Gardening: Workshop - No hiding place for plants

What do you do with an Ali Baba pot? Anna Pavord advises

I was given a large terracotta Ali Baba-shape urn at Christmas and now have to decide what to do with it. It measures 32ins high, 27ins at the widest point and the aperture at the top is 17ins wide.

It has draining holes and I thought I would stand it on feet. I can either stand it in a shady or a sunny spot and obviously once positioned it will not be moved. I cannot decide whether to put in different plants in it each year or to plump for plants which will come up the same each year. Do I have to fill the bottom of it with, say, broken pieces of brick? Should I position a tall plant in the centre of the planting area? Your suggestions would be appreciated. I am eager for it to look its very best.

By the time I caught up with Elizabeth Beaty and her Ali Baba pot, it had already found a home in the dappled shade of an oak tree at the bottom of the garden. Her husband was threatening serious reprisals if there should be any suggestion of moving the pot again, so there it must stay, sitting on the concrete plinth that once served as a turning circle for the train of a model railway. A previous vicar had laid out an ambitious circuit that not only filled his own garden at the rectory but took in the neighbouring cottages and the old school where the Beatys now live in Essex. I imagine him holding forth from the footplate as the train trundled through his neighbours' gardens, underscoring the salient points of his sermon with blasts from the dangling steam whistle.

But the pot. Ali Baba jars are not the easiest type of container to use because the neck is narrow in relation to the size of the rest of the pot. It gives you relatively little space in which to plant. But Mrs Beaty's pot does have drainage holes. The originals, being storage jars, of course don't. If she does decide to plant it, the holes will prevent her plants drowning in winter wet.

The choice is between one statuesque plant that will not get in the way of the architecture of the pot, or a mixture of smaller, tumbling plants, the sort you might put in any container, which will tend to obscure it. Mrs Beaty is torn between her pleasure in looking at the pot itself and her general planting style which she describes as "bunched, choking, frothing".

Cordyline would fit in the first category. The shape, narrow at first, then arching out in a series of fronds, would be a mirror image of the pot. It's commonly called the cabbage palm, but it's nothing like a palm and even less like a cabbage. It has long spiky fronds, often variegated as in the showy variety C australis `Albertii' which has green leaves with red midribs, cream stripes and pink margins. The combination looks smarter than it sounds.

There are quieter kinds - `Atropurpurea' with dull bronze-purple leaves, and `Torbay Dazzler' with leaves striped and margined in cream - but all the cordylines have a similar growth habit, like a water jet frozen in mid flow, the leaves shooting up, then splaying outwards. They are not reliably hardy in winter, but you can protect the growing heart of the plant by scooping up the leaves and binding them together in an upright bundle.

Or Mrs Beaty could plant a cordyline in a plastic pot (less than 17ins across at the top) and then plunge pot and plant inside her Ali Baba jar. When the weather gets cold, she can lift it out, still in its pot and keep it in her greenhouse. The pot-inside-pot planting would also be an easy way to test the cordyline's potential as an Ali Baba ally.

Other plants to think about might be dark, shiny acanthus (dies down in winter), blue-flowered agapanthus (but not the dwarf kinds), bamboo (though it goes through a period of looking intensely scruffy), the giant grass called Arundo donax, either the plain or the variegated variety that grows to about six feet tall, cannas with their banana-like leaves and brilliant late summer flowers, the stunning red crocosmia `Lucifer' with sword leaves pleated down their entire length, or my favourite spurge, Euphorbia mellifera with fabulous sea-green leaves. There are other plants such as agave and cardoon that might look good in the pot but which wouldn't enjoy the billet underneath the oak tree.

Mixtures, I think, would be less successful, though Mrs Beaty ought to experiment with some because experimenting is half the point of gardening. It's also the best way for a relatively new gardener (Mrs Beaty has only recently been hooked) to learn about plants.

I can see grey-leaved Lotus berthelotii dripping in swaths over the edge of the pot. I can also see it tumbling with nasturtiums, some of them supported on a wigwam of peasticks stuck into the compost of the pot. There are some superb nasturtiums about, including doubles such as `Hermine Grashoff' and `Margaret Long'. The doubles are sterile, so you can't sow them from seed but have to propagate them from cuttings.

But if this were my pot, I don't think I'd plant it at all. I'd raise it up off the ground a little, by standing it on blocks, and then I'd group smaller terracotta pots full of ferns round its feet. It would beckon, cool, uncluttered and inviting from its shady lodging under the oak tree.

Terracotta pots, like luggage, should never look new. A bit of batter adds a touch of class. Mrs Beaty's pot is too big to bury in a compost heap - one way of achieving the centuries-old look. But she could paint it all over with milk or yoghurt to encourage friendly lichens. A bath in liquid manure is an even better way of fostering the aged look that dealers call patina.

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