We all used to go out and buy annual bedding plants to give summer colour to our patios - but now we can be so much more adventurous.
Patio varieties of fruit, vegetables and perennials are all widely available and increasingly popular, as garden space diminishes and urban gardens flourish.
“We’ve seen a continued interest in patio varieties, even in our ‘grow your own’ selections,” says Mark Sage, head of horticulture at Wyevale Garden Centres. “Things like terrace patio fruit - varieties which are grafted on to a rootstock which means they get up to about 5ft tall - will thrive even in smaller spaces such as a balcony on a flat.”
There are tomato ranges which do well in hanging baskets, along with colourful salad leaves and other veg. Fruit has also come a long way from the traditional citrus you grew in a large pot in the conservatory. Now there’s a new dwarf mulberry (Charlotte Russe, exclusive to Suttons, www.suttons.co.uk) you can grow in a patio pot.
“The interest in ‘grow your own’ has seen breeders working extensively on getting good productive, tasty fruit and vegetables suitable for container gardening, and we’ve seen a lot of work being done particularly on fruit trees,” says Sage.
He recommends the doughnut peach - a flat type - or the ice peach, which are perfect for the small container. Some flowering cherry varieties are top grafted, so they won’t get any taller, their head size will just get a bit bigger. Some will need protection from frost - peach trees will need to be protected during the winter months, in a sheltered situation.
Slow-growing dwarf acers are great in patio pots, as are willows. Climbers such as clematis, traditionally reaching great heights and often used to scale fences and house walls or climb through large shrubs, have long been available in dwarf proportions suitable for pots.
New, more compact, varieties of perennials suitable for pots include Helenium ‘Short ‘n’ Sassy’, which puts on a long-lasting display of golden blooms with chocolate-coloured cones (Dobies, www.dobies.co.uk), while container buddleias are also widely available.
Many gardeners who want instant colour shell out on packs of bedding - but take care when you’re buying because some annuals are better than others, Sage advises.
“People want plants that are bullet-proof. Bush red geraniums are our best-selling bedding plant, along with white bacopa - these lines perform form the basis of many displays.”
However, there is a wealth of difference between seed-raised bedding and cutting-raised bedding, he notes.
“The product looks exactly the same. But in the middle of the summer, your seed-raised bacopa will have exhausted itself and run out of energy, whereas a cutting-raised vegetative variety that is generally more expensive to produce will keep on going through until the first frosts.
“When you buy cheap, you have a tendency to buy mass-produced, cheaply-produced products such as a seed-raised bacopa, but actually what you want is value within your plant, and something that’s going to last a season.”
Easier said than done. It’s impossible to distinguish a seed-raised bedding plant from a cutting-raised one at point of sale, he admits.
The only way to tell is by the price - better quality cutting-raised bedding will be more expensive. Buy plants which are being sold en masse by the tray and they will generally be seed-raised.
However, some seed-raised bedding will flower well and long in the right conditions, he reflects, including busy Lizzies and Begonia semperflorens.
Bacopa and lobelia are far superior when cutting-raised, he says. Typically, seed-raised and cutting-raised plants will be found in different places in your garden centre. Budget-end boxes of seed-raised bedding are likely to be grouped together, while more premium-end products are likely to be sold singly in pots and may be located near hanging baskets or containers, where customers buy a selection of individual plants.
Sage sums it up. “With bedding, you get what you pay for.”