Focus on foliage this fall

I recently read an article on designing with foliage in the garden by a local author, Christina Salwitz. She has written two books: “Fine Foliage” and “Gardening with Foliage First.” Her main point is that while flowers are ephemeral, foliage can last all season, and therefore should be the first consideration in any garden design – be it in the landscape or in containers.

As we move into the fall and winter seasons, her talking points become more relevant considering there are fewer blooming plants to choose from. Here are some thoughts on creating interesting container plantings for winter:

•First and foremost, ditch the earth tone pots and replace them with vibrant colors. Lime green, blood red, dark blues and even orange will all “pop” during the dark days of winter. As a bonus, you can often find pots on sale in September.

•Then start looking for the centerpiece of your new arrangement. Evergreen ornamental grasses, such as the many forms of sedges, will look fabulous all winter. Upright growing evergreens, like Sky Pencil Japanese Holly, Irish Juniper or Lemon Cypress, will work as well. For larger pots try a Camellia, Fatsia or some clumping bamboo.

•For some filler I prefer hardy evergreen perennials and broadleaf evergreen shrubs, such as Bergenia, Euphorbia, Heuchera, Leucothoe, Wintergreen, Skimmia, Sarcococca or ferns. Short grasses, like black Mondo or yellow Japanese Sweet flag, make good fillers, too. Garden centers bring in “starter” shrubs in 4-inch pots that are perfect for containers.

•Try a few hardy evergreen groundcovers like nonaggressive ornamental ivies, trailing Euonymus, wire vine or creeping Jenny. One of the beautiful things about winter containers is that we don’t have to worry about sun or shade, so we can combine sun-loving and shade-loving plants into the same container.

In spring when we dissemble the arrangement, we simply put the plants into the appropriate areas of our garden. Another little trick is to take twigs of contorted willow or red twig dogwood (without roots) and shove them into the soil as accents. Often by spring they will have rooted and will be ready for transplanting elsewhere. Of course, pieces of art or garden ornamentation are nice accents, too.

While your focus should be on foliage, don’t be afraid to use some seasonal color, like mums, asters, pansies or violas. You can always replace them later in the fall once they have faded.

As far as maintenance is concerned, as long as you use some fresh potting soil and apply a little fertilizer the first month you should be good for the whole winter.

So rip out those tired summer annuals and surprise yourself this fall with a long-lasting winter interest planter.

Steve Smith is the owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached at