Clever containers

By Andy McIndoe

Pots and containers can look so forlorn during the winter months.

Remnants of summer bedding often limp on, or pots are left empty and forgotten until next spring. Even those planted with spring bulbs may be just pots of soil until shoots emerge. Some will have made an effort with the usual autumn seasonal plant offer: mini cyclamen, violas, bellis and ornamental cabbages. These usually look cheerful for a week or two and then succumb to the cold and wet. So what are the alternatives?

There are plenty of evergreen shrubs and perennials that are perfect for pots. These can be planted anytime, even if you have missed the planting window for autumn bedding and bulbs.

One of the best compact evergreens for pots is the dwarf sacred bamboo, Nandina domestica ‘Obsessed’. It is hardy and reliable and rarely grows to more than 60cm. The new growth displays salmon-orange tones at any time of the year, but in cold winter weather the colour intensifies bringing a warm glow to the doorstep or patio. This is a long term subject for a pot that thrives in sun or semi-shade.

Nandina domestica 'Obsessed'

Often referred to as a ground cover plant Gaultheria procumbensis a delight in a pot or a shallow bowl or trough. This ground-hugging evergreen has rounded, shining deep green leaves and tiny white flowers followed by large, marble-like red berries. The colouring is reminiscent of holly: perfect for the festive season. Try it is a dark glazed container for a sleek contemporary look. Small plants are perfect for table decoration and can be used in the garden afterwards.

Gaultheria procumbens

Gaultheria would work well alongside Helleborus niger, the Christmas rose. The species can be unreliable but breeding and selection has produced many much more reliable and floriferous cultivars. These will deliver a charming display of sparking white blooms in midwinter and are excellent in pots. They are by nature perennials that enjoy a reasonably open position and good drainage, so container growing is ideal. The blooms are very frost resistant but are never at their best in long periods of wet. Therefore a position under the eaves or on an open porch is perfect.

Helleborus niger

Heucheras and heucherellas are a great way to bring colour to winter pots without the need for flowers. They are surprisingly hardy, especially the purple-leaved varieties which always seem to be the most reliable; Heuchera‘Berry Smoothie’ is just one of many. The only real drawback of heucheras is their susceptibility to vine weevil. The evil little larvae eat the roots and chew away at the base of the plant out of sight causing irreparable damage. The only treatment is biological control, but it is probably best to treat them as long term seasonal plants which give months of pleasure; then replace them if vine weevil gets a hold.

Heuchera 'Berry smooothie'

Senecio ‘Angel’s Wings’, with its large silver, felted leaves has caused quite a stir since its introduction a couple of years ago. Despite its rather delicate appearance it has proved surprisingly hardy, usually retaining its good looks through winter and the following year. In these grey containers on a seafront wall it had obviously enjoyed the summer heat. Despite a battering from autumn gales it was still going strong and created quite an impact. Straggly plants can be hard pruned in spring to stimulate new growth.

Senecio 'Angels Wings'

Grasses can look wonderful in pots, but many lose their appeal as winter progresses. The carex, or sedges are some of the best; evergreen and good in shade. Carex comans, with its mass of fine copper leaves never fails to please in winter pots, especially where the foliage can be occasionally etched with frost. In this wooden trug it makes an attractive table decoration on the patio; a great way to bring deserted garden furniture to life in the winter months.

Carex comans

Ophiopogon is often mistaken for a grass with its leathery strap-like leaves.The best known variety is Ophiopogon planiscarpus ‘Nigrescens’ with black foliage. It is an excellent long-term subject for a pot, either on its own or in a mixed planting. Ophiopogon japonicus ‘Minor’ is less familiar, Forming a tight clump of short, narrow leathery green leaves it has a striking contemporary appearance. Excellent alongside acers, azaleas and camellias it adds an air of Japan to simple container planting.

Ophiopogon japonicus Minor

Succulents are hard to resist, but not all withstand frost. The sempervivums, or house leeks are the hardy ones that thrive on neglect, tolerate drought and look good all year round. They require minimal soil and lend themselves to the most creative container planting. Shallow terracotta pans, wooden boxes, even roof tiles all make great containers for them. They are also perfect to decorate the garden table during the colder months.

Sempervivums

Those living in milder locations are able to grow some of the less hardy succulents outside throughout the year. Echeverias, aeoniums and crassulas make stunning subjects for creative containers both traditional and contemporary.

Echeverias

These wall pockets filled with aeoniums make quite an impact on a timber clad wall, minimal watering required during the winter months!

Succulent pockets

Andy McIndoe

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