Small Space Gardening: Perfect Container Plants

Need to knows:

  • Choose plants which suit the sun, shade and shelter of your environment.
  • Aim for a mix of evergreen and seasonal plants.
  • Use trees and shrubs for structure and height.
  • Add colour with seasonal plants.
  • Make the most of vertical space with trellises, fences, shelves, hooks and hanging baskets.
  • Annual plants only flower for one year. 
  • Biennial plants last for two years, usually flowering in the second year.
  • Perennial plants flower year after year. Their lifespans vary.
  • Evergreen plants maintain coloured foliage throughout the year. Some flower or change colour, whereas others remain the same year-round.
  • Seasonal plants only produce foliage and flowers during a particular season. Most, but not all, are dormant in winter, flowering in spring and summer.

What is a container garden?

Whether you have a small patio, a courtyard garden or a balcony, container gardening is for you. With no need for traditional beds and borders – or even a lawn – you can make your outdoor space a sensory sensation with potted plants.

All you really need for a container garden is a variety of pots and planters, filled with a mixture of shrubs, climbers, seasonal flowering plants and perhaps even trees. There are several distinct advantages to having your whole garden in pots – including being able to move your plants around depending on the weather, their need for shelter, or just to create a change of style.

How to select the right plants for your container garden

Whenever you are planning a garden – whatever size – you must first consider the space you have. How much sunlight do you get each day, and where? How protected is your space from wind?

Understand the natural conditions of your environment and you’ll be able to choose plants which will thrive there.

Next, consider your own requirements. How much space do you want to dedicate to plants? What style of garden do you want? And – crucially – how much time and effort do you intend to spend keeping it in tip-top condition? Try to be realistic about that last question – it’s very easy to have good intentions, but if you already have a full schedule, selecting more self-sufficient plants is always a good move.

Unless you have a very clear vision, or previous gardening know-how, it’s a good general principle to mix up the types of plants you use. Evergreen plants will retain their foliage and colour all through the year, but often don’t provide much in the way of blossoms or colour. Choose a few good evergreens for structure and year-round interest, but liven up the space with some seasonal plants, too.

What types of plants should you look for?

The good news is that many plants work well in containers, provided that they have enough soil for their root system and an environment favourable to their growth. So once you’ve assessed your space for sunlight, shade and shelter, it’s really about the style of garden you’d like!

We’ve already mentioned evergreens – but these can include trees, shrubs, climbers or grasses, which all have a role in a rich garden. Use shrubs and trees to provide structure and height, with feathery grasses and herbaceous perennials to soften the look and add colour. Climbers add rambling, vertical interest – and often fragrance, too – and are a great way to add colour without taking up much space.

For seasonal colour, use seasonal plants and bulbs – these are usually perennials, annuals and biennials.

Pot-perfect plants for your garden


Many trees do well in pots, but it’s best to go for dwarf or slow-growing varieties. For a formal aesthetic, try a pair of Italian cypresses (Cupressus sempervirens) either side of a doorway or path. These evergreen trees can grow very large, but their columnar shape makes it easy to clip them into topiary shapes, and their leaves are surprisingly aromatic. Another good evergreen for containers is Olive (Olea europea), which can add a touch of the Mediterranean to your garden.

For deciduous varieties try snowy Mespilus (Amelanchier lamarkii), an all-round winner with its snowy spring blooms, summer fruits and stunning bronze leaves turning fiery shades in autumn. Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) will bring wonderful autumn colour, and native apple (Malus) varieties provide delight in spring with delicate blossom.

If you’re particularly limited on space, you could try an espalier fruit tree. With branches trained to grow horizontally against a frame, they are perfect for growing against a fence and create an architectural effect even in winter.


You have a huge range to choose from here – from showy flowering shrubs to evergreens with beautiful foliage. For a classic look, try roses (like Rosa ‘Ausbernard’ for sumptuous and long-flowering blooms in deep crimson), delicately drooping Fuchsias (a great one for shady spots), or Lilac and Daphne. Lavender is always a favourite for its wonderful scent and silver-grey foliage against purple flowers – ideal for a cottage garden feel.

For a shrub with fabulous foliage, you can’t go wrong with Nandina domestica – it has many wonderful varieties and provides fantastic colour throughout the year. Try varieties such as ‘Flirt’, ‘Gulf Stream’ and ‘Obsessed’.

Need more ideas? Try one of these plants, all of which have won an RHS Award of Garden Merit.


