Container gardens for winter

Sunnyside Gardens/Flickr

Sunnyside Gardens/Flickr

Dressing up the house for the holidays is an annual rite that drives some ambitious decorators to extremes -- ranks of illuminated snowmen marching across the lawn, Santa and eight giant reindeer perched on the roof, blinking lights outlining the eaves and every window…and more.

To each his (or her) own, but what goes up must come down and these displays can take a serious bite out of the household budget. Here’s my more modest proposal:  Repurpose those elegant planters now emptied of their warm-weather flowers with lush evergreen arrangements that will have decorative staying power long past New Year’s Day. After all, they’re likely sitting there doing nothing.

Window boxes, urns, cement planters and wooden barrels –these can hold cheerful displays to welcome guests and brighten the façade of any home through the short and dreary days of winter. Since we’re talking about containers already in hand and plant material mostly foraged from the yard, this is effective decorating on the cheap. It also speaks to the gardener’s soul, which gravitates toward creating   artful medleys of nature’s bountiful best.

The first step is to choose appropriate containers. The more delicate planters belong in storage and ordinary terra cotta pots (being porous) can absorb water, freeze and crack. Window boxes are built for durability and cast iron urns, stone troughs, fiberglass pots and sturdy cedar containers should be fine. If in doubt, outfit your container with a plastic pot insert an inch or so smaller in diameter to prevent damaging freeze-ups.

In protected locations, as on a covered porch, wire wall planters lined with moss or even baskets can serve. Lightweight containers need a few stones, a brick or a layer of gravel to prevent top-heavy arrangements from toppling. Fill the container with ordinary, dampened potting mix to anchor cuttings.

Darle Roth/Flickr

Darle Roth/Flickr

The next task is to gather plant material and this is the fun part. Head outside with your pruning shears and an artist’s eye for color and texture. Evergreens are the foundation plants of any arrangement and the range is enormous – feathery pine, needled spruce and yew, frondy cedar foliage and berried juniper stems are all fair game.

Broadleaf evergreen add other textures and colors. Try shiny, spiky holly or variegated ivy and euonymous. Southern magnolia, should you have one, has dark green leaves with fuzzy, russet-color undersides. Boxwood, laurel, andromeda, spotted aucuba and golden cypress are other common suburban plants that can yield useful material.

Don’t stop there. Cast around for berries, dried ornamental grass stems, interesting seed heads or dried flowers that may still be intact, as those of sedums or hydrangeas. You could cull and dry these materials in advance if you are one of those inclined toward planning ahead. For that matter, a yen for good winter material just might inspire you to plant shrubby dogwoods with colorful stems or deciduous hollies with spectacular berry displays.

If you are an apartment dweller or lack a landscape with abundant choices, Christmas tree stands and garden centers usually have bundles of evergreens for sale. Garden centers also may still have on hand miniature conifers, which work well in containers. These outlets and craft stores offer a wide array of dried material that can be combined with greenery for striking arrangements. There are no rules, so let your imagination be your guide.

kizilad2/Flickr

kizilad2/Flickr

While you’re shopping, you might pick up a waxy anti-desiccant spray like Wilt-Pruf, which will prolong the useful life of cut evergreens and berry stems. Most cuttings will last for weeks without treatment, especially if you water the container plantings while potting soil remains unfrozen.

Here’s a helpful design tip: Use lots of cut stems and pack greenery tightly in your container. This way you can pluck out any branches that are past their prime and still have a satisfyingly full arrangement. If the evergreens start to look too peaked, they can always be replaced with fresh cuttings.

After the holidays, you may want to remove any bows, Christmas lights or other ornaments that no longer seem appropriate. The beauty of these winter container gardens is that they can carry on through the season

When your winter arrangements have run their course and look entirely tired, it’s time to chuck the whole business into the compost heap and start anew. By then, spring may well be in the offing and your container can hold purchased pots of daffodils and tulips prepped to bloom in advance of those in the garden. Forsythia and quince stems can work, spurred into premature bloom in a sunny and protected location on the porch.

Spring will arrive, eventually. Meanwhile, you will have had a small spot of beautiful greenery close at hand to chase away the winter blues and remind you of the pleasures to come. Nothing wrong with that – it’s cheap thrills, after all.