Interview with a Container Goddess (Tips for your Winter Pots)

This post is for all you chicks who love to do your seasonal outdoor containers (and a few fellas, as well). The store where I work has a container designer, Brenna Henley, and she’s the best. So, I asked her to give us some tips for our winter pots. I’m a hort girl but my expertise is in trees, shrubs, and perennials, what I call the heavy landscape material, as in, dang heavy to pick up and plant. But, I love my pots, so off to Brenna I go when it’s time to switch out the outdoor containers. (An excellent day is when I get to help her. Now, you can be jealous of me too.) I’ve included some of her designs, and a few others by container savvy friends, and yes, even one of mine. Let’s get started.

1. Timing is everything.

Currently, my pots look pretty awesome. My black and blue salvia has perked back up with the cooler temperatures, and my coleus, despite a few nights in the 30s, still looks good (especially my Keystone Kopper). It breaks my heart to think of ripping these plants out to make room for the new. My inclination is to wait until they die, and then switch out my plantings. Not a good move, Brenna says. Now is the time to replant, when everything still looks good, and we’ve got a couple of weeks before the first real frost touches down. Get roots for winter plantings established before a good cold snap renders us too late. So, no sentimental container gardening. I know some of your zinnias still look good, but follow Brenna’s advice, and be ruthless. Empty out the pots, add some fresh potting mix, and start designing.

Below: Snow Angel heuchera, pink blooming heather, and winterberry. When the heather blooms out, the texture of the conifer is still a nice contrast.

Your pots don’t need to be fancy or your plantings elaborate. Something as simple as this three plant combo in a brown pot is perfect.

2. Designing for winter.

Brenna suggests we get away from the mindset of the heavy bloomers of summer. Not many plants are going to give us that kind of bloom all winter. Sure, we can plant our pansies and violas, but they will freeze when the 20s come roaring through (though if you keep their roots watered, you’ll have a beautiful spring performance out of them once again). It’s best to think of foliage plants for winter pots, and add your fall stuff–voilas, pansies, cabbages, and kales–not as the focal point, but as something you can take out when the cabbage turns to mush after a hard freeze. Some great winter perennials are heuchera, bergenia, sedges, carex, winterberry, conifers, acorus, and ivy. All of these are evergreen and while even they will suffer from a hard freeze, a warm spell in January (if such a thing exists!) will perk them back up. You’ll at least have color all winter, and plants like the bergenia  turn a beautiful, bronzy pink as the temperatures cool. Allow some thought for upcoming holidays. No sense in doing the pots again come Christmas. Think ahead and consider what you could add in December for a little holiday flair (red twigs, curly willow, bows, pine cones and such).

Below: Bergenia, acorus, heuchera, winterberry, muhlenbergia (this is pretty but won’t last through a harsh winter, try ivy if you can’t live without your trailers), red rooster sedge, and curly willow

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Adding what I call the curly q’s adds visual interest. Something I forget to use in my containers but Brenna uses a lot in hers.

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A conifer, like this little white pine combined with periwinkle is a favorite of mine. I am drawn to the starkness of it and it sits by my front door. But, if I am feeling snazzy then I add red twig or yellow twigs.

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If you prefer what I call the village pot (you can get the village in there), then this pot done by my friend, Debbie Neese, owner of Offshoot Virtual Landscape Services, would appeal to you. She’ll have to take out the chard and lamium as temperatures drop, but everything else will hold fine. The colors of the pot and plants are showy together.

3. Maintaining our winter pots.

You still need to water your winter containers. This one surprises folks, Brenna says. For some reason, they assume they can go without watering outdoor containers in winter. Not so. Check them twice a week, remembering that cold winds and cold temperatures pull water out of plants, but root drench them at least once a week. Meaning, water until you see water coming out of the bottom of the container. “I’ve seen more plants die from lack of water, roots drying out, than from cold,” Brenna says. And, please allow for drainage. Don’t put your pots in saucers, or sit level with the porch or ground. Raise them so they’ll drain. You don’t want the soil to freeze and thaw. Fertilize? Not necessary. Anything granular won’t break down in the cold, and using a foliar fertilizer could bring on tender new growth that isn’t hardened off, so skip it..

Below: cabbage, lemon thyme, chard, sedge, and citronelle heuchera


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Whimsical is fun.. Brenna did this for an upcoming wedding. The couple cared little if the container was winter worthy, but the cabbage and chard is all that will need to come out after a hard freeze.

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The partner with winterberry and orange pansies.



Work smart. Don’t fill up ten pots. Do two. And put them near the door where you will go water them, or near the dog’s bowl where you’ll dump the old dog water into your containers. “The prettiest containers are always next to the dog bowls,” Brenna says. Use warm colors, not so much white, just to jazz things up a bit, and give you something to look at in the dreary months. If you decorate for the holidays, add vines, berries, curly willow, red twigs, anything that will be festive and give you a designer look. And oh, by the way, pots are fine outside all winter so long as it is a glazed pot (or concrete). Nothing that flakes will hold up to the cold. Take those inside.

Brenna’s rule of thumb:  Think of it like baking a cake. The anchors (evergreen perennials, conifers) are the cake. The pansies, violas, even spring blooming bulbs that can be tucked into the pots, are the icing.

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Bold colors for a cold winter.

red pots

Red pots with Illicuim ‘Florida Sunshine’ makes a great shade container. Again, bold for the cold.


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Thank you, Brenna!


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