Are you looking for advice on the best plants for outdoor pots?
Whether you’re a beginner gardener who’d like to start small with plants in containers, or a seasoned pro who’s keen on planting outdoor pots, there’s lots here to inspire you.
This post on the best plants for pots lists over 25 fantastic low maintenance plants for outdoor pots. I’ve also included simple tips for taking care of your plants so that they thrive and provide you with a gorgeous display, and a quick guide to the basic tools you need for planting containers.
The benefits of growing plants in pots
Growing plants in pots has lots of advantages.
If you’re new to gardening, growing plants in pots is a great way to get started. You can keep things small-scale, moving onto larger displays as you learn and become more confident.
The other element of container gardening that suits new gardeners is the low maintenance aspect. It’s easier and quicker to take care of a plant in a pot than it is to keep on top of a whole garden border. In addition, containers are relatively portable, so if your plant is struggling you can easily move it to a different location before it’s too late.
That portability is a big plus for renters too, because you can take your plants with you when you move.
Containers are also perfect for gardening in small spaces. You don’t even need a garden; you can tuck a pot onto a balcony, outside a front door, or on a window ledge. This makes growing plants in pots a super-easy way to green up your outdoor space regardless of its size.
Gardening in pots, baskets and containers allows you to adjust the height of your garden too. This is particularly helpful if your movement is restricted, or you struggle to garden at ground level. Being able to play with height is also a fantastic way to create a bigger display of plants and flowers in a small space by using a range of pot sizes, trellis or even shelving.
Container gardening is also ideal for children. Kids love having their very own pot to take care of, and it’s easy for them to plant in a smaller space. You can introduce some fun crafting too, by decorating their pot or making plant markers.
Finally, if you don’t have lots of time for gardening, concentrating on growing plants in pots is a good compromise. The smaller scale translates into less time dealing with watering, weeding and pests – and you won’t have to do any digging!
It’s not hard to see why container gardening is so popular, is it?
Do plants grow better in pots or in the ground?
Some plants are better suited to growing in the ground, and some will be more than happy growing in a pot. Choose plants that are well-suited to growing in container planters, and you stand a much better chance of creating a healthy and beautiful container garden. In the gardening world this if often referred to as ‘right plant, right place’.
Right plant, right place
You might have come across the saying ‘right plant, right place’ already; it’s a key element of good garden design, and is often mentioned in gardening programmes and magazines. It’s a simple but powerful approach to helping your plants thrive, and it’s well worth taking a little bit of time to understand the concept.
All plants – regardless of what you grow them in – have their own set of conditions that they will thrive in. Put your plant somewhere that provides these conditions, and you’re already well on the way to making it happy.
The flip side of this idea is that by forcing a plant to grow in conditions it doesn’t naturally enjoy, you will automatically limit how well it does.
The ‘right plant, right place’ concept goes a long way towards explaining why you might have lost plants in the past, and also gives you a simple framework for growing your plants going forward.
So how do you work out the conditions that your plants need? First of all, check the care label. If you don’t have one, look the plant up online, or use a plant identification app. Some plants need full sun, while others are happy growing in full shade. Your plant may need a high humidity level, or love to bake in dry heat. Once you’re armed with this information, you can choose the perfect spot for your container and make sure you’ve given your plants the best possible chance of doing well.
The difference between annual and perennial plants for outdoor pots
If you’re relatively new to gardening, here’s a quick guide to the difference between annual and perennial plants. This will come in handy when you’re choosing your plants and setting your budget.
Annual plants grow, flower and die in one growing season, or year. As a result, you will usually need to replace them with new plants every year.
Perennial plants will grow year after year. They might die back in winter and grow again in spring, or be evergreen. Either way, you shouldn’t need to replace them on a regular basis.
The majority of plants sold in garden centres and online for container planting are annual plants. They’re often labelled as ‘bedding plants’ and common varieties include begonia, pansies, petunia, lobelia and marigolds.
Can you plant perennials in flower pots?
Absolutely. If your perennial plant is suited to growing in a pot, there’s no reason not to. In fact, growing perennial plants in containers is a much more cost-effective way of gardening. It also opens up the range of plants available to you significantly. You can grow flowering plants, shrubs and even small trees perfectly well in pots, if you choose the right variety. Read on to find out what perennials do well in pots.
The best low maintenance plants for outdoor pots
So you’re raring to go with container gardening, and now it’s time to choose your plants. Here are my top picks for low maintenance plants for outdoor pots that will help you create stunning container displays.
