Winter pots and containers can do a great deal to brighten the long dark days to come, says Jane Moore.
A sentiment thoroughly endorsed by gardening compatriots Tamsin Westhorpe and John Leach
“Don’t gardeners get depressed in autumn?” my other half asked the other day, staring gloomily out at the rain. “After all, everything is dying!” But no, I don’t. Although I do miss the morning light and the corresponding lightness of being, there is something rather magical about the seasonal shutting down of things. Autumnal hibernation is how I think of it. It’s a rest period from the frenetic growing, weeding, watering and deadheading that has characterised the past few months. Listen hard at this time of year and I’m sure you can hear gardeners all over the country collectively breathing a huge sigh of relief.
It’s not all over, however, and now that the season of mistiness, mustiness and murkiness is upon us, my pots, window box and containers are the focus of a veritable flurry of activity. Truth be told, I put way more effort into my winter pots and containers than I ever do in summer. I find I really need the cheerfulness that a few well-planted pots can bring over the next few months.
I’m not alone either. Garden owner and author Tamsin Westhorpe is so keen on her seasonal pots she starts off by talking me through her October scheme – a simple arrangement of individual pots of chrysanthemums and neon-bright nerines – before getting stuck into November and December.
“I’ve ignored chrysanthemums for years, but not any more,” she says, “They keep on going with so many flowers, it’s unbelievable. I always do a few nerines and they last an incredibly long time, too.”
The perfect potting plants
These bulbs have a reputation for being tender but actually, they just love the sun and don’t compete well with other plants, which makes them ideal for pot cultivation. For a good autumnal show, Tamsin plants them on their own in pots and then clusters a few different containers together to make an interesting arrangement. It’s easier than to pull a pot of something out as it goes over and replaces it with something fresh.
“I always treat myself to a new hebe for evergreen interest and a handful of ornamental cabbages,” she says. “My favourite combination of recent years was a mixture of cabbages and bluegrass Festuca glauca – that’s it! Simple but very effective.”
John Leach, the mainstay of Prior Park Garden Centre for more years than he cares to remember, is a big fan of grasses and evergreens, too. He favours silvery Helichrysum with the red browns of Carex and Uncinia and is also a fan of the less-is-more approach.
“Keep it simple and remember that foliage is very important – it’s not all about flowers,” he says. “Hardy ferns and evergreens are essential for winter pots, as well as herbs such as sage and rosemary, to give them structure and interest. Ferns, especially, are great plants to use in the shady basements and courtyards of Bath.”
I’m with him a hundred per cent as my front window box faces north and my classic winter look is a fern/cyclamen/viola combination. It always looks good and lasts well except for the cyclamen which only keeps going until Christmas.
“They don’t last forever,” agrees John, “but there is nothing better for a real seasonal boost.”
That’s true enough. In fact one of my favourite winter pot plantings I have done at the front door of The Bath Priory – also annoyingly north facing – was white cyclamen, hardy ferns and banana cream violas. Rather classy I thought.
Colourful winter gardens
“I’m not a fan of white in winter as it’s too cold,” says Tammy. I do know exactly what she means – white can be a little stark and I think the touch of yellow in the violas warmed the scheme.
“Having said that I’m quite flighty with colours and will just go with whatever I’m in the mood for at the time,” she adds. “I did a pot one year that I absolutely loved, with snowdrops dotted underneath a small Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ dogwood.”
One thing we all agree on is using statement shrubs and plants to add some drama to a winter scheme. While these plants won’t stay in the pots or containers for much more than a season, they still add invaluable substance and can be planted out in the garden afterwards. We all have our favourites: Tammy has her Cornus while John is a fan of winter heathers.
“Winter heathers have dropped from favour in the past few years due to complete over-use,” he says. “Something like Erica arborea ‘Albert’s Gold’ is a great container plant that will stay happy in a pot for a number of years and makes a great backdrop for other plants, summer or winter.”
I must confess that winter heathers have not featured on my shopping list for the past decade, but I think John is right about over-use. There was a time when winter heathers were ‘de rigueur’ for every garden and, as horticultural fashion, just like clothing fashion, tends to go in circles, it’s about time someone started reviving interest by using them cleverly.
My pots nearly always feature Sarcococca. This humble little shrub has its moment in the depths of winter with that shiny evergreen foliage which goes well with any colour or shape. But for me, its overriding appeal is the fantastic scent those tiny midwinter flowers give off. It’s something like vanilla and is surprisingly unmistakeable – just ask the bumblebees as they home in on it. A pot of that right by my door provides an aromatherapy session every time I cross the threshold. That little pot is one of those things that gets me through the winter months still smiling and feeling cheerful.