Container Gardens for All Seasons
Color, contrast, texture and other key elements for turning planters into visual focal points
Photo courtesy of Blumen Gardens
When summer fades into fall, a gardener’s thoughts turn to the changing of the seasons, as the bright extravagance of autumn and the harsh beauty of winter hold sway before the promise of spring. Happily, your landscape can continue to provide natural beauty with a four-season plan for your garden containers.
Elements of Container Design
Whether you plant your own containers, visit a garden center to buy pre-planted orustom-planted containers, or have your landscaper take care of the planting, a well-designed container or urn can bring attention to the entrance to your home and add extra interest on the patio and throughout the garden.
“Usually, people’s urns are a focal point,” notes designer Sandy Schweitzer of Bruss Landscaping in Wheaton. To keep things fresh, she times their seasonal plantings to the weather, which can be anything but predictable. For early spring, she selects frost-tolerant flowers like forced bulbs, pansies and snapdragons. In summer, annual flowers are planted after the last expected frost date in mid-May. New fall plantings start in September when summer flowers begin to droop, while holiday and winter plantings take place in late November and early December, designed to last throughout the cold winter months. Schweitzer observes that some people prefer to avoid distinct holiday themes like Halloween and Christmas, so that the arrangements can span a longer time period.
Designer Laura O’Loughlin of Blumen Gardens in Sycamore recommends that containers adhere to the design principle of including different sizes and types of plants. She suggests having something that adds height, such as a spruce top or an ornamental grass, as well as something mid-height to fill in the space with flowers and foliage plants. Finally, include a plant or decoration that trails out of the container, such as creeping jenny or ivy during the growing season, or ribbons and cedar branches draping over the edge in the winter. “For winter, we use other elements, something different, like a big wire ball, which can be filled with greenery or lights, or a gazing ball or lantern.”
“It’s always about the unexpected,”says Debra Phillips, owner and designer for SG Geneva and Scentimental Gardens Landscape. In her containers, she may include a dramatic statement piece, such as a garden stake with a candle cup, twisty wires, a concrete finial, a weather vein, iron cattails, small statuary, or even a hitching post.
When selecting plants, Phillips looks for contrast and texture: “I will always pay more attention to foliage,” she explains. “If I have a strappy ornamental grass, a good complete opposite are the big fat leaves of colocasia,” otherwise known as elephant ears.
Phillips’ starting point for design, though, is the architecture and color theme of the home. “For a dark, saltbox home, I might go with a Ralph Lauren look with feathers, cones and orange berries” for fall. A white house, on the other hand, can be enlivened with containers featuring red berries or red twigs along with evergreen boughs in winter.
Not all containers available in a garden center are meant for winter weather. If you’ve ever left a beautiful glazed ceramic or terra cotta pot outside over the winter, you’ve probably found it damaged in the spring. According to the experts, before filling a container with winter decorations, make sure it can stay outdoors safely through the freezes and thaws to come. If not, best to put it in the garage or bring it in the house for the winter.
“A lot of things can be left outside in the winter. We recommend that the drainage hole is kept free and clear, so water can get out. If the water freezes, a pot can crack,” advises Barbara Collins, gardening manager at Wannemaker’s Home and Garden in Downers Grove. Because drainage is so important in all kinds of weather, she adds, “Don’t put a saucer under your pots outside and don’t let your pots sit in water.”
Although some containers are designated as “frost resistant,” that doesn’t necessarily mean they are freeze proof. Collins notes that flexible plastic, fiberglass and cement containers should last well, but “cast iron urns are the best choice for winter. They hold up best through all seasons.”
If you have already invested in containers, you can bring them to a garden center to be planted by a designer, or purchase a pre-planted slip-in to fit. During the holidays, Wannemaker’s sells about a thousand “porch pots” filled with evergreens and decorations.
Another precaution for containers left out over the winter is to keep them out of direct contact with the ground, explains Phillips. She suggests putting your containers on a piece of stone or tile or using pot feet to lift them above the soil to avoid damage caused by the ground freezing and expanding.
As for trying to keep plants alive in a container outside during the winter, it’s usually a losing proposition. Even evergreens that would seem suited to winter are not likely to thrive in a container, which doesn’t offer as much insulation as the plant would have in the ground. At Wasco Nursery and Garden Center in St. Charles, Kim Schroeder, landscape designer and perennial manager, suggests that you can incorporate an inexpensive evergreen, such as a small juniper, as long as you understand that it
Rather than leaving the dirt in the pot for winter, if you aren’t trying to keep a plant alive, Schroeder recommends emptying the container and filling it with mulch up to the top five or six inches, which allows for better drainage.
If you’re in a windy spot with a lightweight pot that might blow over, such as fiberglass, you can put gravel or a brick on the bottom of the pot before adding the mulch. Schroeder finishes off the winter containers with Oasis foam and strips of Bulldog tape across the top, both of which are used in floral arranging to keep everything in place. She says that you can then fill the pot as you choose. “Start with a variety of evergreens (branches) with a couple different kinds of textures, instead of using all the same needle length, short or long,” says Schroeder. “You can also use magnolia leaves and red huckleberry with a leaf that turns red in the fall.” Once the greens are in place, you can accent the arrangement with pinecones, ornaments and other objects. She notes that large pinecones, such as Ponderosa and sugar pine, are popular and can be nestled down in the greens.
Not only does your container need to be winter-proof, but so do your decorations. Phillips advises looking for hard plastic faux berries, rather than covered foam, which will dissolve in the great outdoors. She also suggests using fake magnolia branches, which look real but don’t turn brown over time. Bruss Landscaping treats evergreen branches used in winter containers with anti-desiccants to avoid moisture loss and browning.
Care and Feeding of Container Gardens
For winter containers, give each of your arrangements a good watering so everything can freeze in place. When spring rolls around, you can choose to save some or all of the soil, or start out fresh. Potting soil doesn’t retain best growing properties forever.
Schroeder recommends “cleaning out your container properly with a teeny bit of bleach in the water to kill anything that might be growing,” such as harmful bacteria.
But if you’re feeling thrifty, it’s probably fine to keep some of last year’s soil and top it off with new potting mix. “The main thing I tell people is don’t take top soil and put it in a container,” Schroeder says, as it doesn’t drain as well as potting mix. During the growing season, she uses a slow-release fertilizer and bloom booster to keep plants looking their brightest and best.
When watering, give consideration to how much water your plants need and how much water the container holds. “The bigger your pot, the more moist it stays,” she says. Glazed ceramic pots tend to retain moisture, while unfinished terra cotta pots dry out more quickly.
If you aren’t big on maintenance, go big on the container size. “We recommend the bigger, the better,” says Collins. “It’s easier to take care of.”
Fall Flourishes: Designers Share Their Favorites
Fall containers don’t have to rely only on mums, pumpkins and gourds, although those traditional favorites always have their place. Instead, take inspiration from area designers, who share their creative picks for autumnal containers.
Blumen Gardens: Ornamental kale, Ruby Perfection cabbage, black and orange pansies, Jerusalem cherry pepper, millet, and black ornamental grasses.
Bruss Landscaping: Stems and branches, and bundles of dried ornamental grasses and seed heads, in more muted tones, playing off the colors in nature.
Scentimental Gardens: Faux berries and fruit, feathers, and empty nests, whether purchased, found or made with angel vine.
Wannemaker’s Home and Garden: Painted birch in copper, bronze or beige, curly willow, cattails, eucalyptus, artificial bittersweet, and preserved oak leaves in different colors.
Wasco Nursery: Twigs and branches from dogwoods and birch trees, asters, cabbages, and late-blooming perennials such as dianthus.Edit Module