By Hannah Madrone
Do your containers have the winter blahs? Or maybe you haven’t found time to plant them yet, and the empty spaces are becoming conspicuous. Maybe you’re tired of looking at the same pansies and primroses, year after year, or maybe you’re new to container planting and aren’t sure where to start. Whatever the state of your winter containers (or lack thereof), you’re not alone.
We’re very lucky to have an amazing container design expert here at Sky Nursery. Stephanie always wows us with her display containers and pre-planted “grab and go” gifts, and she also creates custom container designs. I asked her about how she learned her craft, where she finds inspiration, and her creative winter container ideas. Here’s what she had to say:
My background is in landscape design, so when I started my career at another nursery, I was doing the displays and helping out with container design as needed. I ended up working in the design department part time there, and now full time at Sky. I love the freedom to create anything I want. Whether or not I like it at first, it always works out in the end.
What was the most surprising or unusual planting you ever designed?
The most unusual was probably a pedestal garden. I took an old concrete pillar, put a concrete slab on top, and made a natural-looking garden with native plants, rocks, and moss. The moss weathered the concrete over time.
How do you choose which containers to use?
I choose containers based on how they are going to be used. If I want to show off a particular plant, I find a container that will complement its colors and overall look.
One of the most striking display pieces you created this winter uses a large fountain as a container. Do you have any advice about planting in unconventional containers?
I’ve planted a lot of unusual planters, including bronze baby shoes, recycled fountain parts, cracked bird baths, lined baskets, and old logs. If it can hold soil, you can plant it up. Just make sure it has a way to drain, or if it doesn’t, water very carefully.
I love winter containers. I get my inspiration from the plants themselves, especially the ones that change color with cold temperatures. There are so many evergreen plants to choose from!
What are some of your favorites?
Heuchera varieties come in a wide range of leaf colors. Ornamental kale always provides a great color pop. Red Wintergreen berries hold on all the way through the winter. ‘Emerald and Gold’ Euonymus has yellow-green leaves that turn bronze red with cold temperatures. ‘Blue Surprise’ Chamaecyparis is a beautiful conifer at all times of year, with steel blue foliage that turns purple in cold weather. Hellebores bloom in the winter, and the faded blooms hold their color for a long time. All kinds of ivy make great trailers for winter containers, and the leaves come in all shapes and sizes as well as different kinds of variegation. I often use sword fern instead of grasses to provide great spiky texture in winter containers.
Cyclamen are probably one of the showiest plants for color in the winter, but unfortunately they don’t weather the frost. Rather than transplanting my cyclamen out of their pots, I make a big enough hole to fit them into my containers pot and all. That way, I can pop them out of the soil and take them inside on nights with freezing temperatures. They often do better when they aren’t transplanted anyway.
The containers you’ve designed for Sky Nursery’s winter displays this year include colorful branches and other non-living materials. What elements do you recommend including in winter containers, besides plants?
Your yard and local nurseries are great source of winter interest. Cuttings from red-twig or yellow-twig dogwood, curly willow, Harry Lauder’s walking stick (Corkscrew Hazel), and white birch are all great to use in pots. Dried seed pods can also be great–Sky sells some long-lasting exotic ones. For added sparkle, you can use waterproof bows or glittery decorations — just stick them in! They may only last one season in the rain, but they can add a touch of glamour.
What advice would you give to someone designing a winter container for the first time?
Don’t worry about putting shade plants in full sun for the winter — they’ll be fine. I often use ferns in full sun for winter containers. Remember that there is no such thing as a poorly designed container! Just choose plants you like and add some sparkle if you feel inspired. You can always replace plants or change things around later.