Growbag Blog

Pots for those intimate garden coffee spots


Hurrah! We’re storming through the vaccination programme here in the UK but wait, that means getting the hair cut, weight lost and joggers back in the cupboard pretty damn quick and the garden prepped for VISITORS!

Long-time family friend and Growbag follower Ann is seeking advice for creating little coffee spots in her garden using plants in pots that are a bit more hefty than the usual bedding varieties on offer now. She’s thinking mainly of green foliage with just a dash of colour and needs one collection for shade and one for sun.

Fortunately Ann came to me, the most knowledgeable sister, first (she knows which one of us to trust), and I want her to be quite adventurous. To set the scene in her shady spot I think she should invest in a tree fern (yes, expensive, but happy in quite a small pot so that’s a saving). In our feature picture above we have a tree fern, a camellia and a group of lilies all living happily in pots in a shady corner.

Ann could also add in one of the bigger hostas (sometimes much better in a pot as they are away from the slugs). Hostas flower in early summer and many have delicious fragrance at just the right height to be sniffed whilst enjoying a latte and a home baked rock cake (just saying …..Ann lives just round the corner from me …)

Hostas tend to be grown for their leaves but many also have beautiful, scented flowers

And for a bit of late summer drama, how about a ginger lily, which can be bought very cheaply now as a corm (to balance the cost of the tree fern). Ignore all the cultivation advice about ginger lilies liking full sun, Ann, they thrive in deep shade, and we have seen them absolutely rampant in the wet shady gorges of the Azores. All these three will like regular watering, but I’m sure Ann would up for this.

Hedychium gardnerianum - ginger lily
Ginger lilies (this one is Hedychium gardnerianum) have lush exotic leaves and if you’re lucky, dramatic scented flowers at the end of summer

For a sunny spot Ann has already taken up the Growbags Three Pot Challenge and bought our bulb collection of stunning white agapanthus, tall apricot watsonias and the exotic looking pineapple lily so she’s off to a great start! (we still have a few bulb collections left but you need to hurry …) If she wanted to add a bit more height and foliage, and has a good big pot available, I would recommend Dahlia imperialis, which again is available quite cheaply as a tuber at this time of the year, and repays you with amazingly robust stems almost like tree trunks and layers of tropical looking foliage – a gorgeous backdrop to her pots of flowering bulbs.

Dahlia imperialis
Now this is what I call a dahlia, thumping great stems and attractive spreading leaves


I’m here to add a marvellously practical element to the pots on your post-Lockdown outdoor nook. Ann’s idea of ‘mostly green with touches of colour’ is a lovely one, but how about adding some edibles to the list?

Lots of herbs thrive in pots in the sun – lavender, basil, lemon verbena (Aloysia triphylla)(I adore this plant – pure sherbert lemons!), thyme, oregano, rosemary, sage, etc. and some are happy in light shade too – mint, parsley, dill, garlic and chives, and so on. In fact, don’t THINK of planting mint anywhere BUT in a pot, or it will spread quicker than rumours of a new series of Line of Duty. Many herbs are fabulous pollinators and very pretty too – a pot-edging of curly parsley is a delight, for instance, as is the foliage of bronze fennel, or the bright flowers of rosemary. Your guests could watch the bees at work, crush a few leaves and relish the scent as they sip their tea.

Aloysia triphylla
Lemon verbena – grow it near to where you sit and run your hand over the leaves – heaven!

For more colour, add some edible flowers like nasturtiums or pot marigolds (Calendula, not the ‘French’ kinds which are Tagetes). Violas and borage don’t mind partial shade though I suggest you get them growing well in a sunny place first, before you move the pot to the shadier position.

Marigolds – easy, pretty and edible!

Now what about some veg? I have become such a fan of vegetable -growing in pots since the pandemic first hit us for six. They are so much easier in pots! You thus lift carrots (with their beautiful feathery tops!) out of the way of the wretched carrot-root fly, you control the snail and slug attacks on salads or courgettes, and create the height that Ann was seeking with wigwams for peas and beans. Several bean varieties have pretty flowers too. You might not want onions or Brussels sprouts among your terrace ornamentals, but lots of developing veg can look very attractive as well as impressive, and be right there on hand for the caterer in your household (not me!). Beetroot, kohl rabi, chard, spinach and even loose-leaf lettuces are all fine in a shadier cooler spot. Lots more tips on growing gorgeous veg in our new Beginner’s Veg pocket-book, of course – find it in our shop.

