Time to replant containers for winter interest

It’s always a dilemma this time of year. It’s time to do our fall planting and get ready for winter but … the flowerpots and beds are still looking great. In an effort to get our money’s worth out of our summer plantings, we nurse our geraniums and petunias along well into October.

For some of us with protected porches, we can even keep them blooming through Thanksgiving. But by waiting so long to replant, we will miss the opportunity to compose new plantings that will look interesting all winter long and into the spring. While others might be enjoying pots full of ornamental grasses, evergreens and hardy groundcovers, we will be looking at barren soil. And in early spring when the bulbs start to emerge we will kick ourselves for not having the foresight to bury a few of those little guys into our pots the previous fall.

Planting winter containers requires a paradigm shift. Instead of thinking of flowers as our source of color, we need to shift to focusing on the colors and textures of foliage. We can create visually interesting arrangements simply by combining different textures of leaves. Grasses provide fine foliage that contrasts well with coarser textured plants. And their vertical growth habit creates a focal point in the container. Many of our hardy groundcovers such as vinca, ivy, ajuga and lamium are evergreen in our winters and will trail quite nicely over the edge of a pot. Evergreens such as blue star junipers, rhinegold arborvitaes and Sekkan Suji cedars provide colors from steel blue to bright yellow to rusty orange. Heucheras have been bred for their colorful bronze-purple leaves and we even have a grass that boasts black leaves.

Many plants have interesting branching patterns that become pronounced in the winter after their leaves have fallen off. Contorted filberts are a classic example. During the growing season they look like they might have been sprayed with Agent Orange, their leaves all twisted and deformed. But after the foliage drops off, their real charm is revealed. Plop one in the center of a large container and decorate it with clear mini-lights and you have an instant focal point for the holiday season. Another cute crinkly plant that is smaller scale than the filbert is a Corokia. It sort of looks like a loosely woven brillo-pad with tiny leaves. Plant it singularly or with a low dense matt of scotch moss and again you’ve created a great focal point for the winter. In the spring transplant these shrubs to the garden and replant your container with new stuff for the summer.

Bulbs can be planted later into the fall but will do best if planted before the end of November. I like to plant bulbs underneath my winter pansies and let them come up through them in the spring. Since the pansies need planting early in the fall and the bulbs go underneath them, it’s not practical to wait until November. Fill your pots half full of soil, lay in the bulbs (with some bone meal of course), finish filling with soil and plant the pansies and presto, a combination planter for winter and spring interest. You can also layer bulbs in a planter by putting daffodils near the bottom covered with an inch of soil, then tulips above them covered with an inch of soil and finally smaller bulbs such as crocus near the surface. A planter like this with nothing but bulbs in it will bloom from February until April with very little care.

We all need to work on the concept of throwing out the old and making room for the new. Change is good. A planted container is really just a flower arrangement with roots attached. When the flowers fade in the vase on the dinning room table we throw them out and create a new composition. The same philosophy should hold true for our containers. Try to move beyond the habit of making plants last forever. Dump the geraniums, stir up the soil and let it breathe for a week while you decide what you are going to create for the winter. Go to the garden center and let yourself get excited. Feel your fingers start to twitch again like they did last spring. Smell the bone meal, touch the plants and get ready to create. Whatever you sow now you will reap all winter long and into the early spring. Not a bad return on your investment at all.

Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville. You can reach him at 425-334-2002 or online at

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