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How You Can Upcycle To Create The Perfect Plant Containers

Leigh Hunt

Leigh Hunt



Plant containers are a space-saving option for the garden that's easier than working the soil. Leigh Hunt, Horticultural Advisor for the RHS tells us all that's needed to know about upcycling them. 

I love a good rummage. Whether it’s a cavernous antique centre in Lewes or the shop at the council recycling centre (where people donate before they dump), no matter what I set out to look for, I come back with things I never knew I needed (and I can’t be the only one!). However, there is one thing that's always high on my upcycling list, and that's containers that I can grow plants in. Looking for and buying these is a particularly great thing to do in autumn, as the season is the perfect time to get potting for winter colour in your garden.

Find That Special Item To Upcycle

Now, when I say I'm 'upcycling items to turn into plant containers' I’m not talking about wonky wheelbarrows and old gardeners’ boots. As shabby chic and charming as these may look in an eclectic garden, I’m always hoping for something that's a little more special. 

One of the best containers that you can find is actually Galvanised wash tubs, complete with handles for the holy grail. Once known as the un-automatic washing machine of their day, they now do much better service with a couple of holes in the bottom as planting troughs. Brilliantly, they can look great in any garden style, fitting well with a vintage chic look. Or, a plainer Galvanised wash tub would equally fit into modern, minimalist garden designs. If you're feeling adventurous, a lick of paint can completely revamp its look too!

When choosing your item to turn into a plant container it's important to think of the three questions. Will it function as a plant container? Can I drill holes into the bottom to enable drainage? Does it suit my style and my garden's style? If you can happily answer these, then you've found your container!

Unwanted Items Can Become Your Beloved Plant Containers

When you begin searching for containers at the recycling centre, you're going to notice that there are plenty of items that you could buy at a garden centre, that people are actually throwing away. I regularly pick up terracotta containers, wooden troughs and the odd (fake) stone pot that make excellent additions to my garden. As long as the items fit your purpose and style, my advice is, have a go! Thankfully, many recycling centres and antique shops will deliver to your door if you do get carried away with your container hunt – or if you find something that's too heavy to carry away!

Good Drainage Is Key To A Functional Plant Container

No matter what the container is that you have chosen, there are two key basics when it comes to growing plants in them. The first is drainage.

To ensure that you have good drainage in your plant container, you'll need to add a decent sized hole in the bottom – or several. You can either do this by drilling it yourself or by getting a family member or friend to do it if you don't feel experienced enough. 
Once you're happy that your container has adequate drainage, simply add a piece of broken pot or a recycled chunk of polystyrene bedding to the bottom of your container to stop the compost falling through. There’s no need to add a layer of grit or gravel in the bottom, as this just reduced the amount of compost that will reach your plant's roots.

Understand The Type Of Compost That You'll Need

Choosing the right potting compost can seem like learning the dark arts, especially when you're confronted by piles of bags at the garden centre. I like to keep things as simple as possible, so if it’s a container where the same plants will grow for more than 2-3 years, go for John Innes No. 3 compost. This is a rich compost that works well for a wide range of plants, trees, shrubs and climbers as well as mature indoor plants that may need replanting. 

For plants that will last one season, say until next summer, then a multipurpose compost is perfectly adequate for whatever you choose to plant. Now, I’m not one for brands, but when it comes to multipurpose compost, there are a lot of dubious products out there. From experience, some grow plants very poorly. That’s why I’d suggest going for some that have been tried and tested by consumers, for example by the consumers’ association, Which?. According to which, their top peat-free Best Buys for 2018 are Melcourt Silvagrow and B&Q Verve Multi-purpose Peat Free. 

How To Decide On What You'll Plant In Your New Container

What to plant is the fun and easy part. Most garden centres have sections of winter bedding plants, such as pansies, ivies and primroses from which you can have carte blanche. These will flower a little in the winter month, providing some welcome cheer, before bursting into full bloom next March or April. To add a twist to your arrangement, plant an impressive corkscrew hazel in the centre that will bear catkins in February. 

For a punch of colour, use dogwoods with colourful stems. Both of these are shrubs and can either be left in the container for another year (don’t forget your John Innes No. 3!) or you can alternately, plant them out in the garden.

Top Tips To Help You Get The Most From Your Container Garden

Once you have created your perfect container garden, here are Leigh Hunt's top tips on getting the most out of it, all year long.

  • Don’t forget to water your plants in winter. The compost in containers only needs to be kept moist, so it may be a case of watering them once a week to once a fortnight, but most plants can’t withstand drying out.
  • Remove faded flowers. It will keep your containers looking presentable and can prevent mould disease.
  • Make sure that your plant selection is hardy. Some variations of cyclamen, for example, are hardy while others aren’t. Simply check the label or ask to be sure.

So, feeling pleased with my not-on-the-high-street containers, I look forward to the upcoming winter, making use out of them and I hope that you can take inspiration from this too. Do buy whatever you like though... whether your plant container is shop bought or upcycled it's what goes into them that matters the most. Although, in my opinion, from the few pounds spent on my upcycled plant containers, I get even better satisfaction than I would from a brand new winter coat!

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