What plants work best in containers?

With more than 250 containers in his garden at Driftwood by sea, Geoff Stonebanks knows what works and what doesn’t. His award-winning garden is open to the public this summer and wows the visitors every time.

Complete versatility

Containers are so versatile, offering the chance to grow anything from bedding plants to shrubs, fruits, vegetables and even small trees.

Plant a cow for dramatic effect
Image: Geoff Stonebanks

For me, planting a good mix of upright plants, such as osteopermum or geraniums together with trailing plants close to the edges makes for a riot of colour which cascades from the pot and hopefully conceals the actual pot from view. One of my favourites is a gorgeous metal cow’s head, which is all that visitors can see of its entire body after the lobelia, and geraniums have become established and tumbled out over the side covering its body and legs. These plants are just two of the many mainstays that I rely on in my garden every summer; along with the chrysanthemums you can see growing beside the cow!

Gap fillers

I have about ten containers, which I store out of sight in the early summer, then, as other plants go over, I can bring out the chrysanthemums and drop the container in place to flower into the late autumn. Other invaluable annuals for me are the petunias, some of them are not keen on heavy rain, which can beat them down to a pulp, but on balance, I find them well worth including in my planting schemes. Verbena and bacopa are two other regulars, both of which, in my experience, can last through the winter, providing it is not too harsh.

Adding containers to your borders instantly plugs gaps, ensuring your garden always looks its best. Sinking plant pots into your borders is a great way to enjoy things like decorative grasses and bamboos without risking them spreading out of control.  I’ve got four different bamboos here and all are in large containers both from the spreading perspective and also so I can relocate them around the garden too.

Sun loving agaves season the garden at Driftwood by Sea
Image: Geoff Stonebanks

If you have a love for the more exotic or tender plants, then by growing them in pots, you can move into the garden for the summer, before taking them back into the greenhouse or house to keep them safe until next year?  

My greenhouse and front and back porches are overflowing with such plants through the winter months. My vast collection of aeoniums is testament to this, there’s quite a collection growing in pots that look fantastic grouped together.

Growing on

It always worries me when I first plant all the annuals up that everywhere looks so sparse, but it does not take them long to tumble over the sides and mingle together, as one. You will have heard me say this before! You need to feed the annuals profusely and they will repay you in profusion, I’m biased, but try Richard Jackson’s Flower Power it has worked its magic for me over four years now.

Troughs of summer bedding displayed to full effect
Image: Geoff Stonebanks

You also need some greenery to compliment the colour and two stalwarts that I use every year are lysimachia and helichrysum, both of which work really well in full sun and shade. Once they get established, they grow rapidly and work like a needle and thread, sewing all the colours together and getting thoroughly intertwined in the planting.

Feature plants

Single plants can also work well, making a bold, architectural statement. At Driftwood we have over thirty agaves, which are not keen on the winter wet, so keeping them in containers is the perfect solution and they do so well too! I store them all under cover through the winter months and restore them to the beach garden through the summer.

Potted olive tree. Image: Geoff Stonebanks

Standard olive trees are perfect for a decorative container too, I’ve got a pair that sit either side of the central set of steps in the garden making a dramatic statement and creating a bold focus to enter the next garden room. I’ve also got four large oleanders which create a very colourful Mediterranean look on the upper patio. With the right amount of sun they flower profusely through my open season.

Vertical planting

You can also use containers to brighten up a fence or wall by growing climbing plants like climbing roses, clematis and sweet peas, I’ve got a lovely rose called “Susie” in a large container with a trellis behind.

What’s not to like about containers?  



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