What specimen plants can I grow in containers?

Award winning garden designer Geoff Stonebanks shares his tips for growing perennials, shrubs and specimen plants in pots

Palms give Geoff's garden a tropical feel Image: Geoff Stonebanks

Any readers that are familiar with my garden will know that my philosopy is very clearly, you can grow anything in a container. The key for me is to enjoy the flexibility that gardening in pots can bring to my space.

A rusted urn of heucheras adds a fascinating focal point to the garden
Image: Geoff Stonebanks

With over 20,000 visitors now having seen Driftwood in the last few years, it is vital that I try and achieve a degree of change every year, otherwise return guests are going to see the same look every year.

Instant impact

The divisive moment in my gardening learning process came on a visit to Highgrove a few years ago. I was observing the gardeners instantly change the look of the patio at the back of the house by lifting out the inner pots of some beautiful urns and dropping in some perfectly primed tubs of tulips. The instant impact this gave stuck in my mind and convinced me that more containers was the way to go. I told the story to Prince Charles when I met him at Buckingham Palace in early 2018, which made him smile.

Unlikely pot mates

I suppose the biggest surprise many garden visitors have is seeing a gunnera in a large container adjacent to the small pond in the garden. Its large leaves dominate the area to its rear, towering above the summer annuals. I’d wanted one in my garden for some time and when I discussed the prospect with a nursery owner at Hampton Court a few years ago they suggested that by planting one in a large pot they would grow accordingly and so it has! It certainly made an impact on BBC Gardeners’ World when we were featured back in 2016.

Even this gunnera is growing in a container, cleverly disguised by other pots of plants
Image: Geoff Stonebanks

The image of the gunnera is a good example of my technique, just doing as I please, mixing all container types of planting together, weaving a carpet of colour and texture that confuses visitors to believing it is all planted in the ground! I’ve even got other annuals and perennials growing in the same container.

Feature plants

Other good specimen plants that work well for me in containers are ferns and palms, I’ve many across the plot, including two tree ferns, which help create a tropical feel in the gravel garden by the summerhouse and a large collection of potted palms which can be lifted and dropped into gaps as needed.

Grasses work well in containers
Image: Geoff Stonebanks

I find that grasses make the perfect additions to containers too. In the beach garden at the front of the house, a potted blue grass makes a great impact to visitors as they climb the steps up from the road.

Royal effort

I also have a pair of urns in my garden, maybe not quite as grand as those at Highgrove, but they do benefit from specimen plants like heucheras with some trailing foliage around to make a real statement. The area behind my house has been developed into a corridor of containers, mostly in the shade.

Geoff has created a corridor using containers of plants
Image: Geoff Stonebanks

Along the six metre length you can see a complete mix of planting with annuals, perennials, shrubs and a large Japanese conifer too. The overall effect is quite stunning and visitors are always surprised when I explain how it has been created. So, get planning now for your very own 2020 container garden!

Geoff Stonebanks

About Geoff Stonebanks

Geoff Stonebanks lives in Bishopstone, near Seaford in East Sussex and spends all his time gardening and fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support. Using his multi award-winning garden - Driftwood - he has raised over £131,000 for various charities in 9 years, £80,000 of that for Macmillan. The garden, which first opened to the public in 2009 has featured on BBC2 Gardeners' World, Good Morning Britain and in many national and local media publications. In his spare time, Geoff is also an Assistant County Organiser & Publicity Officer in East & Mid Sussex.
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