Perennial plants for pots
A standard shrub is a shrub that has been grown into a specific shape. This is often a lollipop-shape that resembles the structure of a small tree. Standard shrubs are ideal plants to grow in containers, and can be used to create a big impact. They also make ideal tall plants for pots.
Great low-maintenance standard shrubs for outdoor pots include bay, photinia, wisteria, holly and ornamental cherries. I have a miniature ornamental cherry called Prunus incisa ‘Kojo-no-mai’ which is an absolute stunner in springtime.
There are many varieties of roses which are well-suited to growing in pots. As the name suggests, a patio rose variety is a perfect choice. I love the white simplicity of ‘Bianco’, but there’s a wide range of colours to choose from.
You probably associate succulents with indoor plants, but many varieties are ideal for outdoor pots. You can plant several varieties together to create a desert garden effect, or stick to one type for a more contemporary look. Succulents look fantastic against a gravel background, this is a great way to stop soil splashing onto the leaves too.
Succulents are very low maintenance outdoor potted plants, but they don’t enjoy sitting in soggy soil. Make sure you give them plenty of drainage.
If you’d like to introduce an evergreen shrub to your container display, consider a camellia. Their deep green glossy leaves provide interest all year round, and they put on a stunning flower display in early spring. You do need to plant camellias in ericaceous compost and grow them in a sheltered position, but if you get both of these things right they don’t need much in the way of maintenance.
The restrictive nature of a pot works in your favour when it comes to agapanthus, because it makes the plant produce more flowers. Agapanthus will provide height and showy blooms during summer months, and shades range from white to deep blue. I think they work particularly well in a contemporary setting, and also against a dark backdrop which makes the colour sing out.
If you’d like a formal, sleek look for your container, a clipped box plant is the way to go. These plants are slow-growing, so they’re not cheap to buy, but you can go for a small plant to keep costs down. Having said that, if it’s large plants for pots you’re after, a large box in a lovely pot can make a fabulous focal point.
Because box is slow-growing, you’ll only need to give it a trim every year or so. The rest of the time all it needs is water. Do check whether you live in an area that has a problem with box blight or box tree caterpillar before you buy; if you’re concerned you could go for an alternative evergreen such as yew or bay.
Dwarf buddlejas are designed to be grown in pots, and offer the low maintenance floral impact of a traditional buddleja plant in a much more compact area. They’re also a fantastic plant for pollinating insects, and particularly loved by butterflies.
This is another traditionally large plant that has recently been introduced as a dwarf variety for container gardeners. Dwarf lavatera (or mallow) is a tough plant that will cope with a bit of neglect, and produces masses of pale pink blooms on tall stems. It’s another great plant for pollinating insects too.
Lavender is a traditional cottage garden plant, but it also looks amazing in a more contemporary setting. Choose a hardy English variety and you will keep the maintenance to a minimum. Lavender enjoys good drainage, so don’t overwater it.
Spring flowering bulbs
*Bulbs are well-suited to growing in pots, and you can create a lovely display in spring before your other plants get going. A particularly clever way of doing this is to plant a bulb lasagne, which involves layering your bulbs up in a pot to extend the flowering period. My post on planting a bulb lasagne shows you how to do this.
Hardy geraniums are really low-maintenance, unfussy flowers for pots. They will happily grow in containers, where they will produce masses of flowers for very little effort. You can also divide them when they get bigger and make new plants for free!
You don’t have to have flowers to make a big impact in a container. With their large, textured leaves, hostas are perfect specimen plants for containers, providing an impressive foliage display. An added bonus of growing them in pots is that you can keep the slugs and snails off them much more easily.
Another great option for foliage, heucheras are available in many colours from deep purples through to golden bronzes. They work really nicely alongside flowering plants, but also look great on their own or as several different colours grouped together in their own pots.
We tend to think of hydrangeas as great big garden border plants, but they will also be happy to grow on a smaller scale in a container. Hydrangeas bloom for months, so you can create real wow factor over a long period of time from just one pot. Do check water levels regularly, as they are thirsty plants.
Ornamental grasses are fantastic plants for outdoor pots. Use them to add height, texture and movement to a display. I love using grasses as a foliage backdrop with annual flowering plants. Grasses are also brilliant for providing structure and interest over the winter months; some are evergreen, but even the ones that die back can look stunning if you leave the dead stems intact.
Annual plants for pots
When it comes to annual plants for outdoor pots, there’s a wide range to choose from. Here are my favourite low-maintenance annuals for containers.
Also known as African Daisies, Osteospermum have lots of cheery daisy-like flowers and are available in a range of colours. I like using them alongside smaller-flowered plants such as lobelia.
