If you’re looking to get into gardening, you’ll definitely need to find the perfect pots for your plant babies. Arguably, the most daunting part of moving from a balcony to a garden was watching the former be packed into the back of a removal van.
It was not my first rodeo: three years earlier I’d witnessed a mature trailing pelargonium be unceremoniously halved in the process, then looked on as the contents of my first balcony were unloaded into a car park. This time, we succeeded in getting them through to the patio, whereupon it became immediately apparent that I was going to be needing a lot more pots.
I’ve gardened in containers – and only containers – for the best part of a decade and yet the pots themselves remain something of a holy grail. I’ve no idea why, but the gaping hole in the market for handsome and sustainable containers that don’t cost a packet is yet to be filled.
After nearly a year, I’ve managed to bulk out my patio collection. Is there a one-stop shop for good pots? Sadly not. Is hunting them down fun? Fortunately, yes.
Before you start looking, a few basics. The material of a container is key. As well as setting the aesthetic tone of your garden, there are also growing conditions to be considered. I’ve explained what you need to know below; the material will affect everything from how much money you spend to how much watering you do.
Try to work out what is best for your plants, rather than what you want it to look like.
Shaded urban garden? I’d invest in some large stone or Corten steel planters and fill them up with ferns and other woodland goodies – divine.
Exposed windy spot? The heft and moisture-retention of a giant container made from reclaimed sleepers will ground the sway of grasses and wildflowers. Balcony veg grower? Plastic troughs will help with weight and bags for life (perfect size for two courgette plants) can be emptied out and folded down.
Whatever you opt for, I always urge people to buy the biggest pots they can afford for several reasons. Larger pots are lower maintenance: they dry out less swiftly and can hold more established plants which need less coddling.
I love larger pots because it means I can plant several things in them, all of which will emerge at different times of the year. From a design perspective, one large, well-planted container will always look better than a gaggle of disparate pots; especially in a small place.
My style innately errs on the scruffy side, so my plants occupy a shemozzle of aged terracotta pots, reclaimed chimney pots, an old metal bathtub and two dolly tubs. None of them is smaller than 20cm across, most are larger than 40cm. They hold bulbs and perennials and get topped up with the occasional annual frippery, but mostly look after themselves.
Sourcing them has indulged my irrepressible inner magpie. From my first balcony I have three stone composite square tubs in darkest grey that I near-bankrupted myself for, which now greet me at the back door.
There are the four beautifully battered chimney pots I found for £60 on Facebook Marketplace (perfect when matched with a plastic pot that fits snugly inside the chimney pot – you can swap the planting in and out with the season). The dolly tubs were a big treat but are Victorian (big repro ones, I’ve found, don’t cost much less) and beloved.
Where to find them? Like with many things, the internet. Local nurseries are a great place to get a feel for what you like, and I invariably pick up terracotta planters and pots from them.
The ageing tends to happen courtesy of the seasons. But online can offer pots to very specific sizes, which is important – especially in smaller spaces. Idealist have a great range, but the shopping tab on Google can be alarmingly responsive to specific searches, too.
For instant character and charm you can’t beat second-hand, whether that’s via eBay and Etsy (where many garden antiques specialists have set up shop) or trying your luck on Facebook Marketplace.
The local and dedicated can try their arm at Sunbury Antiques market, but I’ve enjoyed buying from dealers via Instagram. Tom of @Toms_Yard has provided me with dolly tubs and aged iron planters. Those after large terracotta could do worse than check out @HeartAndFireCretanPots for the real deal.
Finally, I’d suggest taking a bit of time with it: like furnishing a home, the best combinations often emerge over the years and from a variety of places. Always nice, I think, when a pot comes with a good story – one you can share while sitting in the garden.
A personal favourite: naturally porous, they stop plants from being drenched at the root but will dry out in hot weather, which can mean more watering.
Terracotta picks up mineral residue from being outside, so will change colour with age and extremity. They remain a reasonable and accessible option, and come in lots of different styles, but a single drainage hole can end up getting clogged.
They are vulnerable to changes in temperature, resulting in occasional frost damage, but increasingly pots are labelled as frost-proof.
From reclaimed industrial finds to chic Corten steel, there’s a lot of variety to be found with metal planters. The main problems can be drainage in those items that are not specifically made with planting in mind and insulation.
Fluctuations in temperature can mean that a hot day can frazzle what’s inside, while plummeting temperatures won’t be cushioned by metal. Expect rusting if you’ve got them outdoors, which can shorten the life of certain planters.
Wood is a great way of building exactly the kind of container you want, and railway sleepers and planks can make jumbo containers in the form of raised beds. For those wanting to grow organically, be mindful of how it has been – or will be – treated, and with what.
Making drainage holes isn’t a problem with the help of a drill, and wood can soften against a natural backdrop nicely. Sometimes, though, it can be all too natural: wooden containers can prove a haven for slugs and snails, and rot more readily than other materials.