Planting Containers for Winter Colour

Winter can be a bleak month for gardeners, our outdoor spaces can be devoid of colour and working conditions are far from ideal. With a little planning though it is possible to enjoy colour, texture and a long period of interest using planted containers.

Our advice is to focus your attention on areas close to the house, in view of visitors or in places that can be appreciated from the comfort of indoors. Outside the kitchen window is a classic spot for a cheerful arrangement. 

There are many plants and shrubs suitable for pot culture that are hardy and will look good for weeks on end. The benefit of cooler weather is that blooms last longer (if spared the ravages of wind and rain) and so a little goes a long way. On a bright day, leaves fringed with hoar frost, even simple evergreens such as bay, laurel, viburnum and holly are transformed into objects of great beauty.

Plants grow very little in winter, so start with plants that are about the size you would ultimately like them to be and pack them in more tightly than you would in spring and summer. With cyclamen, violas and other winter bedding, avoid burying the plants too deeply otherwise they may rot.

It will help if you keep pots off the ground, which aids drainage and improves air circulation. Water only if the compost becomes dry, which can happen during milder spells or if the pot is positioned close to a wall or fence. Feeding is not required as plants will find all the nutrition they need in the planting medium.

Light is a precious commodity in winter so position pots where they will receive maximum sunlight. Even shade lovers such as ferns and ivies will appreciate the extra energy.

You will be seeing a lot of your chosen containers when the rest of the garden may be bereft of colour so it is worth choosing plants carefully. Mixing plants with different heights and textures always looks good in containers. Here are our top choices for creating seasonal planters which will provide great interest at this time of year.

 Plant Choices for Winter Containers

1. Skimmia japonica 

These super winter shrubs are often available as small container plants at this time of year. Glossy leaved and just the right size for pots, when winter is over and the container display has come to an end, you can plant them out in the garden to grow on.

Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’ is covered in clusters of long-lasting dark pink buds during autumn and winter. They eventually open to white-pink flowers in spring. Alternatively look for Skimmia japonica subsp. reevesiana which has bright scarlet berries in autumn and winter.

2. Gaultheria procumbens

Compact and small in stature, Gaultheria procumbens, also known as the American boxberry or checkerberry, boasts beautiful berries in winter time. Complemented by a setting of glossy foliage and berries most often seen in either red or white, these are one of the most versatile winter container plants and should be positioned towards the front of a pot to be appreciated. Gaultheria procumbens is a lime-hating plant which means it needs to be grown in ericaceous compost.

3. Hedera helix 

There are so many variations of English ivy. For leaves splashed with cream, try Hedera helix ‘Glacier, or if you are looking for a touch of gold Hedera helix ‘Buttercup’ will do a turn provided it gets as much exposure to the winter sun as possible. Ivy has the added benefit of being very attractive to wildlife. 

Ivy is renowned for being a rampant grower but the small pots of ivies available for container planting will not take over. Let them trail over the edge of a container or hanging basket to soften the overall look. One or two small ivy plants will comfortably fill the front of a half-barrel sized planter within a year.

4. Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’

As close to black as you will get in a leaf, Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ is a compact, grass-like groundcover plant which creates the perfect foil for yellow and silver foliage. Underplant with short daffodils, such as Narcissus ‘Tete-a-Tete’.

5. Ornamental cabbages

Available in vibrant pinks and purples, these decorative cabbages split opinion but their ruffled leaves and bright colours definitely brighten things up, while their compact nature allows the planting behind to have its moment too. It is best to plant ornamental cabbages in odd numbered quantities to create an attractive design. Leaves can turn yellow in wet spells, so ensure that they are grown in compost that drains well.

6. Cornus 

If you are lucky enough to have a very large container, you could do little better than use dogwoods as centrepieces for a winter scheme.

Try fiery-stemmed Cornus ‘Winter Beauty’ with black leaved ophiopogon around its base, perhaps with some snowdrop bulbs tucked in for flowers in early spring. Although cornus will ultimately outgrow a container, a young plant will not mind being used this way for six months. 

8. Hamamelis x intermedia‘Pallida’

‘Pallida’ has to be one of the finest yellow-flowered witch hazels you can choose. The bright yellow strands stand out against the grey hues of the winter garden. Witch hazels are not huge fans of pruning so plant them in a spot where they have room to spread out unhindered.

8. Violas

Although their show may be temporarily halted by a cold snap, winter flowering violas are one of the most cheerful choices for a winter garden, coming in a wide variety of colours from white through to yellow, orange, mauve, purple and blue. Regular deadheading will prolong the flowering period of these affordable container plants which can flower for months if well looked after. The small size of their flowers makes them particularly pleasing in pots, window boxes and hanging baskets.

Tom’s Hidden Garden is located in Bonnybridge, Central Scotland – a small garden with over 630 different plants, 200 containers and 30 hanging baskets. Tom Williamson has been developing the garden over the last 35 years, working with David Gallacher over the last 10 to create its unique look. Tom is a keen gardener, planting where he thinks a plant will be happy. David is a time-served gardener in commercial gardens and landscaping. Catch up with more secrets of their garden and their success with plants on their Facebook group.

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