Winter Planter

This client’s front garden was designed to have a large planter in the centre of a flagstone spiral. But finding the right container took us longer than anticipated, and in the meantime she saw a winter-decorated planter that she loved. So this is what we created, using the original planting plan, modified.

Winter planter

Winter planter.


Bowl shaped container, 34″ diameter, 31″ height

Cephalotaxus harringtonia (Plum Yew)

Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’ (Goshiki False Holly)

These were planted as normal in the container. I planted them quite high, leaving a trough around them, and then filled the trough with blocks of pre-soaked florist foam. In the spring we’ll remove the foam and fill the container with more soil to plant around the edges, per the original plan.

Boughs: Incense cedar–the very drapey lowest level; White Pine–long needles; Noble fir–excellent firm statuesque branches; Magnolia branch tips; boxwood harvested from the hedge to fill in bare spaces.

The red berries are artificial, from Michael’s. Winterberries or pyracantha berries or cotoneaster berries are all lovely and would  probably be more beautiful, but would only last until either the birds found them, or the frost or wind dessicated them. So I went with faux. And just a few springs–it’s easy to overdo.


The Irish Yew will fill in over time, but for now we can see the winter planter through the hedge. (Click for larger image.)

Winter container.

Winter container.

Winter Containers

Winter containers

I’ve lately been looking at Pinterest “Winter containers”, and unsurprisingly, a lot of pins are containers designed by Deborah Silver, of Detroit Garden Works. She has a distinctive personal style–you can always identify her designs when you see a page of google images. Here are a few examples:


So I decided to have a go creating my own, using Deborah’s “template”.That includes zip ties, a centre bamboo stake, a mixture of greens, and subtlety.

One thing that’s not obvious at first glance is that all the above containers were full of heavy wet potting soil, which gives a nice solid medium for these top-heavy creations. They were previously filled with plants of some kind–probably annuals, since there’s nothing left of them. In my case since I don’t (or barely) plant annuals, I have containers with either dormant perennials, or shrubs with bare patches.

Since my camera or computer corrupted some of the pre-pictures, I can’t show you what these looked like before I started winterizing them. One held long-since faded pink chrysanthemums which I cut down. Another just a boxwood with a lot of empty space around it. And the third (least successful I’m afraid–I’ll continue to work on it…) a Dwarf Alberta Spruce in a too-small container.

Some of the options I considered for winterizing included:

Mostly Douglas-fir, with a little spruce (Abies) of some kind. Harvested after a big wind storm from Central Park. And some from my back yard. Really, Doug-firs are messy, with their brittle branches.

Mostly Douglas-fir, with a little spruce (Abies) of some kind. Harvested from Central Park after a big wind storm. And some from my back yard. Really, Doug-firs are messy, with their brittle branches–even a little wind leaves a lot of Douglas-fir debris.

The main foundation for my additives is conifer branches. I’d love to have had some cedar and some pine, but there weren’t any (free) windfalls.  A mixture is good, but in my opinion, if you already have an evergreen shrub that you’re building around, two more different greens is ample, more begins to look a little busy.

Skimmia, in all it's winter finery. If the birds ate the berries, I'd be hesitant to use them. But for some reason, the birds don't like skimmia berries.

Skimmia, in all it’s winter finery. If the birds ate the berries, I’d be hesitant to use them. But for some reason, the birds don’t like skimmia berries.

Skimmia is easy to prune, since it makes lots of low-to-the-ground branches that I’d prefer to be limbed up a bit. So a clip here and a clip there gives a lovely selection not only of the briliiant red berries, but another non-conifer greenery.

Pyracantha--aka "firethorn", for reasons that become patently obvious when you get close to it: 1-2" thorns grace its branches.

Pyracantha–aka “firethorn”, for reasons that become patently obvious when you get close to it: 1-2″ thorns grace its branches.

Pyracantha is another berry-bearing shrub that can be actively pruned for both it’s greenery and its berries. Just be careful of the thorns.

hydrangea blooms, faded of course, but still offering wonderful shape and texture, and even the brown colour takes on a gold aspect when paired with greenery.

Hydrangea blooms, faded of course, but still offering wonderful shape and texture, and even the brown colour takes on a bit of a gold glow when paired with greenery.

I used two different Hydrangea blooms–one is ‘Invicibelle’, pink when it’s fresh, with tiny individual blossoms, much smaller than most hydrangeas. The other I used is “Limelight”, with panicle-shaped blooms.

Hydrangea 'Limelight'

Hydrangea ‘Limelight’

Here are my final products.

Dwarf Alberta Spruce with Douglas Fir branches. The least successful of my attempts, but I'll do some work on it and try to post a better version later.

Dwarf Alberta Spruce with Douglas Fir branches. The least successful of my attempts, but I’ll do some work on it and try to post a better version later.

