The question you should always ask yourself when you browse for plants is not: "Can I grow it in a pot?" — (yes, you can grow practically anything in a pot) — but rather: "Does it earn its place in a pot?", "Does the candidate have a long season of interest?", "Does it flower repeatedly?", "Is it evergreen?", etc.


It gets extra points if it has interesting foliage, smells wonderful or has colourful stems or berries. Indeed, I would say that foliage is the most important qualification for many plants because it lasts much longer than flowers.

If you’re struggling to make a plan, choose one plant you love and which will tolerate the conditions you can give it, then place other plants with it to see if you like the effect. You can do this in a trolley at the garden centre. From this small beginning, the rest will follow. Just don’t fall into the trap of having one of everything as this can make your pots look more like a stamp collection than a garden. Repeating plants as well as colours and shapes ties a display together and is more satisfying to the eye.

More planting ideas for containers:

Find inspiration (mindfully)

Tulipa orphanidea (Whittallii Group) ‘Major’, Muscari ‘Siberian Tiger’, Viola × wittrockiana

Do have a look to see what other people are doing, but social media, magazines and TV shows can all conspire to make you think your pots should look perfect all the time. They won’t! Don’t forget that some pictures may have been styled, and that published photographs represent a moment chosen to show the planting at its best, before the rain broke the stems or snails ate the flowers. All the pots in these photos live in my yard and I have deliberately avoided any special styling so that the photographs show real life.

More like this

Visiting public and private gardens is a great way to fuel your creativity. You may see stupendous displays, but these are often only possible with extensive glasshouses, or a behind-the-scenes growing-on area, or a team of gardeners, or all three. Sometimes, especially where money is no object, fresh arrangements are swapped in frequently and fading plants discarded. By all means take inspiration, but don’t let the pursuit of perfection spoil the joy of growing. Try not to beat yourself up by comparing your efforts to others; just think about ways of making your space your own and enjoy the process.

Planting in pots

Tulipa ‘Cape Cod’, Tulipa ‘Hocus Pocus’, Euphorbia × martini ‘Ascot Rainbow’, Carex comans bronze-leaved, Thymus pulegioides ‘Archer’s Gold’

When it comes to settling your plants in their new potted homes, you will help increase your success rate year after year by being observant, making notes and taking photographs. My top tip is to record what you have put in your pots, especially the names of bulb varieties and how many you put in. It will help you to see if they have all come up as expected and to make the displays better each year. Labels in pots are useful, but may fade or get mislaid.

Potting up

When I was working at Whichford Pottery, the question I was asked on a daily basis was: "What size pot should I use for my new plant?" I wish I could give you hard and fast rules but the truth is that there are too many variables. Bear in mind these principles and learn from experience.

Choose a pot big enough to allow at least a few centimetres around the current rootball, giving room for root growth into fresh compost on the base and around the sides. I allow a minimum of 2cm all the way around the sides for a rootball that’s up to 20cm diameter, or 5-6cm for a bigger one. If it is a vigorous, fast-growing plant, give it more space.

Shake or gently push the compost all the way down the gaps with your fingers. Be careful not to leave any big spaces or to squash the compost down so hard that all the air is squeezed out. The top of the rootball should end up 2-2.5cm below the rim of the pot to allow for watering. Any lower and the plant looks sunken (and you are wasting precious space), any higher and compost can gradually wash out of the pot, exposing roots to the elements and wasting water.

The plant should not be buried more deeply than it was in its old pot.

Think about how big the plant is likely to get in the upcoming growing season: as a general rule, the foliage can be twice the volume of the pot, any more and the plant may tip over or dry out quickly; it might also look out of proportion.

Re-potting a pelargonium
Don’t repot plants on into much bigger pots; the blue pot will suit this pelargonium for summer

When you pot up new or young plants as a single planting (one plant in a pot), don’t be tempted to upsize too much; a plant that outgrows its pot can be potted on into a bigger pot, but a small plant in a big pot can look odd and could even decline in health in stale compost.

You can usually upsize generously in spring when vigorous growth starts, but avoid this in autumn/early winter, as you don’t want a plant spending a cold season in a mass of wet uncolonised compost.

Perennial climbers such as a rose or a clematis require a different approach, as once they have started growing up a support (such as a trellis) they are hard to repot without causing damage or cutting back very hard. Give a plant like this a pot that will suit its ultimate size. You can plant other plants with it to make sure the compost does not stay soggy and become stagnant, then gradually remove those once the climber’s roots are well-established.

A note on the drainage layer

As long as your pot has drainage holes there is no need for what’s commonly known as a ‘drainage layer’, no matter what size of pot you are planting. It is much more important to use good quality growing media and to put the right plant in the right place and the right pot.

A layer of crocks (broken pots) or gravel does not improve drainage; in fact there is some evidence that suggests it impedes it, because water does not move easily from a fine material to a coarse one. In my experience a drainage layer simply reduces the volume of compost available to the roots of the plants.


The large spaces may be colonised by slugs, and, worst of all, when you come to tip the plants out of your pot all the crocks fall out, tearing plant roots and making a mess. Simply cover large drainage hole(s) loosely with a crock or two to stop compost from falling through the holes while the planting establishes.

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Extract taken from Pots by Harriet Rycroft with photography by Andrew Maybury, £12.99, Bloom.

Follow Harriet Rycroft on Instagram @harrietrycroft