Diarmuid Gavin: Hanging gardens
Learn the secrets to a successful hanging basket, the garden staple beloved of newbies and old hands alike
Growing up in the suburbs of Dublin, I suspected that the ritual of planning for, planting up a hanging basket and displaying it by the front door, was as much about fitting in and being respectful of your neighbourhood (and seeking compliments for your annual display) as it was about growing flowers.
Today, that ritual is still one practised across the country - primarily by traditional, settled gardeners. Meanwhile, the younger green-fingered set, who often as flat dwellers have little or no outdoor space, are discovering the joys of hanging houseplants inside.
Our near neighbours in Britain have developed the art to such a high degree that there are occasionally competitions between pubs or railway stations to produce the best display. And hanging baskets form a central element to floral displays in those places involved in the annual Tidy Towns competition here.
The most popular basket is made from metal and coated in paint or plastic to protect it from water damage. It's lined, filled with compost and then planted with a collection of colourful flowers, often known as bedding plants. With regular watering and liquid feeding, growth can be rapid and the finished appearance is of a ball of flowers. Environmentally speaking, they're not the best way to grow plants, as they don't retain water well and tend to gobble up artificial fertilisers. This makes their use time-consuming for the gardener and costly to the environment.
But gardeners love them and they're not disappearing any time soon... so now that we are enjoying some warm weather, it's time to plant them up and hang them out.
What will you need apart from the basket? Good quality multi-purpose compost - don't skimp on this bit, as this will be the basis of your successful basket. You can add in some water-retaining gel pellets and slow-release fertiliser, though neither is necessary if you are vigilant about watering, and add a liquid tomato feed once a week in summer.
If using a wire basket, you will need to line this first to keep soil and plants in. Moss looks good but if you can't get your hands on some, there are plenty of ready-to-buy cardboard or fibre linings. Failing that, plastic sheeting such as an old compost bag will do just as well. Ideally, your basket will end up smothered in flowers so the lining won't be visible anyway.
Make some slits in the lining around the base of the basket - this will enable you to plant trailing varieties at the bottom. Place a layer of compost on the bottom of the basket and gently push the trailing plants from the inside through the liner, keeping the rootball within the basket. Cover with a layer of compost and, depending on the size of your basket (and your ambition!), you might do another layer of trailing plants.
For the top layer you will want your star plant, which has a bit of height and volume. Best bets for non-stop flowering during the summer are all the old reliables - petunias (pictured above), calibrachoa, pelargoniums, marguerites, fuchsias, begonias and lobelias.
Foliage plants can act as a calming contrast to this riot of colourful flowers. Helichrysum 'Silver Mist' has lovely silvery-green textured foliage which will work well with either pastel colours or hot colours. It's easy to grow and there's a lovely trailing variety called 'Gold', which has zingy golden yellow foliage. Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia aurea) also has yellow-green leaves and is often used to cascade over the edges of containers and baskets.
Dichondra 'Silver Falls' is a real beauty, creating a waterfall of silvery leaves, and can look stunning just planted on its own. Its drought tolerance is an added bonus as baskets can dry out so easily. Trailing nepeta has that distinctive catmint scent and there's nothing to stop you popping in some other herbs such as basil, parsley and sage, and creating a herb hanging basket.
But for something really different, choose an ipomoea (Morning Glory) with its very sharp-looking leaves. 'Purple Heart' has dark purple, almost black, heart-shaped leaves; 'Solar Power Green' are bright limey-green, ivy-shaped leaves. This foliage plant does best in full sun.
If you don't have full sun in your garden, then use shade-loving plants such as hostas, tiarella and ivy. Begonias and fuchsia will tolerate partial shade as well.