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We've been rushing around lately trying to get all the pots moved under glass or emptied before the first hard frosts do it for us. Last summer we went well over the top with pots, starting with ones large enough to bury Ali Baba in, and finishing with ones small enough to group a little self-consciously in suitable pa rts of the garden. There, they cluster around doorways, up steps, atop walls, round seats in the courtyard, or proposed sites for seats on the half-built terrace. They take an hour or more to water, and bark our shins when we trip over them in the dark; but the rewards have been prodigious.
In them we grow plants ranging from lemons, olives and myrtles, through some of the exotic sages like the velvety 'pineapple sage' (with equally velvety scarlet flowers all winter, if you can house it), the marvellous rusty-pink flowered Stachys coccinea, and its relatives like the tender 'Balm of Gilead' or its hardy cousin, the anise hyssop, to commoners like fuchsias, gerberas, agapanthus and geraniums.
We've tried plants by themselves, and plants combined in what were intended to be tastef ul combinations, several of which needed hasty replanting at the dead of night. All the pots so far have been terracotta. Someone tried to sell us a can of silicone spray, carefullly designed to keep the pots clean raw orange and new-looking well into the millenium. That misses the point. Terracotta pots ought to look as if they've already seen a millenium, are green, scaled and chipped, and with a few picturesque cracks. We give ours age in a hurry by sponging them down with half a pint of milk and a few dessertspoons of mud; by the end of the first summer 'the look' begins to come. What you do then is up to you.
If you have a porch or a conservatory (now all the rage), you'll have room for some mature plants, ones that will look better every year. If you can manage lemons or Sevilles (they do well outdoors in the summer, but need, surprisingly, some shade), try pruning them as standards (easy, but it takes a bit of nerve) . Scots gardeners were importing lemon trees from Italy in the seventeenth century, but now no-one even tries them. Still, if lemons seem too much, bays, oleanders and myrtles can be grown and pruned easily, either as round-headed standards, or as obelisks. Bays can be found in gold-leaved variants (nice, for a change), and there's a charming myrtle with double flowers. Look for double-flowered oleanders; white is probably the nicest colour. Bay is, of course, essential in the kitchen, so you ought to have one of those anyway. If you don't have storage space, then you'll need a moveable feast. Big pots of agapanthus don't need blue skies and blue sea; they do splendidly in the north, die back about now, and can be stored in peat or even in their pots in a frost-free shed or garage. The bigger the pot the better they look. Dark blue sorts are around, but hunt nursery catalogues for white agapanthus (if you're not in a hurry, grow them from seed, though they'll need three or four years).
If you want to try plants in combination (and who doesn't?), start off playing safe, and use plenty of grey (flower arrangers call it silver). The half-hardy helichrysums offer good value; try H . microphyllus with a nice yellow cosmos (often sold as Bidens ferulaefolia) now doing the rounds, or with one of the named verbenas like the soft pink 'Silver Anne', or smoky red 'Lawrence Johnstone'. H. petiolatum has some nice and easily available forms, like the variegated one that looks good with with almost any of the trailing geraniums, or the yellow foliaged 'Limelight' which we tried with Stachys coccinea and a white lily L. longiflorum (the lily and the stachys remarkably easy from seed). The helichrysums grow with a will, so take cuttings in late summer, and overwinter them on the windowsill.
As to the size of pots, the bigger the better; one big pot costs less than two rather smaller ones, and usually gives more than twice the pleasure. One vast pot on a small patio, providing you can get round it, looks infinitely better than six mimsy ones. Rusty tin cans are better than plastic, and anything is better than those 'urns' made from dead car tyres.
However, terracotta is expensive, and can crack if the soil freezes, or the pots get a bang. If you don't want to commit funds to the mercy of weather or mischance, try wooden tubs or fibreglass fakes (though terracotta glues together easily with Araldite). Half-barrels hold plenty of soil, though 'Versailles' tubs look grander (Chatsworth Carpenters, based at that estate, make the most st ylish ones). As frost won't damage them, they can be planted up with hardy shrubs - Hydrangea arborescens looks marvellous at Hidcote, and stays in flower here into November, though we've just found a hydragea with variegated leaves that we are dying to try out. If you have no scruples about plastics in the garden, Four Seasons Designs, of Threxton Park Industrial Estate, Watton IP25 6NG make some rather good fibreglass tubs, the Gothick one especially suiting any Georgian doorway (whether fake or real). They also now do (2001) some fabulous vases.
Whatever plant material you go for, ha ve fun with them. We
try something new every year - this year we've been vastly impressed
with Felicia amelloides 'variegata', which we thought would be
horrible. The daisy flowers are pure sky blue, but the yellow
centre seems to stop them clashing with the prettily marked foliage.
We had to fight our friends off. We've also got keen on Francoa
sonchifolia, which Gertrude Jekyll liked in pots, and we'd seen
beside the pool at Tintinhull. With its bold lobed foliage, and
narrow spires of tiny pink flower, it's almost worth building
a pool for. However, of all the pots we tried, one of the simplest
was the most spectacular of all. With rich soil, plenty of shade,
and a two foot diameter pot, the humble golden variegated ginger
mint stole the show.
Copyright david stuart 2004