Home My garden Planting up winter pots for colour, scent and shape

Planting up winter pots for colour, scent and shape

Stars of the winter pots - Phormiums, sweet box and Viburnum
Stars of the winter pots - Phormiums, sweet box and Viburnum

Blog: An easy guide to pots for cold weather – and you don’t have to do it all at once!

It’s Million Planting Moments Week, part of the Horticultural Trade Association’s Keep Britain Growing campaign, which aims to encourage people of all abilities and skill levels to keep on gardening – more about that here.

Getting outside and growing proved to be a lifeline for many during national lockdown and as I write, I’m in North-East England, which is under ‘local restrictions’.

Call me a pessimist or a realist but the infection rate is rapidly increasing and we all might need something soothing to focus on.

Luckily, gardening is an all-year-round activity and instead of having empty pots all winter and spring, I’m planting my four large containers with plants that look and/or smell terrific during the colder months.

These pots are home to Dahlias, Agapanthus and Cannas during the frost-free months, which get lifted and taken under glass to ride out the winter (the Agapanthus are in smaller pots, so it’s just a case of lifting them out, job’s a good ‘un).

I’ve been planning this in advance – the Dahlias and Cannas still have a lot to give, right until the first frost. We may have another month here, or it may be next week – the joy of living in the north!

How the pots looked in late July - the big ones are hidden by foliage
How the pots looked in late July – the big ones are hidden by foliage

Tough plants as centrepieces

During my recent trips out to garden centres, The Alnwick Garden and Thorp Perrow Arboretum, I’ve been looking for plants to use as centrepieces.

They have to perform well during the colder months, whether evergreen, with good structure, flowering, or perfumed.

Look for colour in leaves and stems for winter, especially in evergreens and how they contrast in form and shade with what you already have. You can see how the sweet box, quite a dull shrub on its own, really brings out the blue tone in the Euphorbia behind it.

The Phormiums (New Zealand flax) come in a vast range of colours and are very architectural. Choose smaller varieties if you’re putting them in pots.

Once it’s time to take out the tender plants, then these four will be planted in the pots, along with a selection or bulbs and tough little perennials, such as violas or pansies… watch this space!

Here are the four I’ve ended up with:

Phormium Platt's Black
Phormium Platt’s Black

Phormium Platt’s Black

This dwarf variety of New Zealand flax (to 90cm) has sword-like, deep purple-black leaves that stay on the plant all winter. It needs good drainage and not the best Phormium to choose if you’re in a wet, cold part of the country.

Plant in a container with plenty of grit for good drainage. Looks splendid with hot-coloured tulips.

Phormium Maori Sunrise (Rainbow Sunrise)
Phormium Maori Sunrise (Rainbow Sunrise)

Phormium Maori Sunrise (Rainbow Sunrise)

A smaller Phormium (also growing to 90cm), Maori Sunrise looks particularly exotic, with slender, apricot, gold, pink and bronze striped leaves.

Like Platt’s Black, it won’t thank you for a cold, soggy soil in winter, much better in well-drained compost in a large container with added grit. Try surrounding it with single colour pansies or violas, or the scented white daffodil Thalia.

Sarcococca confusa, or sweetbox
Sarcococca confusa, or sweetbox

Sweet box (Sarcoccocca confusa)

It may look ordinary but wait until it flowers! The tiny white flowers are carried from December to March with a wonderful, vanilla-like fragrance. This dense, evergreen shrub will tolerate shade and pollution, eventually growing to 2m x 1m.

Plant it close to an entrance or path to enjoy the perfume. The dark evergreen leaves are a blank canvas – pair this with any type of bulb you choose!

Viburnum x bodnantense Dawn
Viburnum x bodnantense Dawn

Viburnum x bodnantense Dawn

Now coming into its bronze-tinted autumn foliage, this Viburnum is deciduous, carrying dense clusters of fragrant, dark pink flowers on bare stems from November to March. It grows to 3m, less in a container and another plant to have near the house in sun or partial shade.

Underplant it with snowdrops and pink and purple tulips to have a pot that’s of interest from November to May.

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