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Container Gardening: Sarah Raven’s 7 Tips for Perfect Flower Pots

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Container Gardening: Sarah Raven’s 7 Tips for Perfect Flower Pots

May 5, 2021

Perfecting the art of container gardening is no mean feat but Sarah Raven, the Sussex-based author, grower, cook, and lifestyle guru, has built a business on her skill in combining plants. She also has an idiosyncratic brilliance for color, as recently illustrated by her Color Cutting Garden at last year’s Chelsea Flower Show. At her idyllic home she somehow manages to fit in a busy schedule of study days—and they are packed with fantastically useful (and totally attainable) ideas. We joined her for a day all about pots and containers.

Here are Sarah Raven’s top seven tips to create container gardens (and to purchase any of the plant combinations, visit Sarah Raven).

Photography by Jonathan Buckley.

1. Restrict your palette.

Euphorbia and spring bulbs in bloom in the Oast garden at Perch Hill, Sarah Raven&#8\2\17;s home.
Above: Euphorbia and spring bulbs in bloom in the Oast garden at Perch Hill, Sarah Raven’s home.

There is no point going to the nursery or garden center to select a random rainbow of plants (unless you have a great knack for making haphazard choices come together). The first lesson in creating stunning pot displays, says Sarah, is to restrict your palette. She identifies key palettes: cool pastels (white, pale blues, soft pinks), deep jewel colors (magenta, tangerine, and dazzling lime) and warm shades (apricot, bronze, and deep plum).

An ice-blue palette is heightened by the cool gray backdrop of a galvanized pot.
Above: An ice-blue palette is heightened by the cool gray backdrop of a galvanized pot.

Tip: Rather than being the great unifier, white can be a dangerous color to combine; with its starkness, white can kill some combinations dead. But white can work well with cool pastels, soft blues, and silver.

2. Cram them in.

A galvanized metal window box with Erigeron karvinskianus (Mexican daisy) and Dianthus barbatus &#8\2\16;Green Trick&#8\2\17;.
Above: A galvanized metal window box with Erigeron karvinskianus (Mexican daisy) and Dianthus barbatus ‘Green Trick’.

Creating an abundant pot packed with flowers depends not only on the choice of plants but also on density. Sarah suggests that in pots, you should halve the spacings that would normally apply in a border. This will give an abundance of plants and a spectacular display, but it also means that you need to maintain them well. Add a slow release feed to the pot and treat with a foliar feed such as liquid seaweed every couple of weeks. And, of course, in warm weather these pots will need to be watered every day, in the morning or early evening.

3. Focus on form.

A tall terracotta pot with Buddleja ‘Dreaming Lavender&#8\2\17;, Pelargonium &#8\2\16;Attar of Roses&#8\2\17;, and Heliotropium arborescens &#8\2\16;Midnight Sky&#8\2\17;.
Above: A tall terracotta pot with Buddleja ‘Dreaming Lavender’, Pelargonium ‘Attar of Roses’, and Heliotropium arborescens ‘Midnight Sky’.

The shape of plants is as important as their colors. Some of the most stunning pots owe much of their impact to their contrasting and complementary forms. Sarah defines this with a mantra: Thrillers, Spillers, and Fillers. If you are planning a pot recipe, then think about plants that can fulfill each of these three roles.

The thriller is often something vertical and dramatic. A spiller, as the name suggests, is a plant that will fall over the edges of your pot and trail around it, and the filler is the binding plant that pulls everything together. A perfect illustration of this is a pot with a “thriller” Pelargonium ‘Attar of Roses’ with its heavenly heady scent and pretty pale pink flowers; the trailing ‘spiller’ Buddleia Dreaming Purple, and Heliotrope Midnight Sky (another incredible rich scent) as the deep violet filler.

4. Create the perennial pot.

Dahlia &#8\2\16;Totally Tangerine&#8\2\17; with Salvia &#8\2\16;Amistad&#8\2\17; and Panicum elegans &#8\2\16;Frosted Explosion&#8\2\17; (switchgrass) in a metal container. Erigeron karvinskianus is in the metal pot.
Above: Dahlia ‘Totally Tangerine’ with Salvia ‘Amistad’ and Panicum elegans ‘Frosted Explosion’ (switchgrass) in a metal container. Erigeron karvinskianus is in the metal pot.

One of the biggest issues with heavy pots is the endless emptying and refilling of compost and replacing plants. So the perennial pot is a great idea if you have large containers that you want to keep in situ.

But preparation is even more crucial with containers that you won’t replant for several years; make sure there is adequate drainage and use a good loam based compost to give your plants the best start. At Perch Hill one of the most dazzling combinations uses Panicum elegans ‘Frosted Explosion’, Dahlia ‘Totally Tangerine’, and Salvia ‘Amistad’ (as show). Mulch well and keep in a protected spot and they should survive mild winters. For Sarah, dahlias are great pot plants: They are low maintenance, floriferous, and therefore very cost-effective.

5. Extend the Season

Tulips in large containers at Perch Hill are Tulipa &#8\2\16;Havran&#8\2\17;, &#8\2\16;Prinses Irene&#8\2\17;, and &#8\2\16;Coleur Cardinal&#8\2\17;.
Above: Tulips in large containers at Perch Hill are Tulipa ‘Havran’, ‘Prinses Irene’, and ‘Coleur Cardinal’.

If you think carefully about what you put into each pot, you can enjoy many months of color. For spring at Perch Hill, they use a layer of Iris reticulata ‘George’ as the top layer of bulbs in each pot—this gorgeous, glamorous violet purple dwarf iris will flower in early spring, giving color when there is very little else in flower. Underneath there are then two separate layers of tulips that will emerge successionally to guarantee continuous flowering. To make this work, ensure good drainage with crocks in the bottom of your pot and plenty of sand or grit mixed into the compost. Then layer tulips with the latest flowering bulbs in the bottom layer, spaced 1 ½ inches apart, and allow a good few inches of compost before laying out the next layer. (Venetian tulips, pictured, are available from September and should be planted around November.)

6. Create color zones.

 Consider the backdrop—the exterior of home also plays into the color combinations in your pots.
Above: Consider the backdrop—the exterior of home also plays into the color combinations in your pots.

Just as you should plan which colors you are going to combine in a pot, you should also think about which pots can sit happily together. If you have very different color themes in pots, then keep them in different zones. A garish yellow flower will not look great against a red brick wall, for example. Contrasting blue tones, on the other hand, can look stunning. If in doubt, hold up flowers against the wall to see what works.

7. Lessen the workload.

All plant collections can be purchased from Sarah Raven.
Above: All plant collections can be purchased from Sarah Raven.

If you have lots of pots in the garden then the endless shuffling, emptying, and restocking can get tedious—not to mention back-breaking. At Perch Hill they often use pot liners, black plastic pots that sit neatly inside larger pots. After your spring displays are over, you can then just lift out this upper pot without having to move the base pot. Fill the bottom of the main pot with sand if you are in a windy situation or with polystyrene. Using some perennial pots will also lessen the workload; in spring just scrape off as much compost from the top and refresh with a new layer and some slow-release fertilizer.

N.B.: See more ideas for designing perfect container plantings with our design guides to Perennials 101 and Bulbs & Tubers 101. See some of our favorite combinations:

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