Planting Containers for Winter Colour

January can be a bleak month for us gardeners, our outdoor spaces painfully devoid of colour and working conditions far from ideal. The less hardened among us find solace pottering in the greenhouse, browsing through seed catalogues or hunting out the pointed tips of emerging spring bulbs. However with a little planning it’s possible to enjoy colour, texture and a long period of interest using planted containers.

My 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 to spur you through the washing up! 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.

Pure and simple, Helleborus niger
Pure and simple, Helleborus niger

Structure and garden ornament play a key part in the garden during winter when there’s less foliage about to obscure the view. You’ll be seeing a lot of your chosen containers to it’s worth working with the most striking examples you have, provided they are frost resistant. Just this week I was struck by the loveliness of a stone trough, encrusted with lichen and moss, for a seasonal planting of Skimmia japonica, Gaultheria procumbens (with the red berries), Nandina domestica and Helleborus niger, edged with variegated ivy. Positioned next to a solid front door, what better welcome could one give one’s guests?

Even on a gloomy January day, a combination of skimmia, gaultheria, Helleborus niger, variegated ivy and Nandina domestica will brighten the darkest of corners
Even on a gloomy January day, a combination of skimmia, gaultheria, Helleborus niger, variegated ivy and Nandina domestica will brighten the darkest of corners

Plants grow very little in winter, so start with ones that are about the size you’d 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 succumb to 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. If, like me, you attempt to overwinter tender plants outdoors then it helps to either bunch several containers together or to protect individual pots with bubble wrap.

A display of pots and baskets planted simply for winter colour
A display of pots and baskets planted simply for winter colour

My Top 10 Plants for Winter Containers

1. 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. Their cheeky blooms come in a wide variety of colours from white through to yellow, orange, mauve, purple and blue. Once winter is over violas will leap into glorious action, clambering up between tulips and daffodils and scenting the air with their unmistakable fragrance. I would not be without them.

2. Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’. It’s a rather stiff and surburban shrub, but my grandma loved it so I am giving it a place in my top 10. When small and grown as a container plant Skimmia japonica has a great deal to offer: panicles of scented white flowers emerge from dark red buds in spring, eventually maturing into clusters of red berries set against glossy green foliage. An all-rounder and readily available from garden centres, skimmias do better in a slightly acidic soil.

3. Gaultheria procumbens (box berry or checker berry). Incorporate plenty of peat into your mix if you want to grow Gaultheria procumbens. This diminutive shrub will pay you back with small white flowers in summer and a carpet of shiny berries above burnished foliage in winter.

4. Hedera helix. There a so many variations on English ivy that it’s hard to pick just one. For leaves splashed with cream, try H. helix ‘Glacier’, or if you’re looking for a touch of gold H. helix ‘Buttercup’ will do a star turn provided it gets as much exposure to the winter sun as possible. Ivy is very attractive to wildlife, which can be a double-edged sword. Just as wrens, spiders and other useful beasties will relish the warmth and shelter it provides, so will my arch enemy, Mr Snail.

5. Erica carnea and Erica x darleyensis. Most winter flowering heathers are cultivars of Erica carnea and Erica x darleyensis. For white flowers, try E. carnea ‘Springwood White’ or E. x darleyensis ‘White Perfection’. If you’re looking for something rosier, turn to E. carnea ‘Springwood Pink’ or E. x darleyensis ‘Darleydale’. One of the best reds is E. carnea ‘December Red’, which is actually closer to magenta than scarlet.

6. Helleborus niger. Ah, the Christmas rose! Although this stubby hellebore was introduced from warmer climes, at times it has almost ‘gone native’ in the UK. Also known as the Lenten rose it’s as well recognised in gardens as daffodils and crocuses. Grown well, with blooms protected from muddy splashes, there’s little to rival the Christmas rose for purity of colour in deepest winter.

7. Narcissus ‘Rijnvelds Early Sensation’. Impatient gardeners will love this daffodil which can be in bloom as early as late December if the weather is mild. Not too tall and with classic golden trumpets.

8. Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’. As close to black as you’ll get in a leaf, O. 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’.

9. Cineraria maritima. This hackneyed bedding plant of the 80’s is surely due a come-back. Tough as old boots and especially happy on chalky soils, Cineraria maritima will reward with with tactile, frilly-edged silver foliage all through the year.

10. Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’. If you are lucky enough to have a very large container, you could do little better than use the dogwoods as centrepieces for a winter scheme. C. sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ reveals brilliant, flame-coloured stems when the leaves fall in autumn.

Miniature cyclamen will keep flowering until the weather gets really cold
Miniature cyclamen will keep flowering until the weather gets really cold