This container had the faded mums, so I'm basically starting with an empty space. So the red dogwood branches provide the height in place of the shrub or tree in the others.

This container had the faded mums, so I’m basically starting with an empty space. So the red dogwood branches provide the height in place of the shrub or tree in the others.

I used the red-twig dogwood, bundled together with zip ties onto a bamboo stake, plunged down into the centre of the container. This is where you need to be careful if you’re modifying a container that otherwise has dormant perennials. I didn’t think there was much risk of damaging the mums…

Then  came the conifer branches, mostly Douglas-fir. The light blue/silver is actually just the underside of the Doug-fir, providing colour variation, but same texture. There is also some silvery spruce which are more densely needled, and stiffer, so they stand up better. The Doug-fir with its weak branches tumbles over the edge, hiding the not very attractive container. And a few crocosmia stems with their seed heads are sticking out like satellites!

And finally the boxwood container:


Boxwood, spruce, skimmia, hydrangea, and gold garland.

Not exactly up to Deborah Silver’s standard, but she’s a hard act to follow!  At least these give you an idea of what you might do–and no doubt, do with more flair than I’ve  achieved here. But I’m learning…



Window Boxes–A Recipe

I was at a garden clinic on Saturday, where a couple asked about what they might plant in their window boxes. As I think more about it, I’d give them different advice now than I did on Saturday. Not that my advice was necessarily wrong, just not the best for what they actually wanted.

Their window boxes are LONG–6′ and 8′, and of course, only 8″ tall and 8″ deep. The location is north-facing, which means light-to-moderate shade (no direct sun, but nothing but the house casting shade), and they didn’t want to obscure too much of the outlook/view from the window, so preferred plants that would mature no higher than about 18-20″. And they wanted flowers. Oh, and they didn’t water very well, so they were hoping for plants that were drought tolerant.

That was one tough challenge! I was able to disabuse them of the notion that they could get by without watering. Drought tolerant plants are generally only drought tolerant (not necessarily drought-loving) after a year or two of growth with infrequent but deep watering so that the roots grow deep to search for water. This isn’t possible in a container that’s only 8″ tall. Happily, they resolved to be more diligent with watering.

However that didn’t by any means solve all their problems. In order to have all season flowering (in any garden), you have to have a range of perennials that have different bloom times. Most perennials will only have a 2-8 week bloom period. And the fewer individual plants there are, the shorter will be the bloom time. For example, the anemone blanda in my garden started blooming (with one flower) in mid-March, and is still blooming now. But that’s because they are scattered all over the garden, and they don’t open all at once. Each flower only last a few days.

Anemone blanda

Anemone blanda still blooming after 6 weeks

(Exceptions include shrubs like modern roses, most of which bloom almost continuously from summer to frost; hellebores, which start blooming in winter and hold on to their individual blooms for months–that’s because the blooms aren’t petals, but sepals.)

Hellebore--don't know what cultivar.

Hellebore–don’t know what cultivar. This is one of the earliest bloomers–probably early February, and you can see, end April, still looking great!

Having all season flowering in a small space pretty much requires annuals. They have such a short life that their chief mandate is to produce tons of flowers and then set seed to ensure propagation of the species. That’s why petunias, geraniums, salvia just keep blooming and blooming. (You can improve even vigorous bloomers by deadheading to prevent seed-set.) And it was annuals that I left out of the equation on Saturday. We were at a perennial nursery, so there weren’t any annuals there anyway, but I obviously didn’t have my thinking cap on.

Now if you’re willing to water and forego continuous flowering, the perennial options for a long narrow widow box are more numerous than you might imagine. And no shortage of colour, as you’ll soon see. I don’t personally care for the “stripey/checkerboard” look of a lot of window box designs, with alternating colours (red geranium-bue lobelia-geranium-lobelia, and a few trailers for variety), and unless you want a formal look, I also don’t care for a symmetrical planting.

For this Kitsilano couple, I recommended a planting that has a “wavy” profile, starting tall at one end, then short, then mid-height, then short again by the other end of the planter. And rather than have a lot of different varieties, they should consider having several plants of few varieties. Remembering they had 6′ and 8′ to fill. I would love to have suggested a dwarf skimmia for flowers, fragrance and rich green evergreen foliage, but the size of the container (8″ x 8″) just wouldn’t sustain a shrub, even a small shrub.

Dwarf Skimmia japonica

Too bad, a window box container is just a little too small for this dwarf Skimmia japonica–only 14″ tall and wide after 3 years. But the root ball is probably almost that size.

We decided on a tall-ish grass for the far end. Several are happy in moderate shade, some of the Carexes, Deschampsia, others. Then for a low-growing interesting-coloured plant, Epimedium.

Epimedium sempervirens. Photo Credit

Epimedium sempervirens. Photo Credit

They loved the look of Brunnera ‘Jack Frost’, which is indeed a great plant for texture, with large heart-shaped leaves and splashes of silver, and tall airy flower stalks with tiny bright blue flowers. So that came next. And altho’ the picture below doesn’t show it, the Brunnera we chose did have a slight golden rim on the leaves.