Lobelia is a great plant for bulking out a container display. It’s covered in tiny little blue, white or purple flowers, and just keeps on going. You can buy standard or trailing lobelia varieties; I think the trailing ones are particularly useful in containers, as they allow you to soften edges and continue the display over a larger area. They’re one of the best plants for hanging baskets too.
Petunias are hugely popular container plants, and for good reason. They’re easy to grow, produce masses of flowers, and come in a wide range of colours. If you deadhead them regularly, they will flower for months too.
Annual verbena is another versatile bedding plant that you can combine with other plants to create a colourful display. I like to use white varieties of verbena in combination with stronger colours to provide contrast, but there are shades of pink and purple if you’d prefer more ‘oomph’.
Pansies & Violas
Another great low-maintenance annual, pansies and violas will grow pretty much anywhere. They’re happy to flower in colder months too, making them perfect for adding winter interest to your garden.
Not all sunflowers are six foot giants! There are lots of smaller varieties that are well-suited to containers, including our favourite *Teddy Bear which as you might imagine is wonderfully fluffy.
As well as being real showstoppers, sunflowers will provide your local birds and pollinating insects with a source of food. Sunflowers are perfect plants to grow with kids too. My step-by-step guide to growing sunflowers in pots includes planting advice, care tips and good varieties to grow.
Nigella is a truly low-maintenance plant for outdoor pots. You literally scatter the *seeds on the soil, and leave them to grow. Nigella likes to seed itself around the garden, so you may well find more plants growing next year with zero effort from you.
*Nasturtiums are ideal plants for hanging baskets and pots, providing a bright shot of colour throughout summer. They will tolerate poor soil and cope with whatever space you give them, and as an added bonus the flowers are edible.
Don’t assume that you need a huge meadow to grow wildflowers. Even a small pot of *wildflowers can provide a rich habitat for local wildlife and a beautiful cottage-garden style display of blooms. Wildflowers are ridiculously low-maintenance too; scatter the seeds, rake them in lightly, water, and that’s it. If you’d like to grow them with the kids, check out my post on growing wildflowers.
For striking foliage, you can’t beat coleus. They look brilliant planted together, or used as accents in a mixed container. Some varieties prefer sun and some prefer shade, so check the label before you buy. You can have a go at turning coleus into a houseplant over winter, moving it back into the garden once all chance of frost has gone.
Another fantastic foliage plant for containers, cineraria has beautiful silvery leaves that work really well against pink and purple flowers. Pretty much every container in my garden has cineraria in it! If your garden is in a sheltered spot, the plants may well survive over winter.
Last on my list is good old ivy. It’s a trailing plant, so you can use it to extend a display over the edges of your pot, and you can choose from varieties with all-green or variegated leaves to suit your finished look. Growing ivy in containers also means you avoid the problem of it getting out of hand and taking over!
Tips for looking after potted outdoor plants
Getting the right low maintenance plants for outdoor pots is a big part of making a success of container gardens, but there are also a few other factors which will have an impact. Take a look at these simple tips for taking care of outdoor plants in pots, and you’ll be well on the way to becoming a container gardening pro.
The best containers for outdoor plants
When it comes to the actual pots you grow your plants in, there are only a couple of rules. The most important one is to make sure your pot has drainage holes in the bottom. Most plants hate to have their roots sitting in a puddle, and you can quickly kill a plant this way. If your pot doesn’t have holes, you need to either make some (a hammer and a nail do the job nicely on plastic and metal pots), or add an inner plant pot which does have drainage holes before planting.
The other key area to consider is the size of your container. Think about the number of plants you want to grow in it, and the eventual size they will reach. The plant’s label should tell you the size, or you can look it up online. Choose a size that will suit your plants for at least a year, to give them plenty of room to thrive and avoid the need to repot them regularly.
Other than that, it’s really up to you when it comes to the shape, colour, material and style of your pots. You can match the style to your existing outdoor space, or mix things up a bit. There’s also tonnes of potential to upcycle and recycle containers; old teapots, sinks, chimney pots, wellies and storage crates all work well. Just remember to add those drainage holes.
Choosing compost for plants grown in outdoor pots
Compost matters more than ever when plants are grown in pots. If you grow plants in the ground, their roots have easy access to nutrients in the soil, and aren’t restricted by the limits of a pot. In contrast, plants that are grown in containers will quickly exhaust the nutrients available to them from the compost.
For this reason, it’s always a good idea to use a good quality, *peat-free compost for your container plants. A general-purpose compost will be fine for most plants, but some plants require specific compost to help them thrive. Check your plant label for this information.
