Why does the United Kingdom have a worldwide reputation as a nation of fine gardeners? It could be our obsession with manicured, striped, green lawns. Perhaps it’s the prestige of the annual RHS Chelsea Flower Show, which is beamed around the globe on TV. Or maybe it’s gardeners’ skill at adorning homes with hanging baskets, window boxes and plant containers that are a riot of colour all summer.
Our love affair with plants that flower their socks off for months on end is even more of a surprise when you consider that summer bedding is the underrated star of the gardening world. While much of the nation flocks to garden centres at weekends, cramming trollies with petunias, busy Lizzies and geraniums, the flower power of bedding plants seldom benefits from exposure on TV garden makeover shows. Even if you’re new to gardening, it’s a breeze to plant-up flower pots and hanging baskets that will be worthy of Britain in Bloom gold medal. Read on to find out how to grow beautiful hanging baskets and container displays in your garden.
1. Use Quality Compost
Using quality compost is the cornerstone of container success. In the same way that you wouldn’t buy a sports car then top-up the engine with cheap oil, quality compost is the lifeblood of summer flower displays – defining whether your bedding plants put on a lacklustre show or a spectacle that’s the talk of the town.
Plant containers, especially hanging baskets, represent one of the most inhospitable growing environments imaginable, giving roots limited access to vital moisture and nutrients. That’s why it’s worth forking out for a quality ‘tub and basket’ compost: not only will it contain water-retaining crystals that prevent plants from gasping on scorching days, but it will be formulated with a blend of nutrients to keep bedding plants firing on all cylinders. If tub and basket compost isn’t available, look for a multipurpose compost that’s enriched with plant food and mix in a scoop full of water-retaining gel, which can be bought separately.
2. Help Plants To Survive Summer Heat
Bedding plants are thirsty, with hanging baskets requiring daily watering in high season. To ensure that plants don’t become dehydrated in between watering, set a deep-rimmed plastic saucer in the base of hanging baskets before filling with compost (if you don’t have a saucer, an old margarine tub will do). It will reduce run-off and act as a built-in reservoir.
When the mercury soars, containers of bedding plants should be stood in large saucers of water so that compost can absorb moisture as required. If plastic plant pots have no or limited drainage holes, get the drill out prior to planting and create additional drainage. Your choice of plant pot or window box will dictate how often it needs watering: plastic containers retain moisture well while Terracotta, which can appear more ornamental, will dry out quicker. Once compost becomes parched it can be tricky to re-wet, so watering regularly is essential.
3. Select Top Performers For Bedding Plants And Hanging Baskets
The world is your oyster when it comes to selecting summer bedding for non-stop flowering. Geraniums, commonly sold flowering in red, white or pink, are a must for hot, sunny locations due to their unbeatable drought-resistance. Trailing fuchsias hold timeless appeal for hanging baskets and window boxes, as do petunias – proven winners such as trailing Surfinia types will create a cascade of rich hues, while calibrachoa is ideally suited to the edges of hanging baskets and flower pots. Consider coleus for patio pots – it’s unbeatable for a kaleidoscope of vibrantly coloured nettle-style leaves.
Busy Lizzies were once the first port of call for hanging baskets and pots but traditional types (Impatiens walleriana) have succumbed to downy mildew in recent years. New Guinea busy Lizzies are a popular alternative that do not fall foul of disease, although upright growth makes them more suited to plant pots and window boxes than hanging baskets. Concerns over impatiens downy mildew has driven demand for trailing begonias as disease-free alternative. Begonias are available in a huge choice of colours and some even bear fragrant blooms that add a new dimension to trailing displays.
Nasturtiums flower profusely (look out for the stunning new red-and-yellow variety called ‘Orchid Flame’) but can be susceptible to aphid infestations, although sap-sucking insects are easily tackled using an organic bug killer. Pansies and violas remain an all-time favourite, bearing an abundance of flowers throughout the season, while trailing lobelia, lysimachia (creeping Jenny), verbena and ivy are just the ticket for putting the finishing touch to flower displays. Bush tomatoes and strawberries will crop profusely in hanging baskets and window boxes, too, if you fancy an abundance of sweet treats right outside your door!
4. Create A Ball Of Colour
Planting hanging baskets in layers holds the key to creating a ball of colour. Some baskets come with ready-formed liners while others need to be lined with a layer of moss (don’t skimp on moss or plants and compost will drop out when watering!). Sit hanging baskets on a bucket for planting, part fill with compost then insert trailing plants through the sides, before topping up with compost to a centimetre below the rim. Pop tall plants in the centre, surrounded by additional cascading blooms.
The same rule applies for patio containers. Create a focal point by placing upright plants such as osteospermum and pelargoniums in the centre, surrounded by lower, trailing flowers. Water well and leave newly planted flower pots and baskets in a sheltered area of light shade for the first week, giving plants time to take root before being exposed to the heat of the sun. Hanging baskets can remain sat on buckets during this period to help plants settle in. Before hanging, check that wall brackets are sturdy: if not, replace the wall plugs or brackets as the weight of baskets can increase after watering, raising the risk of the whole lot coming crashing down!
5. Water And Feed Generously
Quality compost should contain sufficient nutrients to feed plants for four to eight weeks. However, liquid feeding fortnightly from mid-summer is essential. A general-purpose feed such as Phostrogen or Miracle-Gro, or an organic liquid food, will keep flowers coming thick and fast, as long as spent blooms are regularly dead-headed.
Liquid feeds work best when compost is moist, as less is wasted due to run-off and roots can absorb the goodness. Use rainwater from butts if available and water first thing in the morning or before dusk when temperatures are lower – soak then repeat for best effect, taking care to avoid splashing blooms. If using a hosepipe to water, adding a lance can make reaching high baskets easier – and you’ll avoid getting wet feet!
What challenges have you experienced with your plant containers or hanging baskets? Have you got any successes or failures you’d like to share? Let us know in the comments below.