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Container Gardening 26 May 2024 Making the most of small spaces

by Nick Clapton and Peter Taylor

From Eynsham News #68

Not everyone benefits from having a good area of garden available for growing flowers, fruit and vegetables, or even for having a lawn for children to play on.

If you just have a paved area, a patio, or even a balcony, plan carefully to make the most of container gardening. Pots, be they terracotta, plastic, resin, metal, are not the only containers possible. Anything from an old bucket with a hole in it, an old sink or even a worn-out pair of wellies can work.

The key to success is spending a bit of time researching the do’s and don’ts. For example, if the pots you choose are too small for those ‘mini apple tress’ you’d like to grow, well, your chances of success are not very high. And if you don’t have of plan for regular watering, crops in pots will very easily dry out and perish. Those two issues may be easy to understand, but there are more ‘technical’ ones too – for example, if you only have space for one small fruit tree, what are its chances of getting pollinated?...but you can overcome that one by using a self-fertile variety. So, again, it’s down to some good research.

On the ‘plus’ side, fruit and vegetables in pots can be placed in the right sunny position, and are quite easy to protect early in the season if frost threatens (but assess carefully whether that large plot is actually too heavy to move by yourself!).

You will also do better if you plan to use the right compost in your container – ericaceous compost for the right ‘acid’ soil for blueberries, and in general don’t expect regular ‘multi-purpose’ compost to last beyond one season. And beware, container growing can still suffer from garden pests – Nick says, “I strongly advise treating your containers with a proprietary vine weevil killer. These nasty bugs are an utter menace, their larvae munching away at the roots of plants, which then suddenly collapse and die.”

With a bit of forethought, careful potting, regular watering, and watching out for garden ‘pests’, you can use containers to grow strawberries, salad crops, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and so on – but also fruit like apples, pears, blackberries and even a grape vine. And on a summer evening, your patio will be filled with the scent of healthy plants.

Of his own garden, Nick says. “I keep seasonal containers simple: there is little to beat a plain terracotta pot filled with scarlet pelargoniums (for a sunny spot), or red begonias or bizzy lizzies (for a shady one, though white ones might show up better). Dead-heading is necessary, to keep them flowering, and regular watering also, but little other care is required, as long as you start with good compost: I generally mix multi-purpose half-and-half with a soil-based one, like John Innes no. 3.

“Containers can also be used very effectively for long-term planting. In Oxfordshire we are nearly all on alkaline soil, so I have had several camellias, azaleas and pieris in pots of ericaceous compost for many years. Occasional re-potting is necessary (or at least the renewal of the top few inches of soil with fresh compost), and regular feeding, but they do very well. Many other smaller shrubs can be happy in a large pot, including roses, hydrangeas, cistus, and the smaller phormiums, and my hostas are all in containers, and are much less nibbled than they otherwise would be. Agapanthus also enjoy pots, since being potbound encourages them to flower. A layered planting of snowdrops, miniature iris, tulips, and daffodils can provide spring colour for many years (do this in the autumn, the larger bulbs at the bottom, the smaller ones towards the top; once flowering is finished, the pot can be tucked away till the next year).