At this time of year the lanes around our house in the Welsh Marches are awash with froths of cow parsley, flecked with pink from red campion and ragged robin. Lines of hawthorn hedge, smothered in creamy-white flowers, are frequently interrupted by majestic copper beeches, rising up resplendent in their distinctive purple foliage. I chose a dark-leaved form of Actaea simplex for the foundation of this pink-and-white arrangement. Set in an old oak half-barrel from our local cider maker, it is a perfect celebration of the Herefordshire countryside.

Container display with cow parsley and pinks
© Andrew Montgomery

How to achieve the look

Half barrels make great containers, but scale of planting is the key to success. A minimum pot to plant height ratio of 1:1.5 is preferable. The oak of this barrel has aged to a beautiful silvery-grey enriched by the rusted iron bands holding it together. The muted colours will enhance any planting scheme. I keep a permanent collection of large shrubs in aged oak barrels at home as they allow sufficient soil for a long-term planting and require less watering. Ensure good drainage by placing crocks over holes drilled through the base. I used John Innes No.2 compost incorporating plenty of leaf mould as these perennials prefer a humus-rich soil positioned in partial shade.

Jacky Mills arranging plants
© Andrew Montgomery

In late summer the Actaea will produce tall, narrow plumes of pink buds opening to white flowers. These are followed by lime-green seed pods. The pale greenish-pink pincushions of the Astrantia ‘Buckland’ make it an excellent cut flower, as do the scented pink umbels of the Pimpinella and the creamywhite flowers of Orlaya grandiflora. This self-seeding annual can be sown in autumn and spring, to produce a constant supply of flowers. For contrast I’ve added a dark form of Geranium phaeum with inky-purple flowers, similar to G. phaeum ‘Raven’. Reduce its tendency to self-seed and encourage repeat blooms by cutting back after flowering.


plants for a container display
© Andrew Montgomery

1 Pimpinella major ‘Rosea’ Non-spreading, herbaceous umbellifier. 90cm. USDA 5a-8b†. Flowers May to July.

2 Astrantia ‘Buckland’ An exceptionally free-flowering sterile hybrid so won’t self seed everywhere. 60cm. USDA 5a-9b. May to August.

3 Geranium phaeum A herbaceous perennial that is tolerant of a range of conditions including deep, dry shade. 60cm. USDA 5a-7b. May to July.

4 Actaea simplex (Atropurpurea Group) ‘Brunette’ A tall, hardy, herbaceous perennial with dark-purple, serrated foliage. In late summer it produces bottle-brush spikes of scented flowers. 1.5m. AGM*. USDA 3a-8a. August to October.

5 Orlaya grandiflora A hardy annual with ferny foliage and delicate, scabious-like, white flowers. 60cm. May to October.