. The upside-down pots can then be camouflaged by placing other potted plants in front to give a sort of graduated effect.

This graduation of plants, I feel, is the key to a successful container garden as every bit is space is utilised, space is compacted by the plant arrangement and all plants can be viewed at once, from tall to small.

Have you ever seen plants growing out of a bog standard pair of old boots?
Have you ever seen plants growing out of a bog standard pair of old boots?

The advantage of using wooden containers is that they can be made to suit a particular space or shape depending on the location, the only problem is they are susceptible to rot, although pressure treated timbers will last for a long time and although expensive, teak and other hardwoods will give many years of service.

Avoid treating the wood with toxic chemical compounds such as creosote etc as the vapours can poison and damage or kill plant and insect life.

Use containers between 15 and 120 quarts capacity. Small pots restrict the root area and dry out very quickly. The size and number of plants to be grown will determine the size of the container used. Deep-rooted vegetables require deep pots.

Make sure your pot has adequate drainage. Holes should be half an inch across. Line the base of the pot with newspaper to prevent soil loss. In hot conditions use light-coloured containers to lessen heat absorption and discourage uneven root growth.

If you are one who avails of home composting then this is ideal for all your pot and container needs as it is full of rotted organic material which is what plants thrive on. If compost is not available then a good quality potting mixture will suffice.

Most container gardeners have found that using a potting mix instead of soil works best. In addition to draining quickly, the potting mix is lightweight and free from soil-borne diseases and weed seeds and makes it an easy task when a large container has to be moved.

When you add your soil to your container, leave a two-inch space between the top of the soil and the top of the container, this will prevent any water spilling over on your decking or patio when watering. You can add half an inch or so of bark mulch later which will support water retention and also gives a nice finish.

Your container garden will need at least five hours of direct sunlight each day, and many plants will benefit from even more. As a general rule, leafy vegetables such as cabbage and lettuce can tolerate the most shade, while root crops such as beets and carrots will need more sun.

Fruiting vegetables such as tomatoes and cucumbers need the most sun. The amount of sunlight needed by flowers varies depending on the varieties grown. A quick look at the attached label or seed package will give the required guidance.

Since potting mixes drain water rapidly, nutrients will be washed out of the container as you water. Lighter mixes will require more frequent fertilising than heavier mixes. It's a good idea to use a dilute liquid fertiliser with every other watering. Liquid fish emulsion or liquid seaweed are great plant boosters, but remember that you need to provide your plants with a variety of nutrients.

Check the labels on the products in your garden centre to be sure that they contain a complete, balanced solution that includes trace elements.

Plants that thrive in containers

In an exposed location, container plants loose moisture quickly. Some plants will need to be watered daily, especially during hot, dry weather.Here is a list of some annual plants which thrive in containers: Alyssum, begonia, coleus, geraniums, impatiens, lobelia, marigolds, pansies, petunias and snapdragons, these are my favourites but there are many more.

Got unwanted chairs?

Here's a nice idea for your unwanted iron chairs: By carefully cutting the seat area out with a hack-saw, place a large-rimmed flower pot into the space. Plant some of your favourite flowers and place where it can be seen and admired or how about planting some nasturtium seeds, the stems will wind round the legs and upper part of the chair creating an unusual floral work of art.

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