Whether planted for summer or winter interest, hanging baskets provide valuable colour at eye level. Choose vibrant bedding plants for a short-term show or herbs, shrubs and evergreens for a long-lasting display.
Timing: April/May and September/October
What to plant
Plants for summer baskets:
Argyranthemum, Lysimachia (creeping jenny), Dichondra ‘Silver Falls’, Fuchsia, Pelargonium (geraniums), Lobelia, Viola (pansies), Petunia, Salvia and Nicotiana (tobacco plants).
Plants for winter baskets:
Buxus (Box), Crocus, Gaultheria, Iris reticulata cultivars, Hedera (ivy) – either variegated or plain, Carex (ornamental sedge), Primula (primulas and polyanthus), Cyclamen (small-flowered cyclamen), Viola (winter pansies and viola) and Erica carnea (winter-flowering heathers).
When to plant a hanging basket
Plant summer hanging baskets from April onwards, but they will need protection from frost until the middle or end of May. If you do not have a greenhouse, it is usually easier to plant in situ once the frosts have passed.
Plant winter hanging baskets between September and October, and it doesn’t matter if they are frosted as the plants are should be hardy.
You would normally plant up a long-lasting perennial hanging basket from April onwards, depending on the types of plants being used.
How to plant a hanging basket
The basic principles of creating a hanging basket for winter and summer are the same.
First of all, if you are using a standard wire basket, it will need to be lined. You can buy readymade cardboard liners and fibrous materials sold for the purpose, but a thrifty option is to collect moss from the lawn. Avoid sphagnum moss as it may not be harvested from sustainable sources. Aim to cover the inside with about a 1.5cm (½in) thick layer of the material.
Before you fill your basket with compost consider how you will water it. Hanging baskets tend to dry out more quickly than other types of container and water can easily be wasted from them. Plants grow better with rain water, especially if you plan to use soluble feed so avoid using mains tap water if you can.
Tips for watering baskets manually:
- Place a small circle of plastic (cut from a margarine tub or similar) in the bottom of the basket before filling with compost to create a saucer that will help stop water running straight out of the bottom
- Once the basket is filled, place a small empty flowerpot in the centre to take the water and allow it time to to soak in rather than running off the surface of the compost
- Use 'self-watering' baskets. They still need watering but they have a separate reservoir that holds water away from the roots and delivers it back to the rootzone through a wick. Self-watering baskets will need less frequent watering than traditional baskets as they can also collect and store water when it rains. It is best to add water to the reservoir rather than the surface of the compost to keep the plant foliage dry and the water and the wick clean
Things to consider if using automated watering systems:
- Drip irrigation systems deliver water slowly and directly to the roots so there is less risk of wasting water. They can be used with timers but still need to be adjusted as the plants grow bigger and the weather changes
- Most drip irrigation is made from plastic and designed for mains tap water use as they need very clean and pressurised water for the drippers to operate correctly and avoid blockages
A good quality, peat-free multipurpose is fine for a display that only has to last for one year. And if you want to grow plants such as winter flowering heathers, it is best to go for ericaeous compost, although Erica carnea and E. × darleyensis cultivars are tolerant of other composts that contain lime.
Choosing and arranging the plants
- When you begin to arrange the plants in the basket, it is usually easiest to start with one, central plant (or an empty small flower pot if you decide to water it manually that way). This can be used to create structure and impact, which is particularly important in winter if its other companions fail to flower in cold snaps
- Around this, position some trailing plants to cover the sides of the basket, particularly if it is made from wire. However, using a more decorative basket is best where it will be easily seen
- Along with this selection, it is worth considering carefully the flowering plants. Choose colours that work well together and plants that flower reliably. For example, winter-flowering pansies, petunias, lobelia and geraniums are always winners
Once all the plants are in, fill around the rootballs carefully with more compost, firming gently, so that you don't leave any large air gaps. Then water well, but slowly, so that the water doesn't run out of the bottom of the basket. Depending on the type of plants and compost that you have used, the plants may need feeding.
Once the basket is planted, what else is needed?
Check baskets every day in summer, watering always unless the compost is wet. Drying out is an increasing risk as the plants grow and days remain warm or windy. An easy way to check if they need water is to gently lift or nudge the baskets to gauge how heavy they are. If they are really light weight, they need more frequent watering. Try to avoid them drying out to the point where plants start to droop ('wilting point'), but if they do wilt, you can place a bucket underneath to capture the water that runs off the surface as you water them and return it to the basket. This will also save losing soluble nutrients that are needed for flowering.
Although baskets don’t dry out as quickly in winter, they still need regular checking. Aim to keep the compost moist but not soggy, and avoid wetting the foliage and flowers.
In spring, summer and early autumn (April to September), apply a liquid fertiliser, preferably after normal watering.
Deadhead regularly to prevent the plants’ energy going into seed production, rather than more flowers.
Most problems with hanging baskets are related to watering. If they are not flowering well it could be one of these causes:
- Underwatering. If compost becomes very dry, it is difficult to rewet, tends to run off the sides and dry areas may be left in the compost even after a thorough watering. Keep the compost just moist by frequent but small amounts of water
- Overwatering. If you water until it runs out of the bottom of the basket, soluble nutrients that the plants need to flower will be washed out of the compost as well as waste water
- Feeding without sufficient watering. Plants roots can be damaged by liquid feed that is not diluted correctly, always follow the instructions on the pack. Water the basket first before using diluted feed
- Insufficient feed. Feed once a week with a liquid fertiliser, although not all composts need feed, check the bag for instructions.
Winter hanging baskets benefit greatly from a sheltered, sunny spot. If the position is exposed, consider giving the basket some protection in the coldest weather. Use either a layer of fleece, or sit the basket on a bucket in a cool greenhouse for just the worst days.
The Royal Horticultural Society is the UK’s leading gardening charity. We aim to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place.