How to plant up a container

Planting containers with seasonal bedding plants is a quick and easy way to add colour to your garden. Many bulbs, herbaceous perennials, shrubs and trees can be grown in pots too, adding structure and interest to doorsteps, patios and decking. 

Containers can be moved to prominent positions when plants in them are looking at their best, such as these agapanthus in flower
Containers can be moved to prominent positions when plants in them are looking at their best, such as these agapanthus in flower

Quick facts

  • Grouping containers together looks good and provides them with some protection from extreme temperatures  
  • Growing tender plants in containers allows you to move them to a protected position for the colder months 
  • Plants that may spread too much in the ground, such as mint, can be kept under control by growing them in containers  
  • A container garden allows you to grow plants that might not be suitable for your garden soil, and where there is no soil 

Getting Started

The size and shape of your container should be suitable for the needs of the plants you select. For details of the many different types of plants suitable for container growing, see our container gardening hub. The best compost for containers is often a peat-free multipurpose compost, but some plants have different requirements. For information on choosing a suitable compost and container, and more details on planting in pots, see our advice page on growing plants in containers.

What you will need to plant up a container:  
  • Selection of plants  
  • A suitable container 
  • Peat-free compost 
  • Mulch to cover the compost (optional)  
  • Broken pots or stones to cover large drainage holes 
  • A hand trowel, or a spade for large containers and plants  
  • Watering can
Top Tip

Rather than buying bagged peat-free compost for your containers, you can make your own by mixing soil with garden compost. See our guide to making your own potting mix

How to plant up a container in six simple steps

  1. Cover large drainage holes   

    If your pot has drainage holes of more than about 2.5cm (1in) in diameter, place some stones or crocks (broken terracotta) over them to prevent compost falling through. If drainage holes are small, there is no need to cover them.

  2. Place compost in your container      

    Fill to a level where the rootballs of your plants will sit within the container (ideally about 5cm (2in) below the rim) when sat atop the compost, then lightly firm it down.

  3. Remove plants from their nursery pots and position them in the container        

    Consider what angles the container will be viewed from – for pots against a wall or fence you will typically want taller plants at the back, for free-standing containers viewed from all sides you might have taller plants in the centre. Bear in mind that trees and shrubs often have a ‘front face’ or ‘best side’.

  4. Fill the gaps around your plants       

    Add peat-free compost around the plants, gently firming it down to fill any spaces. A slight gap between the top of the compost and the top of the container will prevent compost spilling out when watering.

  5. Water well       

    Water slowly and thoroughly to soak the compost. Use a rose on the end of a watering can or a hose with a fine spray to avoid disturbing the compost. If any leaves got compost on them during planting, wash it off with a gentle spray of water.

  6. Cover bare compost        

    Add a layer of mulch to the top of the compost if you want to. This works well for single trees or shrubs planted in pots, where lots of bare compost is showing. A layer of gravel, stones or bark chip will help conserve moisture, suppress weeds and look attractive.


Watering is the main duty when caring for plants in containers. Many factors determine how much and how often you need to water; for more information, see our handy step-by-step guide to watering containers.

Feeding and repotting will also be required for long-term container plantings; for more information see our guide to container maintenance.

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