Every autumn, I hear my friends frustration that they have had to throw away a pile of summer bedding plants that have gone over, gone leggy, or just gone to their grave.
They bemoan the fact that they spent their hard-earned money buying these glossy glamorous looking plants in the nursery only to find that they only lasted a few months. Or end up with dried out unhappy plants at the end of the season.
I know that feeling. You love your pink petunias at the start of summer, then after daily deadheading of these smelly beasts and you are DONE! Be gone already.
But, is there a way that we can be less wasteful with our potted and container plants? Can we get off the consumer treadmill of buy, use, throw away?
Is there a better way to choose, reuse and repurpose our container plants?
Oh yes, there is, with a bit of planning and care you can have containers that look great all year round and spend less money! How? By planting your containers with repurposing in mind.
1. Before you buy, choose plants you can repurpose
By that I mean, choosing plants that come back again every year – also known as perennials. Perennials can almost always be transferred into your garden after they’ve flowered or simply stay in your pot until the next year.
Perennials that don’t mind being in a container for a season include, echinacea, rudbeckia, geraniums, asters, lavenders, penstemons, sedum.
Ground cover plants like ivy and ajuga are great as you can divide multiple times and move to multiple pots.
If you have shade, go for astilbe, heuchera, hellebore, hostas, and foxgloves (but choose a dwarf or compact variety)
In autumn, most of the garden centres will sell Cyclamen coum – in beautiful pinks, reds and whites. These can go out in the ground later, but they are not super hardy. Why not go for the slightly smaller Cyclamen hederifolium. These naturalise and grow well and even spread under trees. So for just one plant, you could get a whole swathe of cyclamen in your garden.
I like this description from Sarah Raven about the hederifolium:
Cyclamen hederifolium are tougher, more resilient plants. You can tuck them in right under a hedge, or between the roots of a huge beech or oak tree, and they’ll be perfectly happy. They don’t steal the space of showier things, but accept the scantiest of sustenance, putting up with dry, thin soil as long as they have some shade.Sarah Raven, Growing cyclamen
But also don’t be afraid to scour the smaller nurseries for more unusual varieties. Don’t just go with what’s on offer at the bigger nurseries.
Check out this article from Architectural Digest of unusual plants you can grow in pots.
2. Grow bedding plants from seed and then save seed or overwinter
For just a few pounds you could try and grow your own summer bedding plants like petunias lobelia, geraniums, pelargoniums, nasturtium, marigold, nemesia. All you need is some seed trays, peat-free compost, and some seeds. Then come spring, just get sowing.
If it doesn’t work, then all you’ve lost is a few pounds to a packet of seeds. If it does, then you have great hardy plants to fill your garden.
Nasturtiums are the best value for money in my view. One seed can create a massive plant that cascades over the front of your pots – and it’s edible too!
Plus, you can also save seed from your bedding plants for re-planting again next year.
You can also overwinter some plants, like pelargoniums in a frost free place.
3. Take cuttings to gain more plants
Free plants!!!!! I know. All you need to do is take cuttings. The easiest plants to take cuttings from in late summer/autumn are:
For most plants, just cut just beneath two leaves, this is where all the super cells are that can make roots, then just pop in a small glass of water, making sure to change the water every few days. Or put into some very free-draining compost or vermiculite or perlite and keep moist, in a homemade plastic bag greenhouse. Just make sure the leaves don’t touch the side of the bag.
If I rush it, and don’t make the soil gritty enough, or make the environment humid enough they don’t strike. But if I take my time and make the conditions perfect they almost always work!⠀
I just dip the ends into some cinnamon or rooting hormone and stick them into some moist gritty compost – or compost mixed with perlite, then cover them with some loose plastic. They should make little rootlets in about 6-8 weeks!⠀
4. Divide plants
Grasses can be easily divided with a sharp knife. Just make sure they have a strong root system and the divisions should soon re-establish.
I’ve divided this carex grass, 3 times now. I’m probably pushing my luck, but my 6 new plants say otherwise.
5. Use Subs
Subs – are just inner pots that you put inside your main container. They are your pots waiting in the wings, ready to spring into action and be slotted into your main container.