Lettuces in a container
Lettuces are great in a pot – and it’s easier to keep them safe from slugs!

How about getting fruity? Apple and pear trees bred to be small are fantastic in big pots, or figs or little cherries; strawberries are excellent in containers…..Gooseberries, raspberries and redcurrants will grow in shadier areas……

Time to see what of value Caroline can add to the discussion……


Golly how on earth did Elaine’s former pupils pass their exams? Isn’t the golden rule ‘Read the question fully before answering’? Ann wants big plants to create ‘living walls’ around intimate garden seating. A big ask for your average carrot or lettuce, right?

Move over. Not only have I understood the brief but I, too, have some skin in this game. My newly built house is still a little exposed to the critical gaze of passers-by (“Look, they’re having another drink Mildred!”), so I, too, could do with some instant and movable height depending on the time of day.

Something like this can help with the whole height issue!

I’m tempted to invest in two or three pots of bamboo (with mahoosif ballast in their bottoms – we’ve talked about the wind in Scotland before I think?). But I’m worried they may look rather depressing in winter, which I really don’t need. Any views?

One solution for Ann is to give her pots a lift. Laura actually gave some good advice recently about buying chimney pots for this purpose, and I’ve seen swish examples of people creating ‘bases’ for a row of pots if the space you’re creating is to be permanent, and then you can have pots of whatever takes your fancy flowering at a decent height.

If that’s not an option for Ann, I do think she is going to be pleased with Laura’s summer bulb offer. In my experience watsonias, eucomis and agapanthus are all pretty muscular in the foliage department. Granted they’ve also been chosen for their contemporarily cool colours so… you know what’s coming right?…what about the odd wigwam of climbing nasturtiums for that dash of colour (love nasturtiums), or adding in a pot of zinnias or even tithonias?

Now I’m going to surprise you with the shady area. I’m going to suggest a gunnera.These damp shade-lovers can grow enormous beside a stream. We call ours Frankenstein and keep him in a galvanised bucket from which he emerges like a monster each spring – just look at him go here. Keep his bucket very well watered and drag him into a sheltered spot in winter. If it’s privacy you want his giant leaves and prehistoric aspect are tantamount to having a couple of dobermans at your gate. No need for a gun – a gunnera should do the trick!

He’s alive! Frankenstein emerges from his bucket each year.

If you are after a few more ideas for pots, you can check an earlier blog we wrote on the subject.

Louise has a great little early tulip for a pot as her plant of the month this week. Click on the box below to find out what it is.

One of The3Growbags’ favourite seed suppliers, Suttons, is running a competition to get free tomato seeds – check it out here.

More NB If you’d like a bit more gardening chitchat from the3growbags, please type your email address here and we’ll send you a new post every Saturday morning.

By the3growbags

We're three sisters who love gardening, plants and even the science of horticulture but we're not all experts. We'd love everyone even remotely interested in their gardens to be part of our blogsite.

8 replies on “Pots for those intimate garden coffee spots”

Love your blog ladies and this week’s, all about the pots couldn’t have come at a better time. I have a tree fern and yes, it’s in a pot. I rescued it when it was just a baby about 20 years ago when it was in a skip outside a local small nursery. It had been hit by frost and so abandoned. I took it home and potted it up and it came through. Over the years I have repotted it and it has grown to about 5ft trunk height. I haven’t repotted for some time and it really is just roots in there. It’s fine and happy so should I leave it alone or repot again. Not sure I can buy a pot big enough actually. Anyway, any thoughts very gratefully received. Thank you and best wishes, Alex

