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"Time to replant containers for winter interest," by the Whistling Gardener

Planting winter containers requires a paradigm shift. Instead of thinking of flowers as our source of color, we need to shift our focus to colors and textures of foliage. Photo courtesy of Sunnyside Nursery.
Planting winter containers requires a paradigm shift. Instead of thinking of flowers as our source of color, we need to shift our focus to colors and textures of foliage. Photo courtesy of Sunnyside Nursery.

This weekly column is being reproduced with the permission of Steve Smith, The Whistling Gardener, and owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville. 

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. But by waiting so long to replant, we miss the opportunity to compose new plantings that will look interesting all winter long and into the spring.

Planting winter containers requires a paradigm shift. Instead of thinking of flowers as our source of color, we need to shift our focus to 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. Many of our hardy groundcovers such as vinca, 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, Rheingold 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 there is even a grass that boasts black foliage.

Many plants have interesting branching patterns that become pronounced in the winter after their leaves have fallen off. Contorted filberts are a classic example. 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. 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. Smell the bone meal, touch the plants and get ready to create.

For more info on fall containers come to our class September 5, 2015, at 10 am here at the nursery.

Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached online at info@sunnysidenursery.net.

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