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Plants for winter containers

Brighten up dull winter days with these plants for seasonal pots.

Friday, 23 October, 2020 at 2:48 pm

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Winter is often viewed as ‘down time’ in the garden, with little to do but wait until spring. Not so. There are many winter plants for the garden, particularly when used in seasonal pot and container displays.

Bright flowers, vivid berries, evergreen foliage and colourful stems can all be combined to great effect. With the right plants you can create a high-impact but low-maintenance scheme, to lift the spirits on even the darkest of days.

For a bee-friendly container, opt for plants with a generous supply of nectar, like crocus, hellebores and snowdrops. Sitting in a frost pocket? Try growing robust plants like Hakonechloa macra, Hylotelephium spectabile and Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’.

Before you plant, remember to make sure your pots are winter ready too. Clay or terracotta pots are prone to cracking in frost so either avoid using these for your winter displays or look for frost-proof pots and containers. Plastic, fibreglass, wooden and treated terracotta and clay are all good materials for winter pots. Look for pots labelled frost-proof rather than frost resistant which can still crack when temperatures plummet.

Raising pots up by standing them on blocks or pot ‘feet’ over the winter will also allow water to drain away, prevent them becoming waterlogged and help to reduce the risk of frost damage.

More on winter plants:

Browse our choice of plants for winter pots, below.

Snowdrops

Snowdrops are perfect for growing in winter pot displays. Team with black lilyturf and hellebores for a modern look.

Height x Spread: 15cm x 8cm

Wintergreen, Gaultheria procumbens

Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens) is a naturally festive-looking, neat, low-spreading evergreen with large red berries and reddish-tinged leaves in winter.

H x S: 30cm x 1.5m

Winter-flowering pansy

Winter-flowering pansies with yellow, maroon, white or purple ‘faces’ will keep flowering except in the very worst weather. But they will recover and then continue until June.

H x S: 20cm x 30cm

Cyclamen

Hardy cyclamen (Cyclamen hederifolium and Cyclamen coum) are neat, free-flowering plants, perfect for growing at the base of trees and shrubs or naturalising in grass. They work well in winter pot displays, and can be planted into the garden after they have flowered.

H x S: 8cm x 10cm

Carex

Carex are tuft-forming evergreen perennials with green, variegated or bronze, curly or arching leaves. Very tough and contemporary, and will look good all winter.

H x S: 20cm x 30cm

Skimmia ‘Rubella’

Skimmia ‘Rubella’ is a rugged, hardy and reliable evergreen shrub with grape-like clusters of tight pink buds throughout winter. Teams well with heathers.

H x S: 75cm x 75cm

Phormium

Phormium is a colourful architectural evergreen with arched strap-shaped leaves in pink, purplish and bronzy shades, including stripes. A good mixer for contemporary schemes.

H x S: 1m x 1.2m

Buy 1, get 1 free on Cordyline australis ‘Torbay Red’

An alternative, but similar choice to phormium, are cordylines, also known as cabbage palms. A great plant for the centre of a potted display, this evergreen has sword-like, arching bronze foliage, with sweet-scented ivory flowers in summer.

We’ve picked the 10 best plants for winter pots, including cyclamen and pansies. From the experts at BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine.

How to Repot Container Plants

Trimming the roots and refreshing the soil give potbound plants a new lease on life

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Most healthy container garden plants eventually outgrow their pots. A good way to reinvigorate a rootbound plant is to repot it. In my former job as a greenhouse manager, I spent a lot of time repotting container plants.

Recognizing when it’s time to repot is the first step. Telltale signs include soil that dries out quickly or has become degraded; roots tightly packed within a pot or protruding from drainage holes; and water sitting on the soil surface too long after watering. Often a plant simply looks top-heavy or as if it might burst out of its pot. The best time to repot most plants is when they’re actively growing, in the spring or summer. However, plants can usually handle repotting whenever the situation warrants it.

A plant ready for repotting should slide out with the soil in one piece. If much of the soil falls free of the roots, the plant may not need repotting. If it does, there will likely be a solid soil-and-root mass in the shape of the just-removed pot. Roots should be white or light-colored. Black, dark-colored, or foul-smelling roots are usually signs of a serious problem, such as fungal disease.The second step is to get a plant out of its pot. If a plant is rootbound, it helps to water the root ball thoroughly in advance. For plants in small to medium pots, invert the pot and support the top of the root ball with one hand. Put your other hand on the bottom of the pot and use a downward throwing motion with an abrupt stop. Many plants will slip out after one or two throws. If not, knock the edge of the pot against a sturdy surface, such as a potting bench, still holding the pot with both hands. It may take a few good whacks to release the plant; be careful not to break the pot.

Trim off the bottom of the root ball and make some vertical cuts up the sides.

Roots packed tightly in a pot don’t take up nutrients efficiently. To promote good nutrient absorption, trim the roots and loosen up the root ball before replanting. Use a sharp knife or pruning shears for this job, removing as much as the bottom third of the root ball if necessary. Don’t be surprised if what you cut off is a thick tangle of root tissue. Also make three or four vertical cuts about a third of the way up the remaining root ball.

Cut through any roots growing in a circular pattern to help prevent the plant from strangling itself with its own roots as it grows. If the roots are thick along the sides of the root ball, shave or peel away the outer layer. Or gently untangle the root ball with your fingers as if you were mussing someone’s hair. Do this along the top edge of the root ball, too.

The proper size of the new pot depends on the plant and its potential growth rate, how well it’s growing under current conditions, and the ultimate size desired for the plant. Rely on your own idea of what a healthy specimen of a particular species should look like. When in doubt, go with a pot the next size up.

Choose a pot slightly bigger than the root ball.

To keep soil from leaking out the bottom of the pot, cover its drainage hole(s) with a paper towel, coffee filter, mesh screen, or pot shard. If you use a pot shard, place it convex side up to avoid sealing the hole. While it’s common practice to put gravel or charcoal in the bottom of pots, they don’t help with drainage and take up valuable space, so I don’t recommend using them.

To repot a small plant that’s easy to lift, put a few inches of moist soil in the pot and tamp it down lightly. Place the plant in the pot, centering it. The goal is to get the top of the root ball to sit about an inch below the rim of the pot. If the plant is in too deep, gently raise it and add more soil. If it sits too high, remove the plant and dig out some soil, or just dump the soil out and start over.

Now, fill the space around the root ball with soil. I’ve noticed that there are two approaches to this job — “stuffing” and “filling.” Stuffers like to press soil in around a plant. Fillers like to fill the pot to the brim and let the soil settle in during the first few waterings. I’m usually a filler, but I do stuff a bit at times, especially with top-heavy plants that need to be steadied. Whether you stuff or fill, leave some room at the top so the pot can hold enough water with each watering to thoroughly moisten the soil.

Fill in with fresh potting soil, and trim the top of the plant.

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Most healthy container garden plants eventually outgrow their pots. Learn how to repot plants so your containers stay happy and beautiful.