The wild weather has blown through and we’ve been blessed with a weekend of clear skies, fresh breezes and bright sunshine. It’s been the perfect opportunity to get out into the garden, assess any wind damage and discover what’s looking good right now. Here at The Watch House, the speed at which plant growth has accelerated is astonishing – bulbs seem to be emerging from the ground in front of my very eyes. We are hopeful of a good display from Geranium maderense, the giant Madeira cranesbill, a plant that requires a frost-free winter in order to produce flowers. Daffodil buds are quickly colouring up and bursting open to trumpet the imminent arrival of spring. A sprinkling of Anemone blanda has appeared in the gravel outside the French windows, cheering us up with endearing, daisy-like flowers in sumptuous shades of lilac-blue. They will continue until April before seeding themselves prolifically among the paving slabs. On warm days, there is already a sweet smell of hyacinth in the air. Soon it will be time to shift our pots around and get them in place for the main flowering season. With over one hundred waiting in the wings, this is a substantial undertaking and one for a fine, dry day. In the meantime, resident collared doves Daphne and Dudley gather twigs and leaves from their surface to build another of their precarious nests. We love to hear them cooing to one another; such gentle and trusting birds, my only complaint is how much poop they leave on the flagstones. It’s a small price to pay for such easy company.
Should you venture out and find your garden lacking in interest, then planting up a few pots now is a brilliant way to inject colour and create a focal point. Nurseries and garden centres are steadily filling up with goodies. Bypass the inappropriately early summer bedding and stock up on alpines, hellebores and spring-flowering shrubs instead.
I am not generally in favour of ‘instant’ gardening, but pots are the exception: pots and containers should only ever feature plants in their prime. Their purpose is to draw attention so if they look shabby it’s a poor reflection on the gardener. Once the show is over, it’s time to find the residents a new, more permanent home in the garden or add them to the compost heap. Grouped pots, each planted with one kind of plant, are my preference over pots planted with a variety of kinds. Rarely do mixed containers look good for very long and it’s so much easier to keep a plant happy if it’s not sharing root space with another. I like to use fairly plain terracotta pots, but at this time of year when plants are still small and compact, one can add considerable interest to a display by using containers with different surface patterns and coloured glazes. Once you have started building a collection of interesting vessels you’ll always have the right container for a new acquisition. (Car boot sales are a great place to pick up weathered pots although they’ll be snapped up in no time.)
During autumn, winter and spring it’s especially important to use free-draining, peat-free compost so that pots don’t become waterlogged. I like to add a good shovel of horticultural grit, mixed in well. Keep pots off the ground using pot feet if you experience very wet winters and springs. Here in Broadstairs I find them an unnecessary precaution. Indeed, a lack of moisture is often the problem and we end up watering pots throughout the colder months. If the plant is going to remain potted for more than a couple of months, I incorporate a little slow-release fertiliser at the time of planting.
When choosing plants for a pot display I tend to stick to three or five compatible colours, not including green. White, blush pink, plum, pewter and a pop of sky blue work beautifully in the pots we arranged around the outdoor kitchen sink last week. The hellebores and saxifrages are new, other plants are old friends and things we’ve raised from bulbs planted in the autumn. Alternatively, yellow, purple and blue is an invigorating and particularly spring-like colour palette, made easy to achieve by combining miniature narcissi such as ‘Tête á Tête’ with richly-coloured irises and violas.
A pot display not only provides instant gratification but also a better view of many spring flowers, particularly those with downward-facing flowers such as hellebores, snowdrops and fritillaries. Where possible, elevate pots on steps, low walls or balanced upon an up-turned pot so that you can look up into the blooms. Bees and other pollinating insects will thank you for providing an early source of nectar and pollen.
Ten Great Plants for Spring Pots*
- Hellebores – some of the most enchanting and nuanced flowering plants in the garden from February until March.
- Heucheras – whilst I’m not normally a fan, their beauty and usefulness in pots is undeniable. The foliage comes in shades from bright yellow to inky black.
- Cyclamen – species such as Cyclamen coum are so tiny and delicate that they deserve to be admired at close quarters.
- Ferns – many hardy ferns are evergreen. Although the foliage will need cutting back soon, last year’s fronds are still an attractive foil for flowering plants.
- Euphorbias – spurges such as E. characias subsp. wulfenii and E. myrsinites are at their most splendid in February and March, producing acid-yellow flowers over silvery foliage.
- Correas – a little tender perhaps, but for height and structure in a larger pot this shrub is a beauty. C. ‘Marian’s Marvel’ is a favourite.
- Saxifrages – many alpines are programmed to flower immediately the snow receeds and they feel the sun warming their leaf rosettes. Saxifrages, with their myriad blossoms, are among them.
- Violas – violets and violas are resilient and easy to grow. Violets can be divided in autumn, planted in pots for spring colour and then returned to the border once they’ve finished flowering.
- Primulas – like saxifrages, primulas are heralds of spring. The plants we buy as ‘polyanthus’ provide generous colour but should be used sparingly as they can look rather artificial. I much prefer our native primrose, Primula vulgaris, which is easily grown from seed.
- Camellias – you may find this an unusual suggestion but we grow several camellias in pots, valuing their glossy foliage as well as their showy flowers.
* I have excluded spring-flowering bulbs as they would dominate the list. Although they need to be planted in autumn, many garden centres and nurseries sell pot-grown bulbs which are ideal for instant gratification. Although we plant thousands as bulbs each year, I usually succumb to buying one or two extra varieties when I see them in flower. TFG