If you have an inner pot, that means when that set of plants has flowered, you can lift it out and ‘sub’ or replace it with your next season perennials.
So you could have a pot with spring bulbs, like daffodils or snowdrops, that once over you replace with your hostas or dahlias for summer, or nerines for autumn. Or you could have a summer bulb pot or an autumn bulb pot waiting in the wings.
Longfield Gardens has a good list of summer bulbs for containers here.
If you don’t fancy moving pots in and out all the time, you could also lasagne plant. That means adding bulbs in layers in your pots that all flower at different times.
6. Use evergreen shrubs and grasses.
These are the ultimate repurposable plants. You can prune them to keep their shape or let them grow and replant. Plus they look good ALL year and are a great foil for other seasonal plants.
I have a stash of small conifers waiting in the wings (round the back of the house), that I can bring out during the winter, including a mini christmas tree.
Good all-year, all rounders include Pieris Japonica, heucheras, junipers, camelia, cornus sanguinea and of course grasses. I love the bright greens you get with Carex oshimensis ‘Everillo’ or the Hakonechloa macra. But there are grasses to suit every mood and style, from beautiful feathery plumes, to stubby soft bunny tails.
Check out Crocus to select the right kind of grass by soil type, flowering colour, sun tolerance etc.
You always see the lemon-scented Monterrey Cypress Goldcrest at this time of year in garden centres and pre-made containers outside gas stations. I bought two 5 years ago, and I have now pruned them into lollipops for my front porch. The birds even liked it enough to make a birds nest in it this spring. The ladybirds also love it over winter.
7. Refresh the compost or top up your containers
If your plants are looking unhappy it may be that they have simply exhausted all the nutrients in their container. Every spring, I like to top-dress my containers. That means, removing the top 2 inches of compost and replacing it with fresh peat-free compost.
8. Do regular health checks
- Check for bugs
I’m always caught out and don’t read the signs my plants are telling me, brown tips, yellowing leaves, wilting.
My sedum cuttings that were big and healthy suddenly started developing yellow leaves. I thought they were lacking nutrients, but after digging up and examining the roots I found vine weevil grubs had gnawed most of the roots completely off!!!
I’ve since cleaned them and am hoping they will revive, but I’m going to get some vine weevil nematodes to water into my containers on a regular basis too.
Encouraging more wildlife into the garden can also help keep adult populations down – as can spotting them over the summer months and flinging them FAR FAR AWAY!
2. Check for nutrient deficiency
Most plants also run out of nutrients after 6 months. So make sure you refresh the compost and add in some organic homemade fertilizer.
3. Make sure there’s adequate drainage
If you want to keep your plants in tip top condition then don’t let them drown. If there isn’t adeuqate drainage, then the roots of your plants will simply rot. So make sure you add grit to your compost, and crocks or stones at the bottom of the pot AND raise your pots off the ground with pot feet. That way water can pass through the soil and drain out of the bottom.
9. Add seasonal props
If you keep reusing the same container, and are subbing in the odd seasonal plant, then using props can really help add some seasonal sparkle and keep your container looking fresh – without ditching the plants.
Props could be food, lighting, or even a plant borrowed from somewhere else in your garden.
I recently moved a kale plant from my veg garden into my container and it seems perfectly happy. I’ve also transplanted some thyme and sage too – to add some winter scent to the pots by my door.
At Christmas you could add baubles or twigs stuck into your soil. Or maybe a bauble or two.
Or if you have a container tree – why not add some moss balls and sedums beneath it. I am in LOVE with this one, especially the crystal icicles hanging down.
10. Fill your container from plants already in your garden
This is a great one if you are looking to save some cash. You probably have everything you need to fill a container, but just haven’t thought about your garden that way.
I always have some bit of overgrown cultivated ivy, some sprawling groundcover or a too big grass, that can be divided and used in my container.
So before you go and buy the latest seasonal plants, or short lived bedding plants – think about their repurposability. Go for perennials, fill your pot with good drainage and nutrition and plant with repurposing in mind.
For more ideas for your containers, check out my Pinterest board here.