Brunnera macrophylla 'Jack Frost'. Thanks to Northern Shade Gardening for the photo.

Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’. Thanks to Northern Shade Gardening for the photo.

I’d also love some of the Heucheras, for much the same reasons, and in this case, a purple Heuchera would coordinate well with the flowers of the Epimedium and the reddish border on its leaves.

Heuchera 'Purple Palace'

Heuchera ‘Purple Palace’

Heuchera 'Purple Palace'

Heuchera ‘Purple Palace’

And then for the low-growing end, they chose Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’, or Japanese Forest Grass, a rich-coloured grass that looks a lot like bamboo, if bamboo weeped over the edge of a container.

Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola'. Photo Credit.

Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’. Photo Credit.

So you see, no shortage of colour, just not a lot of flowers.

So here are the take-home messages for the window box in the shade:

1. If you must have non-stop flowering, go for annuals. Petunias, Lobelia, New Guinea Impatiens, lots more.

2. Colourful foliage is just as good for providing colour.

3. All containers need to be (fed and) watered, the smaller the container, the more frequently it needs watering! Hoping for enough rain won’t do.

Leave your comments and questions here; would love to hear what you’re doing with your window boxes.


Five Great Containers: Part Last!

So I’ll recap the story.

Ben’s wife and little son have been gone all summer and are coming back in two weeks. He wants to do something nice for them and asks for a balcony design. This is one of my favourite balcony pictures:

And because of its simplicity, that is the idea I gave him. Only MUCH smaller.

Containers 1, 2 and 3 all had small trees, a smaller evergreen shrub, a fluffy perennial, a taller perennial, and a grass. (Or a close approximation of those elements.)

Container 4 is very different.

Container #4

Container #4

This is a 16″ container, compared with the other 22″ containers. So obviously it doesn’t hold as much. Intentionally. I wanted some contrast with the sizes, and would have preferred no contrast with the colours, but we took what we could find. The glazing style of all 5 containers is the same, the colouring is different.

This container planting isn’t nearly as interesting as the others because everything is still immature. Next year it will look a lot different as everything gets closer to mature size.

It starts with a lavender.

My favourite, Lavendula angustifulia ‘Hidcote Blue’. This is one of the smallest of the English lavenders, sweet-smelling (never mind that I seem to be the only person in existence who doesn’t  like the fragrance of lavender), and rich purple-blue coloured flowers. Here is an excellent video on pruning lavender. Unless you actively keep your lavender in check, it will get woody and overgrown and UGLY. You don’t want this, I’m sure.


Thanks to beingfiftysomething for her picture of her front  lavender “hedge”. Which she has since completely changed!

Next, and almost invisible because it’s so young, is Verbascum ‘Blue Pixie’. This will give a nice spray of height above the lavender, coordinating nicely with the colour. But as the name implies, not grow as high as most Verbascum.


Thanks to Future Plants for the picture of Verbascum ‘pixie Blue’

Finally this  garden is rounded off with the some of the same plants as other containers: the grass–Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘LIttle Bunny’, the spurge–Euphorbia ‘Tiny Tim, and a few strands of the sedum–Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’. Repeating some plants in your collection of containers gives a sense of unity, and is a principle you can apply to your in-ground gardens as well.

Container 5–the Succulent ContainerDSCN2024

One important thing to remember about succulent containers: they need to be treated a little different than other perennial containers. Most succulents grow in closer-to-desert conditions, hence the “succulent” leaves which store water. They don’t want a lot of watering, they don’t want their roots to stay too wet, and they don’t want a  lot of wet soil underneath their roots or under their leaves. A shallow container is commonly used, but again, we went with what we could find, so choose the smaller of the coordinating pots. A layer of pebbles would be a good thing to use to mulch the soil and keep the plant leaves from sitting directly on the wet soil.

My favourite plant here is the ruffled edge Lewisia cotyledon in front. This puts on the sweetest show in late spring, with flowers that range from light orange through various pink shades to almost purple or red.

Thanks to Wild Ginger Farms for the picture of Lewisia cotyledon 'Sunset strains'

Thanks to Wild Ginger Farms for the picture of Lewisia cotyledon ‘Sunset strains’.

Going around clockwise, next is Sempervivum tectorum ‘Royal Ruby’. I stole a few from the plant to add into other containers, as well as planting a few in smaller pots for a houseplant. Then another no-name Sempervivum hybrid, Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Little Bunny’, and Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina, and last-but-not-least, Euphorbia myrsinites trailing over the edge.

So that’s the end of my series on “Five Great Containers”. Hope you liked it–if so, let me know and maybe I could do another series on some other topic of your choice.

As always, leave a comment, ask a question, incite a discussion. Nicely.