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Container Gardening - A how to guide

Last year I worked on a garden design project in Gloucestershire which involved designing the planting for a small urban balcony. My client wanted to ‘green up her balcony’. She regularly used the tiny space for her regular yoga practise in the warmer summer months. The brief was to incorporate as many edibles as possible along with some gorgeous bursts of bright colour. We worked together to create areas of planting that enveloped her yoga space while still allowing her an area for sitting and relaxing in the sunshine. The balcony was west facing – an afternoon sun trap.


There are a number of challenges that arise with container gardening:

  • As with any planting project, the aspect of the site needs to be considered. When choosing what to plant, it is important to know whether your pots will be sited in sun or in shade. In a larger space a benefit of using pots is that they can be moved around as needed. In smaller spaces you may not have this option.

  • Balconies or roof terraces that are higher up are likely to be exposed and subjected to harsh winds meaning that anything planted in pots is likely to be battered by the elements and risks drying out if not properly looked after.

  • And finally, and this is a big consideration, if you are creating a garden on a balcony or roof terrace, the weight of any pots or planters needs to be considered. A few pots should be okay, but if you are looking to include any heavy furniture or larger planters it is worth speaking to the building management company and, if necessary, a structural engineer.

Don’t let these challenges put you off, however. There are always solutions and thousands of people around the world have created successful and abundant container gardens with very limited resource. The key (as with most of life) is to be creative and think outside the box. Available to the container gardener are light weight planters, special light weight compost with improved water retention and, of course, plants for every situation.

Where to start?

As with all new garden projects, the first thing I always do is brainstorm. I make lists and draw up a rough bird’s-eye view sketch of the area. I then work out which areas can be allocated to planting. Do you need to incorporate furniture, a space for yoga or for kids to play or an area for hanging washing. Do you want to include a small composting system (see my blog on composting options here)? Once I've worked out how much space I have for planting, I plan my pots and containers.

When it comes to choosing pots, I would aim for a mix of shapes and sizes to create contrast and levels. I would keep the pots fairly plain and, if planting on a balcony or roof terrace, would use as light a material as possible. I would also consider making use of hanging baskets and utilising the vertical elements on a balcony or courtyard. Consider finding some interesting art for any empty walls (be creative – anything is art if you want it to be). A mirror is also a fantastic way of making the space appear bigger than it is.

Planning – what do you want from your gardening space?

Once you have an idea of how much space you have to plant in, you can begin to plan what to plant. Think about what you want your planting to achieve. Do you want herbs to cook with or perhaps for making your own cosmetics or herbal tonics? Do you want as many vegetables as you can possibly grow? Do you want to encourage birds and insects into your bijou space? Do you want scented plants? Do you want a riot of colour or a simple green and white design? If you are clever you can choose plants that encompass a number of different functions.

For example: Rocket. Rocket grows well in a container. Is hardy and very tough. Has pretty little white flowers. Is edible (and very healthy) and is attractive to pollinating insects like hoverflies and bees.

What works

What will work on your site depends on a number of factors. We’ve already spoken about aspect – how sunny or shady your site is, but you should also consider how much time you have available and watering requirements. There is little point in planting up a collection of salads and vegetables if you won’t be around to water them. If you are regularly away or limited for time then it may be worth installing an irrigation system (simple to do and a huge time saver) or finding out if one of your neighbours can help.

You may simply be after greenery, in which case I would look to shrubs, grasses, ferns and some herbaceous plants. Do some research and you will easily be able to find out what will and won’t work in pots. Be prepared to put in a little bit of time and effort to keep the space looking good – plants may need repotting and also feeding at times too.

If you want something that is a little more functional (highly recommended), then there are a number of amazing books that can offer in depth guides on what to plant and how to make the most out of your limited space. I would recommend ‘The Edible Container Garden’ by Michael Guerra or ‘My Tiny Veg Plot’ by Lia Leendertz. Alternatively have a look at this link on Gardenista for a little bit of inspiration.

No matter what you decide to plant, remember that gardening is a journey and requires a little bit of experimenting to get it right. If you feel completely lost and want some extra guidance don't hesitate to get in touch. Wild Edge Garden Design are here to help.

If you like what you seen in the plan above and are based in Gloucestershire, UK we can help with the source and supply of all plants and planting compost.


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