Beautiful containers for the winter months

01. November 2020 by Isabelle Van Groeningen
Categories: About gardening, Autumn, english, Seasons | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

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Kübelbepflanzung © Isabelle Van Groeningen

Flagge Deutschland für deutsche Übersetzung – auf Deutsch lesen – Now that the days become shorter and the temperatures drop, the focus of our lives withdraws back indoors. There may be days you barely set a foot in the garden, or go out onto your balcony. It is therefore even more important that not only the view should be attractive, but that when you are out there, you are greeted by something beautiful. A perfect way of achieving this, is by planting up  containers with plants that provide interest during the winter months. These can greet you by the front door, frame your terrace, cheer up your balcony, or stand as a focal point outside your kitchen window.

Although plants are in the process of shutting down their engines, in preparation of their annual resting period during the cold, dark time of year, there are a surprising number of plants that will provide some form of interest for these coming months. There are a few courageous winter flowering plants, several bearing colourful fruits. A number of plants have attractive stems, and of course there are evergreen foliage plants. Some carefully chosen grasses can help to provide valuable height and structure.

Colour from flowers in containers

Although there are a number of courageous plants that flower during the winter months their flower display tends to be more humble and subtle in comparison with the flower displays we are used to seeing in summer. But at this time of year I am grateful for any sign of life in my garden, and rejoice at every small detail. Much will of course depend on the weather. As long as there is little or no frost, many plants will continue flowering, though some (but not all) may loose their flowers once it gets colder.

         – Violas are the colourful faces of autumn, winter and spring. Personally I prefer the small-flowered ones. The petals of the large-flowered varieties are more affected by bad weather, and quickly look like dirty linnen. Not only do they come in many different colours, but with distinctive markings, giving them little faces, some cheerful, some grumpy. It is important to deadhead them, removing all small rounded seed capsules, as this will encourage them to continue flowering. I have managed to keep mine going for about 15 months, pinching them back occasionally and pepping them up again with a fertilizer application, I am aware I might loose them in case of a period of heavy frost.

         – Erica carnea, winter-flowering heathers are compact, and will produce white or lilac-pink flowers. Even in bud they are attractive and will flower into the spring. Unlike other heathers that require an acid, light and  peaty soil, this one is not so fussy, and will also thrive in heavier, more alkaline soils.  

Kübelbepfanzung Erica und Carex © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Container with Erica & Carex

         – Hellebores* have an imposing presence for the winter season. In recent years numerous new hybrids have come onto the market, greatly extending the flowering season. The true Christmas Rose, Helleborus niger with its clear white flowers, is often a more difficult garden plant, requiring an alkaline soil. The later flowering species, such as H. orientalis and H. sternii are less demanding. The new hybrids combine the best virtues of all: they flower from the start of winter, have more visible upright flowers, and offer the subtle colour range I so love from the orientalis and sternii hybrids.

         – Cyclamen*: The grandmother-image connected to the large-flowered hybrids is something of the past. Nowadays the smaller hybrids, that are deliciously scented and relatively hardy, will bring long-lasting colour to autumn schemes. If you do not want to take the risk, of losing your plants to frost, then plant the hardy Cyclamen coum*.  Their beautifully mottled leaves appear at the start of winter, the flowers in shades of white, pink or lilac follow in February.

Kübelbepflanzung Cyclamen coum © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Cyclamen coum

         – Skimmia*: Throughout the cold season, the plant displays its typical sprays of tiny flowerbuds. Strictly speaking will Skimmia japonica not flower till the spring time, but the flowerbuds, particularly on the varieties ‘Rubella’ (dark red) or ‘Kew White’ (white) are very attractive and showy.

Skimmia 'Rubella' © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Skimmia ‘Rubella’

         – Bulbs*: It is well worth hiding a few early bulbs in amongst the foliage. Towards the end of January you can expect to see the first snowdrops, soon to be followed by winter aconites and the icy blue Scilla mischtschenkoana. Crocus and early narcissus will bring you into spring and all the delights which come with that bountiful season. 

