Gardens can often look a bit dreary during the colder months the year, but there’s easy way to give them a lift – fill some containers with a selection of late autumn and winter interest plants and they’ll inject an immediate splash of colour that will last well into spring.
Most garden centres, nurseries and DIY stores stock a good range of shrubs, flowering perennials, grasses, bulbs and seasonal bedding plants, such as cyclamen, that can be combined in pots to break up the monotony of a brick wall, brighten up a shady courtyard or placed on a patio within sight of the house.
Red and green winter container with Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’ Red Cyclamen and trailing Hedera – © GAP Photos
Finding the right pot is equally important as choosing plants. Glazed terracotta is perfect for a formal space, while metal containers suit a contemporary garden. Smooth ceramic or terrazzo pots are elegant, while coloured pots will help to brighten up the garden on a dull day. Don’t be afraid to combine containers in different styles, materials and sizes to create an exciting mixed display.
Winter container with Carex, Calluna vulgaris ‘Alicia’ and Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Niger’ – © GAP Photos
If your chosen container only has one drainage hole in the base, cover with a layer made up of broken bits of terracotta pot to prevent compost from clogging up the hole. Multi-purpose compost is fine for temporary displays, but a mixture with added John Innes compost is better for shrubs and longer lived plants. Add a handful of controlled release fertiliser granules to help sustain the plants for a full growing season.
There’s an infinite number of planting combinations you could put together, and what you choose comes down to personal taste. A great way of creating a fantastic spectacle from late winter into spring is to make a witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’) the centrepiece of recipe that includes white hellebores (Helleborus x hybridus ‘Cinderella’) and blue Scilla siberica, a bulb commonly known as Siberian squill with bright blue flowers held on 10cm stems. Place the pot in a prominent spot so you can enjoy the scent from the witch hazel’s heavily scented, spidery yellow flowers.
Hammamelis ‘Arnold Promise’, Salix caprea pendula, Scilla, Helleborus ‘Cinderella’, Lonicera and Crocus – © Friedrich Strauss/GAP Photos
Winter containers don’t have to include flowers to pack a punch. Dogwoods are unassuming plants for much of the year, as they make a leafy foil for more exuberant flowering species. But in autumn, they start to earn their keep as the leaves change colour before falling to reveal their glowing stems. One of the best is Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, whose mass of orangey-yellow and red shoots look superb rising above a swathe of black dragon grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’).
Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ and Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ – © Richard Bloom/GAP Photos
Under plant your container displays with early flowering bulbs to add an extra layer of interest at ground level and to ensure an even longer season of interest. There are hundreds of compact varieties to choose from and it’s a good idea to add several varieties that flower at different times to provide colour for many weeks. Among the best for containers are snowdrops, dwarf irises, winter aconites, Scilla siberica, grape hyacinths, crocus and compact daffodils, such as ‘Minnow’, ‘Jack Snipe’ and ‘February Silver’.
Winter container with Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ – Common Dogwood, Ophiopogon planiscapus nigrescens, Snakesbeard, Galanthus ‘Sam Arnott’ in February – © Richard Bloom/GAP Photos
Looking after winter containers is really simple. Raise them up on pot feet to allow excess moisture to drain away, and to prevent puddles from forming underneath that could lead to roots rotting. Apart from this, all you need to do is keep a close eye on watering – although rain or snow help to keep the compost damp, a few sunny, dry or windy days can lead to the compost drying out quickly, so check regularly and water whenever necessary. Avoid washing compost out of the container by using a long spouted watering can to deliver water accurately to the surface.