By Peg Keenleyside
With the winter holidays right around the corner, it’s a good time to be potting up a big container or two for the front walkway or back deck, to provide winter color, interesting foliage contrasts and festive joie de vivre.
Extend your winter container’s visual interest into early spring by under-planting your winter plant choices with spring blooming bulbs.
To start with, go for the biggest pot you can get your hands on. Big garden centers will have sales on summer pots now, so consider treating yourself to a glazed terracotta pot that’s at least 30″ high and has enough room to accommodate several plants. Online garden sources are also good for the new big self-watering resin pots. These offer features like self-watering compartments and lightweight materials – an important consideration for big plant container gardening.
Any pot you choose needs to have a drainage hole or holes in its bottom. People often ask me why their container plants aren’t thriving or have given up, and I always first ask them if their pot has a hole or holes for water to drain out of.
Good container drainage is essential any time of year, but especially in our wet winters. You don’t want the roots of your container plants to get waterlogged and then potentially freeze up if there’s a big temperature drop. Using extra sand and perlite – available at garden centers – in your potting soil mix can help maximize drainage.
Next up is choosing plants and decorative plant materials. The rule of thumb for an abundant layered look is to create at least three concentric circles of plants. The first circle contains the anchor – a tall plant, shrub, grass or structure that will give height to the overall look of the finished container.
Upright, columnar-growing dwarf evergreen conifers are a good seasonal choice for the central plant here: Irish yews, junipers and blue-green spruces come to mind.
A curly-branched yellow-flowering witch hazel shrub (Hamamelis) with its spicy fragrance would also make an eye- and nose-catching anchor. You could also get fantastic height from a tall columnar grass like Karl Foerster with its arching green-leaved base and 4-foot spires of beach-toned reeds sprouting from the container’s center.
Under-planting tulips, narcissus or daffodils around the roots of the central plant and out to the edges of the pot will give you an eye-candy boost come the spring when the upper level plants are a bit past their prime and the bulb flowers rise up through the soil.
Get your bulbs by mail order from online sources like Van Engelen as soon as possible so they can have the 10 weeks of cool in-ground temperatures they need before they will bloom.
For the next circle above the bulbs, search out perennial plants that, wondrously, bloom in winter.
Standout choices here include hellebores – commonly called the winter rose – and winter blooming heathers. Hellebores have big dark green waxy leaves and are available in all kinds of flower colors.
A good red-flowered easy-care heather to look for is called Erica carnea, or “December red.”
Find these and other winter interest plants at the Phoenix Perennials in Richmond where the selection of hellebores, most especially, is truly outstanding. They also do phytosanitary certification for bringing plants across the border.
For the final circle, use smaller perennials around the edges of the pot. Try some hardy succulents (stonecrops or sedums), like the small mounding October Daphne (sedum sieboldi) whose rosette leaves turn pink in winter. There are also some very cool-looking trailing evergreen sedums that I’ve become quite mad for, donkey’s tail (sedum morganium) being one of them I particularly enjoy.
For the final “bling” effect for a winter container, you can add all manner of dried flowers and materials. Weave a natural grass ribbon through the plants, ending in an oversized bow tucked beneath some leaves. Several big pom-poms of dried purple flowered hydrangeas, or curly willow branches inserted in between circles will also give a layered luxe look.
Found or bought metal, wood or glass objects – vintage tree ornaments for example – attached to a rod or stick with hot glue and inserted into the pot will make an inviting little holiday vignette – something to create together with your kids and decorate the front walk to welcome holiday visitors to your home.