Tuesday 15 September 2015

Container Gardening with
Harriet Rycroft, week 1


It can be easy to get carried away when window shopping for containers. With such a wealth of variety in size and shape – not to mention price – I find I’ve often created a wish list that far exceeds my budget, let alone my available space.

And then to complicate any decision further, there are the different materials and finishes to be considered, each with their own characteristic textures: ceramics (including glass), glazed or unglazed, metals, wood, stone, as well as all manner of plastics and resins. I’ve just been exploring the possibilities of making my own containers using hypertufa – a mix of perlite, cement and sphagnum peat moss – and plan to give it a go once I’ve decided upon a sustainable alternative to the organic element. Everyone has their own favourites, and I tend to be drawn towards terracotta and zinc galvanised containers, whilst shying away from plastic.

Materials snob? Possibly, though this isn't snootiness at the notion of mass production, but rather sadness at the cynicism of flooding the market with “containers” that are little more than giant injection-molded buckets with poorly finished seams, not to mention the apparent willingness of the general gardening public to buy the hideous things. It is pleasing to surround yourself with objects and materials which reflect the ethos and values you hold, in the garden, as with every other space in your life. Terracotta speaks to me of the earth, of craftsmanship and skill, while galvanised iron objects possess the rugged honesty of the early-industrial period. Both materials, along with stone and wood, achieve a beautiful patina with the passage of time, while plastic merely bleaches and becomes brittle.

So far, I seem to have made a good job of proving my opening statement. All this fuss over the pot, when I'm really far more interested in the plant than on the object in which its root system will make a home. But, while it can’t be denied that a sympathetic match between container and contents can produce a pleasing effect, there is one exception to all of this: the upcycled container, the old box, tin or broken bit of crockery, destined for landfill but given at least a temporary reprieve, pressed into service as the custodian of a plant’s delicate parts. However humdrum its origins, I can’t help but find the combination of faded utility and luxuriant growth immensely compelling, hopeful and encouraging.

No room for the rubber duck. © Sara Venn

It’s the end of the first week of the Container Planting course at My Garden School. Harriet’s video talk and notes saw her at pains to have us consider our objectives in relation this form of gardening, whilst providing a comprehensive overview of the “whys and wheres” of using containers within the garden. Underpinning all I detected an exhortation to adopt a conscientiously purposeful approach, which could present me with a minor challenge, relying as I do rather on instinct and whim in this area. For the first week’s assignment, we were asked to find photos of four containers we’d like to use, explaining what had drawn us to them, where we would consider siting them within the garden, and why.

Here’s my selection.

The Whichford Pot

There’s nothing quite like a well-made vintage or handmade terracotta pot. I’ll settle for mass produced terracotta if I have to, but I'm not a huge fan of those ugly square rims.

Whichford pots aren’t exactly cheap, but having been to the pottery and seen the care and attention to detail that goes into each one, I have no qualms about parting with the money, even if I can’t afford to do it that often. And it’s not an astronomical outlay – we’re talking eight quid for a 7 inch pot, as opposed to £1.50 for a bog standard diy shed effort – buy one a month and give up the ciggies, or Sky+. Actually that would equate to several small pots, or something more fancy.

Whichford terracotta is unlike the smooth, flat stuff you might be used to. It’s a richer, orangey brown colour, a more tactile, open texture, which reminds me of biscuits (ginger nuts, to be specific). They often incorporate text into the design, whether simply manufacturer’s name around the pot, or a quote from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I’m a sucker for words in the garden.

The pot I’ve chosen for my imaginary shopping list is from the Shakespeare range, featuring a line from one of Puck’s speeches around the rim. I’d have it next to the kitchen door, planted with wild thyme, and other aromatic spices, well within reach when I need something to perk up what I’m cooking.

The trefoil pot

A few years ago, I spotted this container in an issue of Gardens Illustrated, and its haunted me ever since. The article appeared again in the special edition magazine from the publishers under the title “Pots of Style” (still available from the website), so at least I can look at a picture of it, even if I can't find anything similar to what must be a pretty one-off piece in the shops.

The mottled grey and white material is glass reinforced concrete, although at first glance you might be forgiven for mistaking it for galvanised steel. The plants perfectly complement the container – Sedum 'Cape Blanco', Anthemis marschalliana, Jovibarba allionii and Lampranthus spectabilis, planting by Sarah Price.

This is clearly too small to be placed on the ground, too large for the windowsill, and the wrong shape for the shelves of the etagere. But its a perfect colour complement for the slate table in the courtyard, and I could sit and gaze at it while enjoying my morning coffee.

The broken teapot

This is an object with great sentimental value, but one that has sadly outlived its original purpose. I bought it during my first year at university, and it has been my constant companion for a quarter of a century, playing a central role in the many tea ceremonies that punctuate my day. But the glaze has finally cracked in many places, and it has become rather more porous than is useful in a teapot, an article inside which it is useful for the tea to remain until required it, at which point it should exit via the spout, not through various hairline cracks about the perimeter. Unable to bear parting with it, I decide to re-imagine it as a planter, although to date I've yet to find the perfect companion for its slightly awkward nature, and am currently stuck in a kind of limbo of indecision.

It is the perfect size for the outdoor window ledge, or the top of the hideous plastic gas meter cover which I try to obscure from view with an arrangement of pots in containers.

The old boot

I get through a work boots at an alarming rate; something to do with unusually mobile toes. It's a bit annoying – they split and start letting in water, or develop a weakness in some unrepairable spot, but seem otherwise perfectly sound. It's seems a shame to get rid of them, but I can't really have dozens of pairs of old boots cluttering up the place. It has struck me that, with an appropriate lining, and some drainage holes, they would make excellent plant pots – and I'm not the only gardener to have worked this out. Lucy Adams, head gardener at Doddington Place in Kent, created an entire display for this years Chelsea Fringe based around a tower of planted up wellington boots, an absolutely stellar display where the bright colours of the wellies clashed appealingly with the flowers.

Boots full of flowers. © 2015 Lucy Adams
My old work boots are less extrovert, I think, but I don’t see why one or two planted up couldn’t nestle perfectly happily towards the front of an arrangement of pots.

Harriet’s notes for week 1 of the course are downloadable at the time of writing from this link.

In the meantime, do have a look at the My Garden School website, which isstill running its  Back to School campaign for 15% off all £145.00 4 week online courses in October. (Course start dates: Wednesday 7 October 2015). Click here and remember to use the code MGSBTS at the checkout for the discount.