You can also buy compost that’s designed specifically to support plants grown in containers and hanging baskets. This usually has water-retaining crystals and slow-release fertiliser added. It’s not essential to use this when planting your pots, but it can help reduce the amount of plant maintenance required. If you don’t have lots of time, or tend to neglect your plants, I think it’s a good option.
Should I repot my plants after buying?
Generally, you should aim to repot your plants into your own containers as soon as you get them home. Ease the pot away from the plant, and you will probably find that the roots are quite compacted. This means the plant will benefit from a larger pot with more compost.
The exception to this rule is when you buy plants that are already potted into an ornamental pot, or a pre-planted container display such as a hanging basket. In both these situations, the plants should already have been provided with the right sized container.
Feeding plants growing in outdoor pots
As your container plants will use up the nutrients in the compost, you should feed them regularly to help them thrive. A general purpose plant food is a simple option, but if you’re growing fruit and veg in containers make sure you go for a plant food designed specifically for these.
Plant food is available in a few different formats. The most common is a *concentrated liquid, which you dilute according to the pack instructions and use to water your plants. You can also buy *granules which should be scattered on the surface of the soil and lightly raked in, and *ready-to-use liquid feed which you just pour into the pot. This last option is great if you’re a bit daunted by the idea of getting the feeding right, but it’s not the cheapest or most recycling-friendly choice.
If you like the idea of being self-sufficient, or are gardening on a budget, you can also make your own natural plant feed from comfrey or nettle leaves. This is a great option for organic gardening. Here’s how to do it:
Drainage for plants grown in pots
I’ve already talked about drainage in terms of holes in the bottom of your container. It’s also a good idea to pop a few stones or broken pieces of terracotta pot into the bottom before you add your compost.
If you’re thinking ‘why do I need to put rocks in the bottom of a planter?’, here’s the answer. Adding a layer of stones will increase the container’s ability to drain away excess water, which in turn helps to provide a more balanced growing environment. This is particularly important in the colder months of the year.
Watering container plants
When it comes to water, a container plant is more reliant on you than a plant that’s grown in the ground. A container will generally dry out much quicker than a garden bed, and not just because there’s a limit on the water in there. The sides of a pot are more exposed to warmer temperatures, which heats up the soil and in turn speeds up evaporation.
In warmer months, check the soil in your containers regularly. If it feels dry to touch, you need to water them. Another telltale sign is drooping plants, but ideally you should move in with the watering can before this stage. Try to avoid watering your containers at the warmest part of the day, so you don’t lose as much water to evaporation. Watering in the early morning is ideal, and the next best option is early evening.
You could also add some *watering retaining crystals to your compost when potting up your containers. This will help to keep moisture levels more steady, and should mean you need to water your pots less frequently.
In colder months, you may not need to water your containers at all, but it’s still worth checking the soil regularly.
How to keep container plants flowering for longer
Having invested time and money in your plants for outdoor pots, it makes sense to try and get the best display out of them for as long as possible. Deadheading is a simple way to do just that.
Deadheading involves removing any flowers that are drooping, dead, or forming seed heads. Doing this stops the plant setting seed, and makes it produce more flowers instead.
To deadhead your plants, you simply pinch or snip off the old flower heads. You can use your fingers, but a pair of *snips will make the job a lot quicker.
Try to deadhead your plants regularly for the best results.
The best tools for growing plants in containers
Container gardening doesn’t require much in the way of garden tools and equipment. Having said that, there are a few items that will make life easier.
As well as containers, it’s a good idea to buy a *hand trowel. You can use this for the majority of your planting and re-potting jobs, and it’s also handy for weeding.
I’d also recommend a decent pair of *gardening gloves to protect your hands. Look for a pair that you can move properly in while wearing them – it sounds obvious, but not every pair will be a good fit.
I think a *watering can is also an essential piece of kit. Choose one with a ‘rose’ head attachment, this will help to avoid washing away the top layer of compost in your pots with a big gush of water. I actually like to use my daughter’s *mini watering can for my smaller containers, because it makes it even easier to control the flow.
Finally, a pair of *secateurs will come in handy for pruning and deadheading.
This is really all the kit you need to grow plants in containers. You are of course more than welcome to get carried away with all manner of extra gadgets if you’d like to!
More gardening inspiration
If you’d like to explore some other gardening projects and ideas, take a look at these posts.
I hope this guide to the best low-maintenance plants for outdoor pots has given you lots of container gardening ideas and inspiration, and helps you to create a beautiful container display. What container plants are top of your wish list?
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