Article by Pattie Barron

Box balls are fine for year-round greenery but in summer, flowers – and lots of them – are what we all crave. This is the moment to fill containers with masses of colour, whether from a riot of scarlet, firecracker-flowered begonias, deep purple daisy-flowered osteospermum edged, say, with a cascade of trailing lobelia; or perhaps, simply and superbly, tasteful white geraniums bordered with the silver foliage of artemesia.

Harmonious colour combinations are easy on the eye

It’s an opportunity to get creative – no green fingers required – but before you rush to the garden centre or plant nursery, dream up a colour scheme and stick with it, so you avoid ending up with a hotchpotch of colour that is eye-watering rather than eye-catching.

If filling each container with compositions of several flower types sounds like too much hard work, plant single varieties in each container, and then group together for mass appeal. Hot colours work well together and generally need sunny positions to give their best. White flowers are elegant, stand out in shade and look best with cool blues, pinks and lavenders. 

Consider the pot size, too. Airy, free-flowering cosmos, with its fern-like leaves and tall daisy flowers in shades of white through to cerise, looks wonderful massed in an outsize terracotta pot – just keep deadheading the endless daisy blooms for more to come, right through summer and beyond. Smaller pots destined for the garden table or atop a pillar are more suited to smaller flowers such as trailing verbenas, nemesias or perhaps linaria, a deep pink version of which is appropriately called Little Sweeties Mixture.

Trailers as well as upright plants make a striking display

Petunias are pretty, but don’t buy them unless you are prepared to deadhead their somewhat sticky blooms. A better choice might be calibrachoa Can-Can, the smaller-flowered version of a petunia and in sumptuous shades that include rich Double Dark Yellow, orange Terracotta and a luscious Black Cherry. Not only will calibrachoa reliably flower until the first frosts, it is self-cleaning – the spent blooms just fall of their own accord.

Geraniums – pelargoniums – are always a great, safe bet, blooming relentlessly for months. In an increasingly wide range of shades from white, peach and rose pink through to fire-engine red and deep, dramatic burgundies, they look the part, whether planted singly in simple flowerpots or massed in large troughs. Simple sky blue lobelia makes a good accompaniment. If you have a window box to fill, try the wonderful Balcon varieties of geranium that spill over and cascade becomingly – deep cerise, frilly-flowered Barbe Bleue is a showstopper. One of the many virtues of the geranium is that it needs little cosseting, so it’s ideal if you want low-maintenance. Deadheading is easy – nip off the stem, not just the flower – and watering can be infrequent. 

Other drought-busters suited for containers are osteospermum, begonia, diascia, senecio and of course succulents, which rarely need watering; sempervivums or houseleeks are the rosette-forming kind that can stay out all year.

Attractive containers enhance the plantings

Dahlias make marvellous container plants, especially when vibrant-coloured blooms contrast with deep, dark foliage, such as in Bishop of Auckland, with rich crimson flowers and even deeper crimson foliage. For the ultimate pizzazz, however, bag a begonia. You only need to buy three small plug plants for a profusion of flowers that will fill one large pot. If in doubt, look for the Bolivian firecracker Bossa Nova Night Fever Papaya, which has large, pendulous blooms of fiery orange, for which absolutely no partners are required.


* Use containers imaginatively, to fill spaces and gaps in the border. Display them in a group, at different heights, using bricks to create changes in level. And/or range them singly down either side of the garden steps.

* Always add drainage material to the bottom of pots so the plants’ roots don’t sit in water – use polystyrene packaging chips, gravel or broken terracotta pieces.

* A good-quality multipurpose compost is the planting medium for summer containers.

* For a clean finish, to prevent wet compost marking flowers and to retain moisture, give your pots a topping of grit or gravel.

* Water plants daily, or twice daily through very hot periods. Feed once or twice weekly with a dilute tomato feed.

A garden table makes a great showcase


* Balcony gardeners rejoice, because you can include climbing plants to green up your outside walls. Fix up a solid trellis first, then add a manageable, year-round climber such as compact honeysuckle Lonicera Rhubarb and Custard, or one of the smaller clematis such as Fleuri or Cezanne that only reach 120cm tops.

* Long troughs that flank the edges of a balcony imitate garden borders and take up less space than circular pots. Fill them with aromatic herbs such as lavender, rosemary and thyme that will scent the space as well as look good and be easy to maintain.

* Whether on a balcony or in a garden, if containers are on a flat surface, raise them off the ground with pot feet or bricks so water can drain through into a tray that you can empty.

All pictures GAP Photos/Friedrich Strauss