Climbing plants can bring an outdoor space to life, dotting otherwise nondescript walls and fences with colourful blooms, attractive foliage or both. They can also twine around pergolas, creating a roof of flowers in a seating area. Most grow well in containers.

Try Clematis armandii, whose wonderfully fragrant spring blooms and delicate white petals contrast beautifully with its evergreen foliage. Another great option is star jasmine (Trachelospermum jasminoides), which boasts starry white summer blooms and evergreen foliage that turns red for winter interest. For a romantic, cottage-garden effect, honeysuckle (Lonicera) works well, and will thrive in shady areas. 


Grasses add a softening effect all year round, but they are also a great option for adding winter colour. A beautiful grass that responds brilliantly to container planting is pheasant’s tail grass (Anemanthele lessoniana), which has graceful drooping foliage that rotates through greens, reds and bronzes when given plenty of sunshine. For a light and bright grass with elegant semi-structural leaves, try the Japanese Hakonechloa ‘Aureola’, which turns a stunning golden yellow in sunshine, and yellow-green in shade. For a softer aesthetic, Jarava ichu offers fine and delicate white, feathery foliage. Other good choices are Carex testacea and Miscanthus.

Tropical plants

There are lots of tropical and exotic-looking plants which do surprisingly well in the British climate, so if you want a jungle oasis to escape to, go bold with structural plants that boast dramatic leaf shapes and colours. Cordyline australis and Phormium are hardy structural evergreens with exotic lance-shaped leaves, both with many varieties. Try compact species like Phormium ‘Platts Black’ (boasting stunning black leaves which create contrast with other plants) or Cordyline ‘Pink Passion’ whose variegated leaves are striped in red, purple and shocking pink for a knockout effect.

To create textures and variety, why not add a few interesting succulents, such as aloes (try Aloe striata and Aloe polyphylla), stonecrops (try Sedum x rubrotinctum and Sedum nussbaumerianum) and Echeveria (try ‘Afterglow’ or ‘Blue frills’)? Create a rich tapestry of colour and texture across your containers by mixing and matching succulents such as blue chalk fingers (Senecio mandraliscae), ghost plant (Graptopetalum paraguayense) and century plant (Agave americana).

Complement your colourful feature plants with some feathery ferns such as Disksonia antarctica (Australian or soft tree fern) and towering palms, and you’ll soon have a low-maintenance garden with a wow factor. An added bonus is that many of these plants retain water well during the drier months, cutting back on your maintenance duties!

Seasonal container planting

A good way to create seasonal colour is to plant a variety of bulbs in pots. Choose a range: some to flower in winter, others in spring and yet more in autumn (the planting times vary within these categories). Daffodils, crocus and tulips are all joyful announcers of spring (snowdrops bloom even earlier, injecting cheer into colourless winter gardens). Try alliums, lilies, gladioli, begonias, iris and freesias for summer blooms. Some of these (such as begonias and some gladioli) will also provide autumn colour, but you can also plant nerines, dahlias, crocus and cyclamen for this season. 

Investing in some bedding plants (usually annuals and biennials) for pops of colour in different seasons is always money well spent. Seasonal plants also allow you to change up your style or colour theme year on year. You can plant them from seed, but many are available fairly cheaply as seedlings, either in seed trays or small pots- check out our pot sizes blog for extra guidance. For summer, sweet peas are a wonderful choice – they work as climbing plants against a fence or frame, but also in hanging baskets. They add a wonderful, heady scent to your space, along with their small, vivid blooms in a variety of colours.

Other great choices include snapdragons (Antirrhinum), which boast wonderfully architectural flower spikes in a range of hues, have a long flowering period and attract bees and Rudbeckia (coneflower), for gorgeous glowing yellow blooms that last into autumn. Busy Lizzies, lobelia, geraniums, petunia, Californian poppy and cosmos are others to investigate.

For winter, bedding plants can be even more essential to keep your space filled with foliage and cheering colour when deciduous plants are leaf-free. Try swathes of pansies, primrose, cyclamen, violas and bellis. One great variety of daisy is Bellis ‘Bellisima mixed’, with striking pompom flowers in shades of pink, red and white.

Be brave!

Starting a container garden is exciting and there are simply hundreds of options, so don’t be afraid to experiment!

If you need any further advice, why not give our lovely team a call – they are always happy to share their knowledge and passion for plants.