Many of us plant containers for summer interest and leave them empty for the winter. I get very excited at the beauty that can be created with a winter container, but would like to expand on this topic. What would you think of the idea of having a basic planting that lasts year round, with only the addition of seasonal color needed? (Think pansies in the cool of early spring, all the choices we love such as geraniums in the summer, winter blooming heather and hellebores for late fall/early winter.) Or….planting your container now with plants that can move into your garden in the spring or perhaps in a spring a little farther down the road.
While there are some containers too small to incorporate these ideas, for the majority of them just have fun and create without overcrowding.
The planting medium you use is very important. Art’s Supersoil/house blend mix is your best choice for a shrub, perennial, grass design. It is always wise to check the plant tags for both light and water needs. If you are using plants that require little to no water, go with Promix. Always remember though, that even drought resistant plants require moisture help for the first two years while they put on the root system needed to support themselves.
Shrubs For Containers
Step 1 : Create Height
Gold : CUPRESSUS MACROCARPA
This is a bright, beautifully textured, fragrant shrub for a container and can be kept in the design for a few years as long as you are in Zone 7 or warmer. Often it will be “Goldcrest” that is available. It is an outstanding center piece for your container. If you can find “Wilma”, please consider this alternative as it is much smaller and dense in its growth pattern both at a young age in your container and at maturity in your garden. If you do not plan to move this beauty from the container, try to find “Wilma”.
Moving to the garden: If you are looking to move it to your garden, expect Goldcrest to reach a final height of about 30’ by 15’ wide over the course of several decades. If you manage to find Wilma, expect a much smaller tree at maturity, topping out at 8’ tall by 2’ wide. They both love full sun, even moisture, but well drained soil. And as an added benefit, are deer resistant.
Dark Green : EUONYMUS JAPONICUS GREEN SPIRE
This is one of my very favorite centerpieces for a container with it deep, green, glossy foliage, made all the more delightful with its curved, distinctive leaf. This addition to the euonymus family is well worth tracking down. It is very slow to grow, requiring little maintenance, and will work hard for years as the centerpiece of your container.
Moving to the garden: If you ever decide to move this plant to the garden (though you will not have to), it is hardy to Zone 6, so will easily survive the transplant. It reaches a final height of 5’-6’ and a width of 1’ to 2’. Think about using it as a much needed vertical exclamation point in your landscape design. It is versatile as far as sun is concerned, doing well from full sun to mostly shade. It likes average, well-drained soil and while it does flower, there are too insignificant to really appreciate. They adapt to sea side planting and also resist deer.
Step 2 : Fillers / Layers
Now that you have created your height, it is time to move to the next layer of your container. The choices are numerous, but always consider foliar contrast, foliar color, and flower. While it sounds overwhelming, it really isn’t. Just remember to create a balanced container that includes green, gold, variegated, even blue foliage, and flowers.
Heuchera - Coral Bells
I have chosen the burgundy leafed Heuchera “Frosted Violet”, but the variations in leaf shape and color go from golds, oranges, reds, greens, right through to black. The choice is yours. Heuchera flowers, but they are insignificant. I just follow the stem down to the crown of the plant and cut them out. The flowers in the picture are ready for me to remove. Heucheras are one of my very favorite plants in a container as they bring a bold-colored, great textured leaf to the show. It is sometimes too easy to not have enough leaf contrast in a container. This little gem takes care of that in spade. Just ask at the nursery for what is available to you and have fun with your creation.
Moving to the garden: While it is advertised that heucheras will handle all sun conditions, I do find that constant even moisture is an absolute requirement for that to happen. They are a rather small perennial, reaching only 8in-10in high and 16in wide. They shine in all their beauty in a woodland garden with ferns, but put them anywhere a punch of color is needed.
ERICA DARLEYENSIS KRAMER’S RED
Heather is a mainstay of the fall/winter container. You can also find summer blooming “heather”. However, for this article, I will focus on the winter flowering variety. Kramer’s Red is a compact dark green small shrub that is literally covered in bloom from December until April. Although there are many “green foliage, with pinkish/purple blooms, this old standard still stands out in the crowd. It produces it greatest flower in full sun and well-drained soil. However, that still means even moisture. After flowering, give it a light shear to keep it looking its best and ready to go for another eye popping season next year. There are also gold varieties available with white flowers and with pink. How you plan your container will help to determine what color heather you choose. If you have a lot of green on the go, try to find one with gold foliage.
