Containers to Get You Through the Winter Doldrums

Fall season container.Containers can easily transition to fall and winter to bring color to your garden.

This is the time of year where leaves are falling, frost is on your windows, and your planting beds are looking a bit bare. When that cold snap hits and kills off your summer annuals, you don’t have to abandon your containers and give into the winter blahs. Instead use this transitional period to put in some hardy plants now that will get you through until the spring thaw.

There are two schools of thought on containers. Some advocate the one-plant-for-one-pot look. You then mass the pots in groupings. The other technique is to cram-and-jam at least three kinds of plant in one large pot (one tall, one bushy, one trailing). Both styles have their use and appeal depending on the effect you want. In dead winter though, I prefer the one plant/one pot approach it is just easier to substitute out any failures and will look less “skimpy.”

Choose containers that are gorgeous such as glazed pottery. In fall/winter, plants are less full so the containers you use are more important than other seasons. Group together pots that are of the same materials or of coordinating colors.

Use props and fillers to give the illusion of fullness in your plantings. Try pots filled with dried seed heads, squash, and gourds. Stack hay bales, wooden crates, and nice rocks/fossils. Display antique wood and iron pieces, hypertufa spheres, and stone figures. Add white lights or holiday décor as seasonally appropriate.

Keep your winter containers only in high traffic areas (i.e. near entrances). Do this not only because they are the only place people will see them but also because in winter’s cold you won’t want to be out more than a few seconds to maintain them.
Stuff the bottom of containers with filler such as styrofoam chips or lava rocks to ensure good drainage. This is even more crucial in winter than the rest of the year. The freezing rains we get in the DC area in late winter can be brutal to any planting.

Containers need extra fertilizer, but don’t overdo it in winter. Cut back on watering as well — especially if rains are fairly frequent — only water if the container is under a roof or ledge.

Top off container plantings with an insulator — mulch, pea gravel, peat moss, bark mulch, etc. They provide protection from the cold and keep the soil from drying out. They can also disguise plastic planting pots if you just pop them inside more decorative containers.

Consider planting a layer of bulbs now as you pot up your containers. They will pop up next spring and are a low-cost, easy step.
When choosing plants, combine textures and colors. Consider a display of three, five, or seven different kinds of boxwoods. Try newer boxwood varieties like ‘Green Pillow’ next to ‘Elegantissimo.’

Try a sculptural display of twisted willow or other interesting branches. Just twist up chicken wire into a cage in the bottom of your pot to support the sticks. Twist ivy throughout them to create an interesting effect.

Another striking winter container idea is a golden holly in topiary standard form, surrounded at its base by pinecones spray-painted gold.

Last, remember that containers are ideal because they can be moved! If a hard freeze comes in and you have some “borderline” or less hardy items planted, you can move them indoors or into a sheltered area for a few days.

Container Plant List

Small trees
Redtwig dogwood
Twisted willow
Harry Lauder’s walking stick

Flowering kales and cabbages
Skimmia rubella
Convolvulus cneorum/Bush Morning Glory/Silverbush
Holly/golden holly

Creeping jenny
Sweet alyssum

Kathy’s own containers are full of seasonal greenery. She is editor of Washington Gardener magazine ( and a long-time DC area gardening enthusiast.

About the Author

Kathy Jentz
Kathy Jentz is editor of Washington Gardener magazine and is a long-time DC area gardening enthusiast. Washington Gardener is all about gardening where you live. She can be reached at @WDCgardener on Twitter and welcomes your local DMV gardening questions.