A guide to planting containers for winter displays
If your patio and other potted displays around your garden look a little drab and uninteresting after a colourful summer, then it's time to plant up your containers with autumn and winter interest plants to give you some cheery colour to look at throughout the darker months.
Tips and advice
If you want a spectacular display from the get-go, use bigger plants and plant them closer together, as they won’t grow much over the winter. You will probably need to lift the plants out and replant them in densely-planted containers after a couple of years.
As most of your autumn- and winter-flowering plants are long-lived, it is best to use John Innes No 3 Compost or a multi-purpose compost with added John Innes. These composts have enough nutrients to keep your plants happy over the coming months after planting, and being heavier than multi-purpose compost, your containers are less likely to blow over in strong winds. To give them a better boost for the season, it’s worth adding a controlled-release fertiliser to the compost, such as Miracle-Gro® Premium Rose & Shrub Continuous Release Plant Food.
The majority of plants won’t be actively growing in late Autumn and Winter, so your container displays will need less water than they do in Summer. But don’t forget about them - even on a rainy day, little rain will actually get into the compost. So check them regularly and water whenever the compost starts to dry out. Sticking your index finger to its full length in the compost will give you an idea whether it feels moist, and doesn’t need watering, or feels dry, and does. But giving too much water and waterlogging the compost is just as bad as allowing it to dry out.
Make sure the containers used have good drainage, and place a flat stone or a piece of broken plant pot over each drainage hole before filling with compost.
Standing containers on pot feet or bricks to raise them off the ground will prevent them sitting in a puddle of water, which would lead to the compost becoming waterlogged and the roots rotting.
And if your chosen containers are terracotta, or similar material that can be adversely affected by frost and freezing temperatures, make sure its frost-proof. Ensuring good drainage and raising the container iff the floor will both help protect frost-sensitive containers from damage.
And, unless the plants you’ve chosen specifically prefer a shady spot, position your containers in a sunny spot to give them the best winter light levels.
There are lots of great autumn- and winter-flowering plants to choose from that are great for containers and will also provide interest, colour and structure throughout the rest of the year.
All evergreen shrubs will provide a brilliant backdrop of colour throughout the year, but particularly in winter. Any evergreen can be grown in a container - as long as the container is large enough - and conifers are one of the obvious choices. Conifers are available in a huge range of colours, shapes and sizes – and you can even celebrate the festive season outdoors with a suitable potted Christmas tree adorned with outdoor lights! When looking for conifers, make sure you choose carefully, selecting varieties that won’t grow taller than you want. Growing them in containers will reduce their growth rate and their overall height.
But it’s not only conifers, as there are numerous other evergreen shrubs and perennials that will brighten up containers. Here’s just a selection of our favourites: Aucuba, Camellia (need ericaceous compost), Choisya, Daphne (not all), Heuchera (not all), Helleborus, Lavandula, Mahonia, Photinia, Pittosporum, Rhododendron (need ericaceous compost), Sarcococca, Skimmia and Yucca.
And don’t forget to include ivy, periwinkle, bugles and deadnettles to trail over the edges of containers and help soften their outline.
There are several late-flowering shrubs that will provide extra colour in your containers during the autumn and winter months. These include Hamamelis (witch hazel, scented), Mahonia (scented), Sarcococca (winter box, scented), Viburnum bodnantense (scented), V. farreri (scented) and V. tinus.
Make sure to grow those with a delicious scent close to the house or other places where you can benefit from their delicious fragrance whenever it's mild enough to open a window or venture outdoors.
You can also grow Jasminum nudiflorum (winter jasmine) and winter-flowering Clematis cirrhosa to decorate walls, fences and pergolas.
Berries and stems
Don’t forget plants that have other interesting features during autumn and winter. There are numerous shrubs that have winter berries, such as Pyracantha (evergreen), Cotoneaster (some are evergreen), female Skimmias and, of course, the traditional Christmas holly (evergreen).
And make the most of colourful stems, such as dogwoods, shrubby willows and Rubus thibetanus (ornamental bramble), plus shrubs with twisted and contorted stems, such as Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’ and Salix ‘Erythroflexuosa’.
To make the most of your containers and to ensure maximum colour and impact, underplant these shrubs low-growing plants to act as a ground cover over the compost. These include evergreen, winter-flowering heathers and the autumn-spring bedding plants listed below.
Although there isn’t the profusion of bedding plants that flower from autumn to spring as there is summer bedding, those that are available are well worth growing. Use them as underplanting to larger plants or just fill a container with them on their own.
The following are all great choices - winter-flowering pansies and violas, cyclamen, primulas including primroses and polyanthus and bellis daisies.
Don’t forget bulbs
And for an added extra bonus splash of colour, plant winter and early spring flowering bulbs as well. These will pop up through the compost and any underplanting to provide some extra wow factor. Go for snowdrops, reticulate irises, winter aconites, the hardy Cyclamen coum, dwarf daffodils and crocus.