Writing an article about autumn-winter planted containers in the middle of a 30 °C heatwave does seem a little strange. Perhaps this is the new normal that climate change is going to bring us. Then again perhaps next week we will be back to wind and rain. This heatwave is not only exhausting for us trying to get some sleep at night it is likely taking the last energy reserves out of our summer bedding plants. By now they are probably looking somewhat worse for wear.
As we go into autumn we don’t have to give up on having pretty planted containers. Emptying the window boxes and leaving them bare for half a year isn’t a necessity. Outdoor colour can be ours to have all year-round, and it’s surprisingly affordable to achieve.
Choosing the Right Container
First things first, select the right container. Choose frost-proof pots, as they’ll withstand the harsh winter conditions.
Make sure your containers have proper drainage to prevent waterlogged roots, which can kill many plants during winter.
Thrillers, Fillers and Spillers
Regardless of the size of your containers, employ the concept of thrillers, fillers, and spillers.
Thrillers are the focal point, typically taller plants that provide structure and visual interest. I love the striking red-stemmed dogwoods. They display colourful autumn foliage but truly shine in winter when their crimson stems take centre stage.
Other options include cordylines, small conifers, upright evergreen grasses like Carex testacea, or skimmias.
Fillers are the plants that fill in the middle spaces and give a lush look to your container. When it comes to fillers, the options are too many to name.
Heucheras, euphorbias, small evergreen shrubs such as euonymus, pieris and gaultheria. Evergreen grasses like the carex range and ferns are also among the top choices.
Autumn brings forth a wealth of these small potted flowering shrubs, perennials, grasses, and ferns to garden centres. Make them the backbone of your container arrangements. Come spring, you can transplant them into your garden, ensuring a sustainable and cost-effective gardening approach.
Spillers are those that cascade over the edges, softening the container’s appearance. Ivies especially those with variegated leaves, work well. Alternatively, you can opt for bright lime-green Lysimachia num. ‘Aurea’, lamiums or purple leaved ajugas.
Seasonal Stars provide pops of colour. September brings pansies and violas back to the garden centres. These are accompanied by lots of other colourful and seasonal plants and packets of spring bulbs.
Think of brightly flowered cyclamen, bellis (daisies) and primulas. Underplanting with miniature daffodils will give you a fresh burst of colour in February or March.
Put plants into little groups in your trolley. Experiment with different combinations to see what appeals to your eye. Choose a variety of foliage shapes for contrast, and ensure you select some to provide vivid bursts of colour.
In the darker days of winter, it is the bright colours that stand out. I love the sophisticated darker colours of purple pansies but they don’t glow in low light as much as bright yellows. If you want the darker colours, pair them with silver foliage plants.
Suitable silver plants include cotton lavender, curry plant, cineraria or the sparkling but hard to pronounce Calocephalus. The contrast will make them stand out more than if they are just against greens.
If it is a choice between pansies or violas for the winter, I would choose violas. The smaller flowers stand up to the wind and rain much better. Do watch out for snails hiding under the foliage in your containers. They do like to come out at night and nibble all the flowers off the violas.
More unusual choices which look fantastic in mixed containers are the ornamental cabbages. They come in a range of leaf colours and mix beautifully with cyclamen and violas.
Red chillies and orange solanum with brightly coloured ornamental fruits give a fantastic Halloween, autumnal vibe.
If you like a more sleek or understated look, small standard bay trees, hollies or olives look fabulous either side of a front door. Underplant with a single variety of winter bedding to keep the sleek effect.
At Christmas the addition of a red bow and a small set of fairy lights completes the seasonal charm.
Keep in mind that plants don’t grow much over the winter. Unlike summer containers, you can pack plants in quite densely to achieve a lush look from the outset. Bedding plants like pansies and violas may stop flowering during the coldest months, but they will recover and continue flowering well into June. Cyclamen should be planted slightly proud of the soil to ensure they don’t get too wet, which will cause the corms to rot.
Raise your pots up on to pot feet to make sure that water can drain out easily. Position them somewhere sheltered where they will get plenty of light. Bubble wrap containers to protect plant roots if the weather is very severe.
Winter containers do not need feeding, but do check regularly if they need watering. Stick your finger into the soil down to your second knuckle. The surface may look dry, but the soil may be wet enough underneath. Err on the side of caution and avoid over watering.
Whether you want a sleek traditional look or a riot of colour to keep your spirits up this winter, there are many suitable plants available right now. Window boxes, patio pots or larger containers can all be filled with a wide choice of shrubs, evergreen perennials and seasonal bedding to take you from the last days of summer to the end of spring.
By our resident horticultural expert