Winter containers add festive feel

I get excited about these amazing creations that we can enjoy for the Christmas season and right through winter.

  • Nov. 20, 2015 7:00 a.m.

Creating the perfect winter pot is fun and easy

I love the idea of continuing colour into the winter months using outside porch pots. What makes a great outdoor winter pot? It is a beautifully assembled collection of hardy evergreen and deciduous plants that really pop in winter – or it could be an arrangement of unique cut branches artistically displayed in an attractive container.  In addition to looking amazing, it needs to withstand the abuse of winter weather (with some protection in the worst conditions) and still look great.

This whole idea of winter pots started about 10 years ago in independent garden stores and has blossomed into a mainstream winter culture. Box stores now carry them big time and for the most part, they look reasonably good, but I consider creating winter containers an art form and like all great containers, no matter the time of the year, they should be so much more than just okay. I would like to see them personalized and brought to a much higher level.  Porch pots may be the only ‘garden’ you have in winter, so let’s make them spectacular. I think zone 5 would be the target for cold hardiness, which should include about 80% of the Canadian population.

As with most things in life, you need to have a strategy for success.  Winter presents a very different environment than the one enjoyed during the warm days of spring and summer, so a few key issues need to be addressed. First is the container. You need a sturdy, suitable sized (45-60cm / 18-24”) container to withstand winter winds and driving rain or snow.

The soil needs to be very open and porous, and even if you use a high porosity mix, like Sunshine #4 or ProMix HP, it’s important to add about one-third fine fir or hemlock bark mulch or sawdust to get the level of porosity you need. In winter, roots survive far better in very well-drained mixes.  Excess moisture can damage roots as it freezes.

Just the opposite is true when using cut branches. To keep the stems fresh and in place, you need heavy wet soil, and surprisingly, most potting soils, if saturated with moisture, are great. The weight of wet soil will also keep the pot steady in blustery weather.

When creating a container of cut greens, you need a mix of greens that will withstand winter cold and not desiccate in windy conditions. Pine is, by far, the best. Both the soft white pine (Pinus strobus) and scotch pine (Pinus sylvestris), blue spruce (Picea glauca) and noble and silver fir (Abies nobilis), when cut in late October and November, should last until the weather warms up in spring. Soft-textured cedar (Thuja plicata) and weeping hemlock (Tsuga canadensis) are nice looking, but they are more susceptible to drying out. The colour, shape, texture and fragrance of these cut boughs are delightful. Misting them with water occasionally or leaving them out in winter rains will help keep their moisture content at an optimum level.

Once you arrange the greens into the style you love, the next step should be layering in colourful stems of shrub dogwoods. I particularly love the vibrant red stems of Cornus ‘Sibirica’ , the yellows of C. ‘Flaviramea’ and the yellow and orange stems of C. ‘Midwinter Fire’.  Arranged among the greens, they jump out. The pure white stems of birch, especially ones with nicely textured bark, are fabulous as well.  Not to be outdone, the curly willows (Salix ‘Tortuosa’) especially the golden and red stemmed varieties, add a whole new dimension of twists and curls that play with your eyes.

This is where artistry brings your arrangements to life – a few focal points work wonders.  Large colourful cones, like the long gently curved cones of white pine (Pinus strobus), naturally frosted with hardened sap, are among the best. The long thin cones of norway spruce (Picea abies) are nice to work with too. There are many pine cones that look attractive, like P. ponderosa or its larger cousin P. arizonica, and if you simply touch the tips of each cone with some white latex paint, it creates that fantastic ‘fresh snow’ look.

Layering in some colourful berries adds another level of richness to your arrangements.  Perhaps the very best are the berries of Ilex verticillata or those of deciduous holly. These also make wonderful zone 4 garden plants. Their vibrant red and now gold berries will make your arrangements rock!

If you’d like to bling up your arrangements, and I certainly do, incorporate some larger glass stem balls.  I like to use muted tones for a very classy look.  Well-made artificial birds, perched on a few twigs, fit in nicely but avoid any cheesy stuff.  Keep your arrangements looking very elegant.

In zone 6 and higher, a tropical look is very much ‘in’.  To create this look, use native greens and then fill in with stems of evergreen magnolia. Their big rich shiny green leaves and brown undersides add a whole different perspective. These leaves will tolerate light frosts, and they are unique and fun. Large proteas, from Australia and other southern countries, have an amazing cold tolerance and are truly eye-popping as focal points. Exotic dried tropical cones, seed pods and dried foliage add quite a new dimension for an elegant look and a nice tropical Christmas touch.

If you love creating living arrangements, the many new compact conifers and broadleaved plants, of all shapes and sizes, offer possibilities we’ve never had before. Tall thin yews (Taxus), columnar boxwood (Buxus ‘Graham Blandy’) and Japanese holly (Ilex ‘Sky Pencil’) are just a few of the uprights that add vertical lift. Fillers, like the orange fluffy Thuja ‘Rheingold’ and T. ‘Golden Tuffet’, add texture and focal points. Spill-overs, such as the compact ‘Gold Thread’ cypress, Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Filifera Aurea’, and the wonderful new evergreen carex grasses, like the new ‘EverColor’ and ‘Everillo’, the rich dark shiny C.E. ‘Everlime’ and the old standby C. ‘Evergold’, just finish things nicely.  All of these will tolerate zone 6 and higher.

Adding value to living evergreen planters is the same as for fresh green arrangements. You don’t absolutely need one, but a bow of sinamay looks rather charming spilling over and their tails trailing in among the greens, again playing nicely with your eyes. Adding clear mini-lights or LED lights will make all your porch pots, both cut greens and living planters, really sparkle.

I get excited about these amazing creations that we can enjoy for the Christmas season and right through winter. After Christmas, take out the obvious holiday décor and add pussy willow stems and bird feeders.  Have some fun!

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