Moving to the garden: It really doesn’t matter where you go on the mainland. Heather, whether dark green in foliage or gold, catches our eye. It thrives in full sun but will grow in part shade. They work planted singly or groups, allowing them to grow together or kept as separate plants. Because of their low mature height, (12in tall by 24in wide) they do better if planted at the front of a bed. They look right at home planted up against rock placed in the garden as it is reminiscent of its homeland….Scotland.
EUONYMUS FORTUNEI BLONDY
I had the great fortune to pick up this container for myself recently. It was specific in its design to fit into my garden. That brilliant spot of the gold on the left lower side is Euonymus Blondy. It is so eye catching with its bold yellow and green markings compared to its counter parts and just as easy to take care of. In a large container, plant it multiple time and allow it to creep over the sides at it matures. This is a hardy little shrub, good to Zone 5, handling all conditions, except extreme wet. It thrives in the sun, but will handle some shade. If it starts to get leggy on you, please feel free to prune it back…. hard if need be. It will be all the better for it. Of note for those who like to create floral arrangements, don’t forget to give this a try.
Moving to the garden: You may never want to move this shrub to the garden as it will not out grow most containers. However, if you do, know that it mounds in a well-behaved manner, not sprawling like many of its counterparts. Put it anywhere near the front of the bed where you need a punch of color. Once established in your garden, it can handle drier conditions. Its final size tops out at about 2ft by 2ft.
GAULTHERA PROCUMBENS (WINTERGREEN):
Oh, do I love this plant, especially this time of year. Just look at those red berries on this ever-so-slowly creeping groundcover. While you may never want to pick them, the fruit is edible and the leaves are used to make wintergreen tea. However, as far as winter containers are considered, they have no rivals. As you can see, that rich shiny foliage takes on a burgundy hue in the winter adding great contrast to an already outstanding plant. Having said all this, they will handle full sun, but often prefer partial shade. They require average (but never soggy) soil.
Moving to the garden - This is a native plant to North America and once established, requires little attention. It is deer and rabbit proof, with its final height set at 4in-5in and its final spread is 10in-12in.
HELLEBORUS NIGER HGC JACOB
There are few plants I seriously collect for my garden. Hellebores are one of them. What is there to not like? They are essentially evergreen, with unique leathery leaves. Have a mild fragrance. Hardy to Zone 4. And, just when we think we cannot stand one more day of clouds and rain, these beauties pop their flowers up for all to see. In my garden, the blooms can last easily for two months. There are so many varieties now that it is impossible to list them all. But, Jacob is proving to be one of the more outstanding new cultivars over the last several years. When hellebores first arrived on the scene, the beautiful flowers hung downwards, depriving us of their beauty. Not Jacob! This plant makes an unforgettable impact in a container, with the leaves holding their own in the summer months. An interesting side point. The leaves can start to look a bit worn by the time the blooms show. Don’t be afraid to cut them out. The flowers will then be able to put on their show for you. The leaves will not take long to make an entrance. And while you do not have to deadhead them, the look will be better if you do.
Moving to the garden: You could seriously have a dilemma on your hands, as I am sure you will want this plant in both a container and your garden. However, they prefer some shade, and even handle dark shade, lighting up a dreary corner. They like even moisture. They look breathtaking planted in irregular groupings, are deer and rabbit resistant. They are very slow to grow, but will ultimately reach 14in high and 12in wide at the base of the plant.
CAREX OSHIMENSIS EVERGOLD
Last, but not least, an evergreen grass. This is another long time standard for containers for a reason. It just is so darn easy to care for and adds so much to the container with its color and form. A zone 5, it is a highly decorative, yet tough sedge, winning awards for its valuable contribution to our gardens. Plant it on the outer edge of your container. If the container is large enough, feel free to use multiples. You will not be disappointed. It handles full sun to part shade, although the best color is in part shade. It loves even moisture. Hardy to zone 5. In a container or a garden, do not cut this grass right back. When pruning leave about 1/3 of the plant in place.
Moving to the garden: Don’t be afraid to try this sedge in some shade. It will brighten up a corner. It is also great in groupings, and with dark green evergreens, such as low growing pines. 8in high by 14in wide.
There are so many incredible choices for container planting that it would take pages to list them all. Please visit the garden center to browse the courtyard (and of course other areas of the nursery) for ideas. Talk to our staff about the location of your container (sun, shade, etc.) and the appropriate plants for the location.