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5 Tips to Try from ‘A Year Full of Pots,’ Sarah Raven’s New Book

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5 Tips to Try from ‘A Year Full of Pots,’ Sarah Raven’s New Book

April 9, 2024

We are longtime admirers of English writer, cook, and gardener Sarah Raven, so we were super-excited to learn that her newest book, A Year Full of Pots, is now in bookstores. In this how-to guide on all things container gardening (the third installment of her series that includes A Year Full of Flowers and A Year Full of Veg), she gives detailed instructions for planning and planting in pots for each month of the year, along with color groupings, tips for what to plant where and when, and detailed plant lists with stunning photos of her own pot-filled garden at Perch Hill.

An overhead view of the Oast Garden, teeming with potted plants, at Perch Hill in spring.
Above: An overhead view of the Oast Garden, teeming with potted plants, at Perch Hill in spring.

Raven makes it easy for neophytes and experts alike to create a beautiful container garden, no matter the size. Here are six tips from her book on how to capture ebullience and beauty in a pot.

Photography by Jonathan Buckley, from Sarah Raven’s A Year Full of Pots.

1. Don’t skip the sketching.

Raven planning her garden with pencil and paper.
Above: Raven planning her garden with pencil and paper.

Pot planning goes old school. While there are plenty of fancy online garden planners, there is a wonderful satisfaction that comes with pencil and paper. Raven recommends sketching out the bones of your garden, the spaces, hardscapes and major plants and then overlaying tracing paper (or even baking parchment) and then cutting circles to represent your pots and arranging them where you think you’d like the pots and plants to go. Pro tip: She recommends cutting out photos of the plants you’re considering to make sure you can visualize the best you can what the garden will look like in real life.

2. Plan for a Bride, Bridesmaid, and Gate-crasher.

This pot features tulips ‘Muriel’ as the Bride, ‘Nightrider’ as the Bridesmaid, and ‘Orange Favorite’ as the all-important color-contrasting Gatecrasher. Photo by Jonathan Buckley.
Above: This pot features tulips ‘Muriel’ as the Bride, ‘Nightrider’ as the Bridesmaid, and ‘Orange Favorite’ as the all-important color-contrasting Gatecrasher. Photo by Jonathan Buckley.

Raven breaks down one of the more complicated challenges in deciding what plants go into the pot in regards to choosing a color combination. Think about the colors as the Bride, Bridesmaid and Gatechrasher, she says. The Bride is the center of attention, the one that gets all the focus. The Bridesmaid plays a supporting role in the pot, as one would play in real life—same color as the bride but not as showy. Finally the Gatecrasher adds a bit of drama with contrast. Pro tip: Get some paint chips and play around with them to see what color combinations work together.

 above: An example of some of the Boiled Sweet color palette.
above: An example of some of the Boiled Sweet color palette.

For those who need a bit more guidance, Raven even provides specific color palettes to try: Dark & Rich, Boiled Sweet Brilliant, Warm and Soft, and Soft and Cool. Included are extensive photos for each palette for easy reference.

3. And don’t forget the Thriller, Filler, Spiller, and Pillar.

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; syn. Agrostis &#8\2\16;Fibre Optics&#8\2\17; syn. Panicum capillare &#8\2\16;Sparkling Fountain&#8\2\17; in a metal container. Erigeron karvinskianus grows in the terracotta pot.
Above: Dahlia ‘Totally Tangerine’ with Salvia ‘Amistad’ and Panicum elegans ‘Frosted Explosion’ syn. Agrostis ‘Fibre Optics’ syn. Panicum capillare ‘Sparkling Fountain’ in a metal container. Erigeron karvinskianus grows in the terracotta pot.

In addition to color, shapes and sizes need to be considered. Raven helpfully boils it down into four categories that all pots should have for the proper balance: Thriller, Filler, Spiller, and Pillar. While the Thriller shares focus with the Bride, they differ in that they are about scale and not so much color. Filler does what the name suggests and makes sure there are no empty spaces. The idea behind Spiller is to break up the straight lines of the pot. And finally Pillar, a plant that brings the height to larger containers. Pro tip: The plants that fill these roles can change over the course of the growing season.

4. Shop your yard for plant supports.

Raven making a birch teepee for a large pot.
Above: Raven making a birch teepee for a large pot.

You can certainly go to your local nursery or big box store and buy mass-produced plant supports, but you may already have everything you need right in your yard. Using a combination of large branches (five feet or longer), create a teepee shape. Make sure the ends are deeply set into the soil and that the tops are tied securely with twine. Fill in the gaps with smaller twigs. This will provide support for climbers like sweet peas and for tall plants like dahlias. Pot domes are the same idea, but not as tall. Weave pliable branches in a pie lattice pattern, with the ends buried in the soil of the pot. The height of the dome should be about one third to one half of the height of the plant it is there to support. Pro tip: You can also make pot rings that support plants only around the edge of the pot by weaving the branches in a circle around the edge with their neighbors.

5. Prep for spring containers in the fall.

A table arrangement of Hyacinth &#8\2\16;Woodstock&#8\2\17; and Tulipa &#8\2\16;Queen Ingrid&#8\2\17; in a shallow bowl with moss.
Above: A table arrangement of Hyacinth ‘Woodstock’ and Tulipa ‘Queen Ingrid’ in a shallow bowl with moss.

You can do daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths in pots for spring, but you will need to start in the fall—just as you would if you were to plant them in the ground. Raven says to start by selecting your desired bulbs, heeding her guidance to find a Bride, Bridesmaid, and Gatecrasher. Then you prepare the pot and put in the bulbs. Raven suggests doubling the number of the bulbs for a more intense display. After the pot is planted, move it outside since the bulbs need three to three and a half months of cold temperatures to develop roots. Then all you need to do is wait for spring. Pro tip: Make a bulb lasagna. Layer different bulbs, at their proper depths, blooming at different times, to extend the riot of color for weeks.

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Frequently asked questions

What is Sarah Raven's newest book?

Sarah Raven's newest book is 'A Year Full of Pots.'

What does Sarah Raven's book 'A Year Full of Pots' focus on?

The book focuses on container gardening with detailed instructions for planning and planting in pots for each month of the year.

What does Sarah Raven recommend for pot planning?

Sarah Raven recommends sketching out the bones of your garden with pencil and paper and overlaying tracing paper to plan out pot placements.

How does Sarah Raven suggest choosing plant colors for pots?

Sarah Raven suggests thinking of colors as the Bride, Bridesmaid, and Gatecrasher when selecting plants for pots.

What are the four categories Raven suggests for balanced pots?

Raven suggests pots should have a Thriller, Filler, Spiller, and Pillar for proper balance.

What is Sarah Raven's tip for making plant supports?

Sarah Raven suggests using large branches to create teepee-shaped supports for climbers and tall plants.

When should you prep for spring containers according to Sarah Raven?

You should prep for spring containers in the fall, just like planting in the ground, to ensure a beautiful display in the spring.

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