Fabulous winter containers? You CAN grow that!

Hard to believe, but Seattle does have four seasons, but our grey and cold season lasts from October to March.  Sure, we have wonderful winter-fragrant shrubs and winter-busting early colorful bulbs, but our long-lasting damp just makes most foliage turn to mush.

Which is all the more reason to create a fabulous winter container to enjoy as you dash from car to doorstep.  This container cleverly conceals an unsightly drainpipe in the McVay Courtyard at the Center for Urban Horticulture, and just glows in the late afternoon winter sun.

Fashion advertisement for winter containers[Pin for Later]

Contained choices

For a big impact, choose the largest container you can afford.  The one pictured is just over three feet tall and makes a sophisticated statement.  You can see that this simple green container is planted up with a refined color palette of red, silver, and green plants.  The same effect can be achieved with glamorous red or sophisticated black containers.  Alternatives for the budget-conscious include containers with a smaller stature, either in glazed pottery or the wallet-flattering Fiber-Cement.  Work with a Container Designer to have access to the best pricing.

It’s always about the plants

I couldn’t have done any better than designer JP Sauerlender, who combined these simple winter-hardy plants and pushed the edge with the silvery Astelia.  The foundation of this container is the silver-leaved Brachyglottis, a drought-tolerant shrub with yellow flowers in summer.    Slow growing and perfect for containers, it retains its strong structure throughout the winter.

Sophisticated Winter Plants for Containers | #eTilthThe container is also anchored with a dwarf hemlock.  Since the one actually in this container,  Tsuga heterophyllus ‘Iron Springs’, will end up being a 12′ tree, I recommend instead Tsuga canadensis ‘Jervis’ which will top out at 3-5 feet and won’t outgrow the container.

The beautiful and elegant Astelia ‘Silver Shadow’ is a new plant for me.  All the books say it is a zone 8b plant, which means we’re pushing the edge of cold-tolerance here in Seattle.  However, because it’s in a container where we can control the amount of water it gets (i.e. fast drainage), and because it is in a protected courtyard, I think it will sail through our prolonged freeze.

Designer’s Trick

Shh.  This trick is an old, but good one.  Simply go down to your local floristry supply store and buy a bundle of red-twig dogwood stems (or cut your own from your rain-garden, right?), trim to size, and just shove them straight into your container!

In summary, with just a few simple plants and an elegant pot, you can dress up any front-door with a sophisticated design to brighten your winter.

[This post is inspired by the garden bloggers’ theme #YouCanGrowThat and #YCGT – look for it everywhere on Twitter,  Instagram and Facebook.]

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Tiger Eyed Look

Which came first, the container or the plant?

Sometimes, when I am asked to design a container, we start with the homeowner’s existing containers and build from there.  Other times, the owner fell in love with an amazing plant and just wants to enjoy it all season before deciding where to plant it.  Holding a plant in a container is a great way to know how it behaves throughout the year.  But sometimes, it’s hard to make it look its best for the season.

Here, a homeowner on a garden tour wanted to make this Sumac (Rhus typhina ‘Tiger Eyes’) really shine.  This isn’t my design, but I wanted to share with you why it works, so you can do this too.

Lime green sumac in a blue container with pelargonium and other summer annuals

Complementary Colors

Do you remember your color wheel?  If we started creating a planting combination taking our cues from the blue pot, we could have planted it up with orange annuals, and grasses like my favorite orange Carex testacea (the dotted line shows complementary colors).  However, that’s a little bit flat and boring.

Color Wheel showing Complementary and Split-Complementary colors
Instead, we can use a Split Complementary combination technique to make the limey-golden leaves of the Sumac really shine.  By adding annuals with orange, blue, and purple accents we make the container really pop!

Fashion Magazine style plant container combo

Get the Look

[Pin for Later] The key to this combination really is the blue container.  Make sure you choose a wide container so you have room for all of those plants!  One with a slight taper will make it easy to re-pot when you decide to plant the sumac in the ground.  You can splurge by choosing a fancy glazing, or an interesting texture, but there is so much interesting plant material that really, anything will do.

Then choose your feature plant.  The golden Sumac shown is a great choice, but if you choose to plant it out in your garden, it is known to sucker … that is, you will have runners and new Sumac plants all over.  Which is great, you’ll be able to give some to your friends!  But if you don’t want to risk it, there are a lot of nice small conifers to choose.  I recommend Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Empire’ with its conical form and golden color.  Karen Chapman has a great description of other small conifers that are great in containers.