Hello Alex
Thanks for getting in touch and it sounds like you’re doing famously with your tree fern, and especially rewarding as it was a rescue!
The thing is that tree ferns don’t have much of a root system anyway. Their rough trunks do most of the water uptake, and you just have to trickle water down the outside of its trunk regularly to keep it happy. And if it’s the right height for you already and it seems happy then I would leave it be. I have been told that you can sprinkle a handful of slow release fertiliser granules into crown as the young fronds emerge to give it a boost, but I would be careful of watering directly into the crown before the weather warms up in case the centre rots. I live in a frost pocket so bring mine under cover in the depths of winter, so it helps to have it in a relatively small pot. Hope this is helpful, best wishes Laura

North facing garden with tremendous windows, we were a little sheltered but our neighbours have cut their trees down ! I’ve a cottage garden coming through and dahlias to plant , they will be staked any adv please to help these plants survive ?!

Hi Gillian, Elaine here. Oh, it’s very tricky when your garden conditions suddenly change, isn’t it! Our small town garden backs on to a little park, and there is a lime tree that puts a corner of it into deep shade through the summer. But every few years, the council come and pollard it right down to an ugly stumpy trunk, and all the shady-loving things in that space have to put up with the blazing sun for a 2-3 years until the canopy grows again…….. Dahlias are not famous for liking wind much (!), so I would certainly stake the stems individually, and perhaps pinch out the shoots a little more than usual, to keep the plants bushier.
You say you have a cottage garden (my favourite style!), so I would have lots of lower-growing things like cranesbills, brunneras, hellebores, etc.growing around their stems for additional support. Planting a few sturdier shrubs like berberis, spiraea or philadelphus, might also help.
The other thing I would do, I think, is look for some of the lower-growing ‘bedding’ dahlias which I reckon would have more of a chance against a howling Northerly blast. Hope that helps – good luck!

Dear Girls, I so love your blog and have passed it on to many friends and my son, who has a new house and a lovely garden. I have just received your summer bulb collection, I have bought John Innes 2 and 3 BUT I really want to mix the bulbs into a couple of 16 inch pots, Do you think this is a bad idea? I bought the larger pkt.! Thank Christine

Hello Christine, Laura here and so glad you are enjoying our ramblings and getting the family involved too!
Personally I think it would be a mistake to mix the bulbs up together. You might get away with it the first year, but after this things would go downhill. The agapanthus will develop large fleshy roots that would hog the soil area and copious leaves that would shade out the other two bulbs. I would definitely have these in a separate pot and use your John Innes no 3 for them as they love rich living.
You may have more luck mixing the eucomis and the watsonias, but my bet is that over time the eucomis would win in a battle for supremacy as it is a vigorous and leafy grower in comparison to the more rarefied and finicky watsonia. John Innes no2 would suit these two.
But having said all that you could always just ignore my advice, give it a go and happily prove me wrong – my sisters always love it when I am brought down a peg or two!
Let us know how you get on ?
Best wishes Laura

I love your funny, clever blog too. In response to Elaine’s question for ways to add privacy to a house using tall plants, I can share some inspiration from a Guardian article I read, and last year grew the giant Rudbekia Herbstonne, available from Larch Cottage nurseries, on my new patio. I was very pleased with its 7ft tall growth in one year. I had to put it in a half barrel but I emptied the bottom contents of my compost bin into it to save on uber amounts of bought compost, and with some staking it even stood up in my little wind tunnel next to the patio. The lower stems were a bit bare by the end of the summer so I added Perovksia which filled the space beautifully and both are putting on growth now, having come through our mild midlands winter no trouble.

BTW, I don’t have a social media account and the competition link isn’t happy with me logging in by email for some reason. Is a postal entry acceptable? 🙂

Hello Rowan and so glad you are enjoying our blog – we love writing it! Great ideas about growing herbaceous perennials in big pots on your patio, I did a similar thing last year with another monster herbaceous plant, Lobelia tupa, and it worked like a charm. Love Larch Cottage Nursery too, one of the best in the country I reckon.
Sorry to hear that you’re having difficulty entering the Thompson and Morgan competition – are you using a desktop computer? It may be better to try on your phone which may have a more up to date browser. It seems to be working ok for others. Unfortunately T&M can’t accept postal entries as it’s all sorted out in the digital world!

Best wishes and happy gardening Laura

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