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Winter plants for pots: ideas & varieties

10 November 2015

Plan your container planting carefully and your winter pots will brighten your days with an ever-changing display right through to spring. Ann-Marie Powell shares her tips for planting up a winter container.

Iris reticulata
Iris reticulata 'Harmony' blooms in February

After the excesses of summer, gardens and gardeners can feel rather gloomy. Your mood may dip like winter’s light levels, but fight back. As the gardening year reaches its end containers should be your first line of attack. Just don’t be boring and plant the obvious.

With a bit of forethought you can pot up a container with a changing display of shrubs and flowers that bloom and keep you entertained until spring. So drag your largest pots where they can be easily seen when you hardly want to venture outdoors: framed through a window or beside a garden or front door, where they can lift the spirits when you leave for the day and soothe them when you return.

For an autumn container idea, see our guide to creating an autumn-into-winter container.

Tips for a good winter container display

1. For a dependable display with plenty of long lasting variety, choose a pot large enough to accommodate around 9 to10 plants. An 18-inch (45 cm) diameter is a good starting point.

2. Plants grow very little in winter, so start with good-sized plants, spaced more closely than you might a summer display, to give impact.

3. Frost damage is the last thing you want so choose durable frost-proof terracotta, plastic, fibreglass, concrete or stone planters.

4. Select a spot for your planter where blooms will be illuminated, silhouettes created and shadows cast.

Container idea: an evergreen display

You will need:

  • 1 large Sarcococca confusa
  • 3 Polystichum setiferum ‘Herrenhausen’
  • 3 Helleborus x ericsmithii or H. x sternii
  • 3 Hedera helix ‘Garland’
  • 20 or so compact bulbs such as snowdrops, erythroniums, miniature narcissi and muscari
  • A large pot, about 56cm (22in) diameter and 29cm (11in) tall

Evergreens are undoubtedly the mainstay of winter pots. Make the most of their unfading attributes by choosing a pot large enough for a variety of plants. Your selections should work together so you can enjoy harmonising or contrasting leaf colour and shape.

When I was a horticultural student, cast out in the heaviest frost and freezing January fog on a plant identification task some 20 years ago, I discovered the importance of winter scent on the psyche. All members of the genus Sarcococca (the Christmas or sweet box) are evergreen, attractive and scented, and since then have become indispensable shrubs in almost all my garden designs. Sarcococca confusa is a fountain of green with the tiniest of white, heavenly scented flowers in the dreariest of seasons, followed up with inky black berries loved by the birds. It is happy in a large pot.

While some hellebores will tolerate growing in containers, others thrive in them. Helleborus x ericsmithii is worth growing for the foliage alone – it’s slightly serrated leaves are dark green, overlaid with a pewter lustre and striated with delicate white veins. Sprays of large white flowers tinged with pink grow to 10cm (4in) across on mature plants; held on dusty pink stems a good 35cm (14in) tall, they hover high above the leaves. However, if H. x ericsmithii proves difficult to track down, Helleborus x sternii may be easier to find. It too is an eye-catching hellebore growing well in a container; it has purple-tinted, creamy-green, bowl-shaped flowers from February to April and pinkish-purple leaves. 

A fuzz of ferns will add low-key elegance and Polystichum setiferum ‘Herrenhausen’ has tactile, handsome foliage from autumn until spring. A compact fern reaching just 60cm (2ft) in height, be aware that its spreading nature may require you to replant every couple of years if it’s not to take over the pot. Cut back spent foliage in spring when it begins to look untidy, allowing space for new fronds to unfurl from silky crosiers of tightly wound pearly white. The space left by cutting back will soon be filled with the small bulbs you planted, which will draw attention to the emerging ferns.

A trio of trailing ivies will soften and frame the scene. Dark green, densely branching Hedera helix ‘Garland’ hangs brilliantly.

Heather can also make a good container plant. Read our guide to growing winter-flowering heather.

How to plant up your evergreen container

1. Drainage holes are essential. A 56cm (22in) diameter pot needs at least 5 drilled into its base.

2. Cover the holes with large stones or broken terracotta flowerpots so that water not compost can escape and the holes don’t become blocked.

3. Add a generous layer of gravel roughly 5cm (2in) deep.

4. An ideal winter compost that really helps with permanent plantings is a 50/50 mix of multipurpose compost and gutsy, loam-based John Innes No 3, with at least 10% grit added to the final mix.

5. Plant the sweet box first, and firm in with some compost, then arrange your ferns, hellebores and ivy around the outer edge, dropping in the compact bulbs, of your choice, in a dense area in and around the ferns.

6. Firm in your plants ensuring the final compost and planting level are roughly 2.5cm (1in) below the top of the pot to allow for the mulch and for water to soak in. The bulb flowers will reach for the light, so will pierce through the foliage of the plants.

7. Add a rough 1cm (½in) mulch of grit around your plants to help protect roots and give a decorative finish.

Container idea: a winter floral mix

You will need:

  • 1 Cornus sericea 'Flaviramea'
  • 20 Viola ‘Sorbet Yellow Frost’ (Sorbet Series)
  • 20 Iris reticulata ‘Harmony’
  • 30 Muscari ‘Bling Bling’
  • 20 Narcissus ‘Tête à Tête’
  • 20 Tulipa clusiana ‘Cynthia’

A statement pot, about 47cm (18½in) diameter, 35cm (14in) tall.

If you regularly deadhead Viola Sorbet Yellow Frost it will enthusiastically provide dainty lilac-blue and yellow flowers right through spring. So hang good taste and pack them into your pot as tight as you dare. Temper the pansy jamboree with a centrepiece shrub, Cornus sericea 'Flaviramea', which once free of foliage will strike skywards with bright yellow olive stems and glow when backlit by winter rays.

A succession of layered bulbs hidden beneath will pop up among the pansies from late winter onwards. The papery flower cases of Iris reticulata ‘Harmony’ will unfurl in February releasing startling gentian blue blooms splashed with white and perfume to boot. 

March will bring Muscari ‘Bling Bling’, a new variety of grape hyacinth whose deep blue colour and scent radiate from tightly packed florets. This is partnered with the multi-headed buttercup yellow Narcissus ‘Tête à Tête’ helping your pot to straddle the seasons. Add a scattering of the fragrant, unusual blooms of Tulipa clusiana ‘Cynthia’ –luminous yellow with rose red edges – and you may be fooled into thinking it’s summer. Almost.

Read our suggestions for autumn and winter scented plants.

How to plant up your winter floral container

As above in Recipe 1, substituting the compost mix for three parts John Innes No 2 compost mixed with one part grit. Plant the tulips on the lowest layer, followed by narcissi in the middle and the iris and muscari on top at a depth of three times the size of the bulbs.

How to keep your pots looking good

In winter the main danger is frozen compost which can kill roots and so your plants. Plenty of drainage holes and pot feet or tiles tucked under the base of pots are key in aiding drainage, which helps to prevent the freezing conditions that cause pots to crack.

If a prolonged freeze or snow is predicted, bubble wrap pots to help prevent roots from freezing.

During lengthy heavy downfalls, move your pot under cover, or into the ‘rain shadow’ of a wall, to allow sodden compost to dry out a little. Remove any rain saucers from beneath pots during winter.

Watering may be necessary in dry conditions, check moisture levels regularly and water if necessary.

Feeding isn’t necessary in winter months.

Read our guide to winter care of pots.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.