Next, accessorize!  Keeping with the Fine Foliage theme, add annuals and perennials with supporting leaf habit, for a long-season of interest.  Here, Pelargonium hortorum tricolor, with its triple-variegation, brings in the third color – orange!  The supporting cast includes long-lasting annuals like Bacopa ‘Gulliver’s Blue’, Lysimachia ‘Persian Carpet’ and the Blue Pimpernel, Anagallis monellii.   But don’t be paralyzed if you can’t find the ones listed here.  Make these easy substitutions:

  • Can’t find the three-colored Pelargonium?  Look for the alternative Pelargonium ‘Vancouver Centennial’ with its wavy edges.
  • No blue Pimpernel?  Use trailing Lobelia instead!
  • No creeping jenny ‘Persian Carpet’?  Try Lysimachia ‘Midnight Sun’ or even the lime-green Ipomoea ‘Margarita’ to get a golden trailing plant.
  • No blue Bacopa? Look for a purple aster, the Swan-River Daisy Brachyscome, or rely on a purple Petunia!
  • Add some Violas to extend the season or pop in some bright Nasturtiums

Whatever you do, have fun and enjoy your plants.

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Of Cabbages and Kings

The time has come to talk of many things …

I’ve spent over a year away from the blog, exploring growing flowers for market, permaculture, garden design, and have settled on my love of photography and container design.  I’ve enjoyed posting many of my images on facebook and instagram and intend on continuing there, but sometimes the short-form is not sufficient to teach and share.  So I am returning to a newly restructured website, and am launching a new series of posts called:

Garden Recipes

Here I will post an image of great garden or container designs and take them apart so you can recreate the looks too.  However, having a shopping list never works.  Where’s the fun in creating something EXACTLY the same?  Inevitably, the plants you’re looking for aren’t at the garden center that week, or maybe a key design element calls for a purple pot and you only have an orange one.

I want to add something new – I want to teach you how to analyze designs yourself so you can start to see what you like, what you hate, and how to make substitutions on-the-fly.

So, let’s start with something simple:

A closeup image of a winter cabbage with pale pink in the center, fading through white and cream, to the laced green edges.

Cabbages

I have a love-hate relationship with cabbages and kales (they are all in the same genus Brassica oleracea, and the differences between brussels-sprouts and broccoli, or kale and kohlrabi are just developmental forms.)  I do crave their hearty, bitter flavour in the winter, and their refreshing crunch in sourkrauts and coleslaws, but gosh, they take up a lot of space in my garden.

However, they scoff at frost and laugh at snow, putting the rest of my mushy plants to shame.  Being ideal for our short, but damp and cold winters, I just buy them fully-grown from my garden center and enjoy all of the different colors and textures.  Because of their hardiness and all of their variation, they are perfect for using in winter containers.

Aqua container with perennials and an aqua and white cabbageThis was taken on a very cold day; you can see how sad and limp the lower leaves of the cabbage actually look, but they bounced back immediately and were perky again as the day warmed up.

Containers are perfect for front doors.

Because I rush from house to car and back inside again, and usually in the dark or rain, I don’t linger much outside.  I make the quickest daily trip to the chicken coop, and once a week I dash into the greenhouse to water.  My biggest gardening joy in the winter are the containers by the front door.  It makes the most sense to plant these up after Halloween (in that little gap between mischievous monsters and the relentless holiday rush).

Why this works:

It’s sort of silly to mimic a fashion magazine, but you can print and take this recipe to the garden center.  This design is driven by the aqua color of the container; I’ll show you some variation later in the post.  [Pin for later: http://bit.ly/2jVSJmt]

Winter Cabbage Container Shopping List | #eTilth


THE FOUNDATION LAYER (1) – This combination is anchored by Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Snow White’.  There are several good Lawson’s Cypress to choose, but ‘Snow White’ has this lovely blue color in winter and will get white-tipped new growth in spring.  Another option would be Chamaecyparis ‘Treasure Island’ which has golden-tipped new growth.  If you chose that conifer, you might plan on using different, golden-variegated perennials (2) in your combination. Why is this such a great choice?  It is slow growing and will be a long-lasting anchor plant for several seasons in this container.  Because it doesn’t like to be water-logged, use any good, fresh potting soil in your container and make sure your automatic (or teenager-chore) watering system is regular.  It will reach 5-6 feet and about 2 feet around in about 10 years, so plan on using it in larger containers over the years, or plan its final location in the garden now.

