Over the garden gate

Every May some of my neighbours open their gardens for local charities. It’s not National Garden Scheme or anything grand, just a friendly initiative to garner a few quid to buy street trees or plant up a roundabout abandoned by the local council. It’s a pound to get in and there’s tea, coffee, cakes and sometimes seedlings to buy.

But the best thing is having a good old nose around other people’s gardens. I pass many of them on the school run or on my way to the shops, so it’s fascinating to see what lies behind those tall brick walls or scruffy-looking front gardens. I’ve certainly learnt never to judge a back garden by a front one. Plus, of course, there’s plenty of insightful chat to be had with the owners.

All kinds of people join in, not just those who love to garden and have fabulous spaces to prove it. There’s one guy who’s all about wildlife. His garden is a long, narrow, somewhat chaotic space full of spreading trees, wildflowers, mini ponds, long grass and clusters of pots. It’s inspiring, though, when you talk to him about the myriad birds, insects and amphibians he’s spotted there, all in the garden of a south London Victorian terraced house.

Until now I’ve been too nervous to sign up to the open gardens weekend. Being a part-time garden designer, I worry that everything needs to look perfect; that I’ll be judged – and found to be an impostor. But this year, my seven-year-old daughter is trying her best to change my mind. I suspect it’s more about the cakes than the camellias. I’ve told her she’ll need to help with the weeding, planting and primping in the run-up, and not just the baking of brownies and Victoria sponges…

All of this made me think about the details that can make a garden look fabulous - the seasonal touches that bring colour and near-instant impact. And a fair bit of it comes down to pots. One of my favourite gardens last year had a gorgeous big pot out front, a froth of pink scented nemesia and trailing helichrysum, accented with spikes of purple nepeta and candyfloss carnations. It’s something I might have to copy, if I’m going to take the plunge this year.

A neighbour’s gorgeous pot: movement, colour and scent in one hit

A while back I decided my garden needed to be less demanding and lower maintenance. So I’ve fallen back on shrubs, evergreens and a few perennials here and there to provide steady, reliable colour and form. Which is great, and it really works if you want to cut down your workload in the garden, but it doesn’t always provide much wow factor.

Pots are relatively high maintenance, however, as you need to feed and water. But there are ways of using containers and cutting down a little on the maintenance. The basic rules are:

  1. Make sure the pot has plenty of drainage holes. If it doesn’t, drill them.
  2. Cover drainage holes with crocks or pebbles so the water doesn’t run straight out.
  3. Add an inch or two of gravel to improve drainage and save on compost.
  4. Mix compost with water-retaining gel – especially useful if, like me, you don’t always remember to water.
  5. Plants should sit about an inch below the rim of the pot, the largest first and then smaller ones. Fill in with compost as you go. Press the soil down gently and water well.

So what makes a really successful plant combination for a container? What certainly doesn’t work is a small pot with one or two types of flowers with similar habit (vertical growers, for example), or anything that’s too symmetrical – a window box with a daff in the middle and a primrose either side, for instance, is just too mean-looking.

What a pot needs is colour, movement, height and interest in form. And in terms of pot size, the bigger the better, really.



A central(ish) focal point is a good place to start. Although not bang on in the middle, or the arrangement can end up looking too formal and stiff. This could be a small shrub (skimmias are good for early spring), one of the smaller shrub roses, lavender or a wigwam of scented sweet peas. Movement can be incorporated with grasses - Stipa tenuissima is a lovely graceful, wispy one that loves a bit of sun – which will also knit the other plants together neatly. Then to pack in the colour, it’s hard to beat a bit of bedding from the likes of pelargoniums, diascia or annuals such as Cosmos - the taller ones work as focal point plants, too. Around the edges of the pot, something low growing like thyme works really well, providing both scent and flowers, or trailing plants like helichrysum, ivies, lobelia and nasturtiums.

So, shall I put together a few fabulous pots of colour this year, and open up for charity? I know what has to be done. I just need to find the time. And then remember to water…

Francesca Clarke, Journalist and Garden Designer

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