This is the time of year when leaves are falling, frost is on your windows, and your planting beds are looking a bit bare. But when that cold snap hits and kills off your summer annuals, you don’t have to abandon your containers and give into the winter blahs. Instead, use this transitional period to put in some hardy plants now that will get you through until the spring thaw.
There are two schools of thought on containers. Some advocate the one-plant-for-one-pot look. You then mass the pots in groupings. The other technique is to cram-and-jam at least three kinds of plant in one large pot (one tall, one bushy, one trailing). Both styles have their use and appeal depending on the effect you want. In the dead of winter, though, I prefer the one plant/one pot approach as it is just easier to substitute out any failures and will look less “skimpy.”
Choose containers that are gorgeous, such as glazed pottery. In fall/winter, plants are less full, so the containers you use are more important than in other seasons. For a designer look, group together pots that are of the same materials or of coordinating colors.
Use props and fillers to give the illusion of fullness in your plantings. Try pots filled with dried seed heads, squash, and gourds. Stack hay bales, wooden crates, and nice rocks or fossils. Display antique wood and iron pieces, hypertufa spheres, and stone figures. Add white lights or holiday décor, as seasonally appropriate.
Keep your winter containers only in high traffic areas (i.e. near entrances). Do this not only because they are the only places people will see them, but also because in winter’s cold you won’t want to be outside more than a few minutes to maintain them.
Stuff the bottom of containers with a filler, such as styrofoam chips or lava rocks, to ensure good drainage. This is even more crucial in winter than the rest of the year. The freezing rains we get in the DC area in late winter can be brutal to any planting.
Containers need extra fertilizer, but don’t overdo it in winter. Cut back on watering as well, especially if rains are fairly frequent – only water if the container is under a roof or ledge.
Top off container plantings with an insulator — mulch, pea gravel, peat moss, bark mulch, et cetera. They provide protection from the cold and keep the soil from drying out. They can also disguise plastic planting pots if you just pop them inside more decorative containers.
Consider planting a layer of bulbs now as you pot up your containers. They will pop up next spring and are a low-cost, easy step.
When choosing plants, combine textures and colors. Consider a display of three, five, or seven different kinds of boxwoods. Try newer boxwood varieties like ‘Green Pillow’ next to ‘Elegantissimo’.
Try a sculptural display of twisted willow or other interesting branches. Just twist up chicken wire into a cage in the bottom of your pot to support the sticks. Twist ivy throughout them to create an interesting effect.
Another striking winter container idea is a golden holly in topiary standard form, surrounded at its base by pine cones spray-painted gold.
Lastly, remember that containers are ideal because they can be moved! If a hard freeze comes in and you have some “borderline” or less hardy items planted, you can move them indoors or into a sheltered area for a few days.
Fall/Winter Container Plant List
Tall: Grasses, Sedges, Evergreens, Topiary/standards, Small trees, Twisted willow, Harry Lauder’s walking stick
Bushy/Full/Filler: Flowering kales and cabbages, Plumbago, Nandina domestica ‘Heavenly Bamboo’, Boxwood, Evergreens/conifers, Barberry, Cypress, Sedums, Mums, Asters, Heuchera, Dianthus, Primroses, Violets/pansies, Bergenia, Salvia, Ajuga, Pachysandra, Cotoneaster conspicuous ‘decorus’, Lavender, Arundinaria pygmaea/mini-bamboo, Skimmia rubella, Heather, Convolvulus cneorum/Bush Morning Glory/Silverbush, Holly/golden holly
Trailing: Periwinkle/vinca, Ivy, Creeping jenny, Bacopa, Sweet alyssum
by Kathy Jentz, editor/publisher of Washington Gardener Magazine
Washington Gardener Magazine covers gardening in the Mid-Atlantic region only, and it’s written by regional garden writers. Photos taken by Kathy Jentz a few years ago at the Eastern Performance Trials at River Farm in Alexandria, VA.