A SHOWY TOP (2) – Always pair your anchor plants with perennials to draw the eye where you want it to go.  Here in Seattle, we don’t get the harsh winter cold of the Midwest, so we have a lot of options to work with.  This winter-hardy Euphorbia ‘Silver Swan’ has great structure and the creamy variegation is one that we’ll play off in the rest of the container.  This plant works especially well in this pot because it also contrasts nicely with the darker conifer.  It takes the same watering and partial- to full-sun that the conifer needs.  (Take care in the spring if you cut it back, because the milky sap that wells out of cut ends can harm your skin.)

If you can’t find this exact euphorbia, look for a white-edged variegated boxwood, a variegated skimmia, or another small-leaved shrub.  The variegated Daphne transatlantica ‘Summer Ice’ would be perfect for a pot in a protected place because you’ld also get the fantastic lemony scent.   Basically, you want something tough and evergreen to stand up to the frosts and not turn to mush, but you also want the creamy edging on the leaf to brighten the container.

SOME BRIGHT LIPSTICK (3) – Although it’s small and hard to see in this image, a hardy Cyclamen hederifolium is starting to emerge.  The veined tracery in the leaves also echos the variegation of the other plants, and the dark red flowers are a good power-punch of color.   Often when you put containers all together in one season, not all of the plants you want are available.  One solution is to leave space; tuck in a few small, empty, 4-inch containers in your arrangement.  When you finally buy your blooming cyclamen, you can just pop them in!  If you can’t find Cyclamen, the dark purple, small-faced pansies will always work, but keep to one color scheme and don’t buy yellow AND white AND purple AND striped.  Any good contrasting color will work, just keep it simple.

COMFORTABLE SHOES (4)  – A few trailing plants always make a container look well-dressed.  Here a simple Vinca major vine trails over the edge.  You could have also used a white-variegated one, but too much variegation can look busy, so here the solid form was used.  Whatever you do, in this container, don’t choose one with golden edges!  This plant can be used in your container all year; just trim up the ends and you’re good to go!

ADD SOME JEWELRY (5) – Our focal point – this creamy cabbage just makes everything pop.  The frilly edges are a lovely contrast to the smooth leaves of the perennials and the soft texture of the conifer.  Had we chosen the cabbage at the beginning of this post, the pink centers would clash with the dark red berries on the next plant.  It will start to elongate in spring, so feed it to the chickens when you’re ready to disassemble your container.  Although I doubt you’ll have trouble finding the cabbage, you could have also used a lovely white hellebore.  Helleborus niger ‘Josef Lemper’ has upwards-facing white flowers (that might sag down with a prolonged freeze), H. ‘Ivory Prince’ is a stalwart, and even H. ‘Snow Fever’ would be fun, with its speckled variegation.

AND PULL IT TOGETHER (6) – Finally, we end with this versatile, easy-to-find filler, Gaultheria procumbens, also known as Wintergreen.  This heather-relative looks sharp all winter, and the edible red berries (which I think taste nasty), provide another jewel-like layer that lasts throughout the season.  In spring, it’s easy to pop them out and put into a shady part of your garden, and grow on to reuse again next year.  Alternatively, you could go for a simple heather, like Erica carnea ‘Porter’s Red’ (which is really a dark pink). If you didn’t use either of these, a shocking, red-toned Heuchera ‘Fire Chief’ or H. ‘Fire Alarm’ would be amazing.

Add more vegetables!

One simple change to make for a different look is to add other winter-hardy vegetables.  Consider adding Swiss Chard (which is in the beet-family) like this red-leaved one or the red-stemmed (‘Ruby Red’).  Alternatively, this variegated thyme adds additional variegation, which could also complement the white-ribbed chard ‘Fordhook Giant’.   Here the winter vegetables are paired with the red cyclamen.  I’m not sure what the variegated shrub in back is, but you could use a small Ilex crenata variegata, a Daphne burkwoodii, or Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’, Euonymus fortunii ‘Emerald Gaiety’, all of which are small shrubs suitable for many seasons in containers.

small aqua container with cyclamen, chard and cabbage
Change the container

Another simple change is to use a different planter, and choose perennials to match.  Here, the perennial stealing the show is Euphorbia x martinii ‘Red Martin’:

Red container containing same white variegated cabbage with different accents.

Whatever you choose, make sure you pack your containers full of plants to get maximum impact right away.  Your plants won’t grow much over the winter, so don’t expect things to fill in.  Sad holes should be plugged up with pansies, but make sure you keep to your color scheme, or you may end up with cabbage soup.

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