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How to start a Container Garden – properly!

Is your patio full of mismatched containers, overgrown plants and waterlogged lavender? Are they all unhappily stuffed in the same multipurpose compost?

When it comes to container gardening, I’ve gone with the philosophy of more is definitely better. Instead of learning from my gardening fails, I just keep buying more.

I would choose plants for my containers based on which shouted the loudest to me in the nursery. Or had the showiest petals or the bushiest leaves.

“My container choice would be a total afterthought”

My container choice would be a total afterthought. If it was cheap and cheerful that would invariably do. I would never think about how it would fit into the rest of the patio. Neither would I have given a second thought to where the plant was from or what compost it might prefer. Now, I’ve said it out loud – I’m really a very inconsiderate gardener. Or was!

After a frustrating afternoon spent juggling kids and wrestling with pots I had an email popped on my phone. As if sent by the gardening gods, Container Gardening with Chris Beardshaw appeared.

I’m not exaggerating when I say “Halle-gardening-lujah.”

Very few things change my mind or how I do things, but after the first 10 minutes of listening to Chris, I had seen the light. The error of my container ways was suddenly clear.

“Find a really clear design vision and stick to it…. and don’t deviate.”

Chris Beardshaw

The whole course is designed to equip you with an in-depth knowledge of how to pick the perfect container and fill it properly. But it’s not just about selecting plants. This course literally gets down to the nitty-gritty of how much grit your plants might need. to the perfect compost mix to selecting the right leaf shapes to create depth to your design.

Each assignment really made me think about what it was I wanted to achieve from my containers and how to choose the right plants to fit that vision.

Gardening is one of those areas where we never, genuinely, never stop learning.”

Chris Beardshaw

The first assignment makes you think about what vision you see for your container garden. VISION!!! I definitely didn’t have one of those. I had to get one very quickly…

Assignment 1: I’ve been to Japan twice in my life. Everything about their culture I find fascinating. However, I fell in love with the sculptural, minimal, simplicity of their lifestyle and their planting. Everything is considered, from the plastic packaging surrounding a pair of tiny chopsticks to the arrangement of plants and tiny stone sculpture in a Kyoto courtyard. 

Nothing is bought in haste, or without consideration. Every object is either beautiful or useful. Every plant or object in a planting scheme is designed to spark ‘joy’ or ‘peace’ in some way. 

In the past, I’ve bought plants that I think are Japanese, but never really got the feel right. Partly, I think now, because I’ve not given much thought to the container they were in. 

This mood board started with an image I had from my honeymoon where we stumbled upon a pottery atelier (Kotouen) in a bamboo forest walk in Arashiyama.

Japanese pottery atelier Kotouen in Arashiyama, 20 minutes from Kyoto

Every tiny, handcrafted pot was on display with a single leaf or branch. The colours of the pottery reflected all the greens and browns of the forest around. In his courtyard garden were enormous Tanuki racoon sculptures – hiding in the sculptural leaves and bamboo fencing. 

The pottery master believed that objects, especially pottery should be treasured for generations. Also that it is important to have a favourite piece and live with it. When it’s easy and cheap to buy things we don’t treasure them. Even though I got my bargain patio pots – I definitely don’t treasure them. I’ve since e-bay’d my white IKEA pots!

The photo of the potter’s courtyard is very much like the patio space I have in my house. It backs onto some mature beech, hawthorn, goat willow and elder trees. They are usually full of squirrels, robins, wood pigeons, magpies and bats. Beyond them is an open field full of sheep. 

In my design – I wanted to show containers and pots that were ‘well crafted’ and with an aged, handmade look to them, similar to the woodland natural surroundings. I have cheap plastic pots on the patio right now and their bright orange makes me upset when I see them. The black ones I have, however, feel much more in keeping with the colours of the trees behind. However, I’d love to be able to invest in a couple of pots that were handmade, had some textural detail or had some soul to them. It’s wet, and windy even in summer where I am – so I need the containers to be robust and withstand frost, as well as looking attractive when wet. I think I’m after a pseudo-Japanese/deciduous wet forest look.  I have a small patio pond, but again it is in the wrong container and not nice to look at, but I would like some water element too. 

In the winter, I want the pots to give an architectural feel to the space, even if there is no foliage. In the summer I want the pots and plants to blend with the landscape, but add some architectural beauty in the foliage – minus the racoon! I’ll use a squirrel instead. 

So the overall theme is DESIGNED, DARK, DAMP but peaceful. And the containers…hmm EXPENSIVE.  “

In the next assignments, I spent some very happy hours immersed in leaf shapes, colour wheels and plant habitats.

Could I create a Tuscan hillside in a complex container, what about an Irish meadow, or a French potager pot?

By lesson 4, Chris’s hands are stained black from the rich soil and compost mix he’s using. Meanwhile, I’ve created mood boards overflowing with ideas and also come up with an ambitious and over-the-top design for a planter inspired by Frida Kahlo.

It’s a design where I, not the local nursery, has decided what’s going in it. The result is a design where I have actually thought about the heights and depths each plant will occupy and how the container will help enhance my Kahlo-esque floral headband vision. I still can’t believe I came up with it.

Garden design has always seemed ethereal and the preserve of gardening geniuses, but yet Chris had helped me actually make something artistic – and more importantly something that would survive and thrive in its container.

This course was so good, I’ve made my equally eclectic, container hoarder of a mother take the course as well.

I’ve also started lecturing friends on the error of their containing ways.

I’ve done a lot of online courses and even degrees in my time and this one was the perfect length with top quality materials and videos – even with the constraints of filming in lockdown.

So 5 stars for the course structure and design. And – 10 stars for Chris. He has such a calming yet informative presence on screen that you will want to pot him up to keep him on your patio.

His type of plant genus needs a deep terracotta pot fired at a high temperature – in case you were wondering.

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