Colour from berries

Although there are many trees and shrubs with attractive fruits that bring colour into the winterlandscape, many of them will not start bearing fruit till they have reached a certain size and age, making them oft too large for a container. Some smaller shrubs are suitable. The fresh green foliage of Skimmia* contrasts well with its bright red berries. Only the plants bearing female flowers will develop these, so make sure you plant at least one “Flowering” (male) Skimmia, to make sure your “Fruiting” (female) plant can set seed. After flowering you will have to leave the faded flowers on the plant so that the berries can develop. For small containers or balcony boxes, the dwarf, compact Gaultheria procumbens* is a useful plant. The edible berries will stay on the plant throughout winter, and the foliage will take on reddish tones as well.

Colour from foliage in containers

I find evergreen foliage extremely important in the winter landscape. It is not just that foliage adds a valuable, softening green touch, you can use it to introduce more colour and texture.

Smooth, glossy foliage of Skimmia japonica reflect light and will bring some bulk to a large container. Ivy spilling over the edge of a pot breaks up the lines. 

Heucheras are very versatile and come in many colours.  Limy green will bring a touch of sunshine, particularly in shady areas. H. ‘Rex Lime’, accompanied by one of the yellow variegated sedges, can create a good colour accent well into spring, when early yellow daffodils such as Narcissus ‘Tete-a-Tete’ will bring warmth into the bleak landscape. Red-leafed Heuchera such as H. ‘Plum Pudding’ or ‘Obsidian’ can create an pleasing composition with a red-leafed Ajuga reptans ‘Catlins Giant’.

grey-green felty leaves of Sage add scent, and are very tactile  Silver grey foliage of lavender or artemisia, combined with the grey leaves of Festuca glauca can add a fresh note for a sunny planting.

Colour from stems

Acer palmatum 'Bi-Hoo' Kübel © Isabelle Van Groeningen
Acer palmatum ‘Bi-Hoo’

I love Japanese maples, willows and dogwoods that produce colourful accents in winter with their attractive stems. They can add delightful colour touch, especially when seen against an evergreen background, with the wintery sun on them. If you have a larger pot on your terrace, it is worth contemplating planting a Japanese maple. They will slowly grow into small trees, which with careful pruning, can be thinned out to reveal the beautiful structure and allow more light through and develop an airy lightness. They can be used as valuable screen. Not as elegant, but equally useful as screen are some of the dogwoods. Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ has luminous red stems that will do well in a larger container and Cornus ‘Midwinterfire’ produces finer, apricot orange shoots is well suited to a middle-sized pot.  All of these can look stunning as long-term planting and will also provide great autumn colour.


It is valuable to develop height in a pot, so that the proportions look right. A large, tall planter will look silly when only planted with violas or winter heather. Some trailing greenery and taller structure will create a better balance. This height must not be of a “living” plant: It can be a dormant taller grass or herbaceous perennial. The dried flowers of Miscanthus grasses will loot stunning to the end of winter. The dried flowerstems of perennials such as Sedum ‘Herbstfreude’, Stachys monieri ‘Hummelo’ or Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’ will stand well into the winter, and will look wonderful when coated in frost or snow.

What to do with the plants in spring?

Most of the plants listed above a long-lived hardy shrubs and perennials, which can continue their lives in your garden, or that of friends and neighbours. Plants marked with * are ones that will cope with shadier corners of your garden, the others like a sunny spot. If you look after your plant, there is no reason why they cannot spend their summer months out in the garden, planted amongst other perennials and shrubs, and be lifted in the autumn to spend the winter in a container. My father used to rescue Japanese azaleas after they had finished flowering and were thrown out by neighbours. He would plant them out in a shady area of the garden in spring. The not so hardy ones he would dig up again and pot up in the autumn and bring them indoors for a flowering display during the winter months. 

Surround yourself by beautiful things. Now, more than ever, they will bring you great joy for the months to come.

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