October 5, 2011 by Robin Plaskoff Horton
There’s always room for at least one container garden. A small courtyard, patio, balcony, or simply the front door step all offer the opportunity to add a splash of color. If you don’t have room for a wide container then think vertically. A tall but slender pot has a far greater presence than a wimpy short one and since we are less likely to sit outdoors in the cooler months, it is important to have your designs where they can be appreciated–at eye level. If the container itself isn’t large, then consider raising it on a pedestal, small table, or even an old chair.
Where winter temperatures stay around 20 degrees or above, there is a good selection of plants from which to choose for a winter display. In areas which receive six or more hours of direct sunlight each day, use evergreens for a strong backbone, then fill in with color spots such as asters, chrysanthemums and pansies. Underplant these with spring bulbs to create an ever-changing display from October through May.
Extending Fall Blooming Perennials
Fall blooming perennials do die down in winter but don’t let that put you off including these seasonal highlights. Either plant bulbs right next to them to fill the gap in spring or have leafy plants nearby to disguise the area. Fall perennials like asters can be removed and the hole topped up with potting soil or you can leave them in place if you prefer. You can even take advantage of the temporary bare spot for seasonal accents such as miniature pumpkins, pine cones, or holiday decorations. A mulch of hazelnut shells or decorative beach glass can also be a fun way to change the look. Just be sure to remove anything heavy before the bulbs start to peek through.
Shady areas needn’t be left bare. Shade tolerant conifers such as yew (Taxus) and plum yew (Cephalotaxus) make great centerpieces while winter flowering camellias and heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica) offer colorful alternatives. With the myriad of coral bells (Heuchera) now available from the chartreuse ‘Key lime pie’, to the yellow ‘Electra’, coppery ‘Caramel’ and deep black ‘Obsidian’ there is one for every color scheme. Add to these soft textured evergreen ferns (the autumn fern Dryopteris erythrosa is my favorite) and tough grasses, and your creation will be easy to care for as well as colorful.
Although few spring bulbs will bloom well in a lot of shade, it’s easy to cheat. When the nurseries start to sell pots of budded bulbs such as dwarf daffodils, tulips and hyacinths, simply tuck some amongst the existing container foliage. You don’t need to actually plant the bulbs, just hide the nursery pot with adjacent leaves. What a wonderful welcome for visitors as they are met with the heady fragrance of hyacinths at your door.
Winter Plant Emergency
Winter container gardens can be great in a plant emergency too! When expecting guests recently, I realized that in all my efforts to prepare dinner and clean the house I had forgotten that the front entry looked bare and neglected. (We are in the midst of huge landscape renovations so container gardening wasn’t at the top of my to-do list!) I found several plants still in their nursery pots that were waiting to be planted. I simply wedged these plants, pot and all, into an empty container, added a few cut stems of Crocosmia and trailing vines, then tucked into an ornamental squash. The porch went from bare to bountiful in less than minutes.
Yes, You Can Grow in Winter
Where winter temperatures are consistently much lower than ours in the Pacific Northwest, I appreciate that options are more limited. Colleagues from the east coast and midwest have told me that they “can’t grow anything in containers during the winter.” I’m not one to easily be defeated, so I would try one on a protected porch–maybe add a layer of bubble wrap to the inside of a thick walled container. (Just be sure to leave the drainage holes clear.) I would then look to the native plant palette for inspiration. Are there conifers that might make a suitable specimen for example? Do any native grasses survive the winters? Even if you have to take the ‘one plant in a pot’ approach you can dress it up with a little ‘jewelry’ for the holidays as suggested above. If the container itself is colorful then the vignette is already off to a good start.
Still not convinced? What do you have in your garden or a nearby forest? Colorful or interesting twigs? Seed heads? Evergreen boughs? Cut a selection and stick them into wet floral foam (oasis) or damp compost. A few decorations and you’ll be festive and ready for guests. Sun or shade, chilly or downright cold, experiment with some of these ideas and enjoy container gardens even in the winter.
All designs and photos copyright Karen Chapman.
Contributed by Karen Chapman, a certified professional horticulturalist who can be found in the Seattle area at Le Jardinet, where she specializes in small garden spaces and container gardens. You can enjoy more of Karen’s design ideas, tips, and plant suggestions on her blog, Karen’s Garden Adventures. And if want still more inspiration, you can follow Le Jardinet on Facebook.