As well as growing evergreens that provide structure and continuity, the key to an attractive winter garden is to plant up container displays that look their best during the coldest months. There are many tried-and-tested designs and planting combinations, some of which are detailed below.
Browse our winter container recipes, below. Find inspiration for the best Christmas flowers and plants in our guide.
Trees, shrubs and ferns
This design is useful for a large container display. It uses a central focal point, such as a tree, shrub or fern, with some fringe planting and spring bulbs, to extend the season of interest.
Here, scaly male fern, Dryopteris cristata, grows in a large pot, underplanted with ivy and Cyclamen coum. The four or five ivy plants trail down the sides of the pot like a green curtain, while the splashes of cylamen colour will draw the eye to the main focal point. Bulbs of Narcissus ‘Tête-à-tête’ and Tulipa ‘Spring Green’ are planted deep beneath the plants, which will grow into the display to bring a final burst of freshness and colour at the end of the pot’s season.
For alternatives based on the same theme, consider making the centrepiece on of the following: Mahonia x media, witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Pallida’) and red-stemmed Siberian dogwood (Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’). These all provide a taller and more structural display than the fern, which works especially well in January and February, when the flowers of the mahonia and witch hazel, and the bark of the dogwood, are at their most intense.
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Bulbs in small containers
You don’t need big, expensive pots to fill your midwinter garden with colour. Small containers, ranging from those roomy enough for a dozen small bulbs to a tiny one holding just a single snowdrop, look great both singly and in groups. Hyacinths work well planted tightly together in a pot, while crocuses provide an early source of nectar and pollen for bees and other insects. Bulbs of daffodils, tulips and alliums can be planted in more permanent winter container displays to prolong the season of interest.
Make the most of irises
Early irises, particularly Iris reticulata, are fantastic, alpine bulbs that do well in shallow terracotta pots. Iris reticulata are best grown sheltered from rain with sharp drainage. The key is to shelter them from too much rain and keep them cool, so they last as long as possible. Plant them in compost made using equal parts of potting compost and horticultural grit. Once the buds are an inch or so above the surface, move them into the greenhouse or cold frame to open, and then place them either on a table near the house, so they can be enjoyed from a window, a sheltered doorstep, or on a cool windowsill indoors.
Iris danfordiae is bright yellow and one of the first to flower in mid-January. It's compact, so looks best in a shallow alpine pot. The bulbs are not expensive and tend to flower less well after the first year, so it's a good idea to buy fresh ones each year for the best display.
Iris reticulata flowers on short stems and looks like an especially glamorous crocus. The variety ‘Harmony’ has particularly deep-blue flowers with a gold blaze on the lower ‘fall’. Its leaves remain quite stubby during flowering, but then grow taller to reach 30cm or more at maturity. ‘J.S. Dijt’ has rich reddish-purple flowers that open rather later, but is another superb choice. Iris histrioides is a member of the reticulata group. While the cultivar ‘George’ is especially magnificent, with rich plum-purple flowers that are rather larger than most others in this group, ‘Lady Beatrix Stanley’ has lovely blue flowers, with a yellow marking in the centre of the petals, carried on a short stem. All cultivars of Iris histrioides flower strongly year after year. Plant the bulbs from mid-November.
Pansies and violas
For long-lasting winter colour it's hard to beat the cheerful display of winter-flowering pansies and violas. Pansies have larger flowers than violas, but are more prone to weather damage, especially heavy rain, which makes the big petals flop and hang sadly. Violas have small flowers on more compact plants, but remain upright and unaffected by most weather. Both come in a huge range of colours, from pale yellows and pinks to wonderful rich reds and purples, and will flower bravely through the very worst of winter weather. The largest blooms are found in the Bingo, Delta and Imperial series, the Ultima series has medium-sized flowers in a range of colours, and the widest span of single colours is in the Universal series. All are cheap, readily available and an absolute delight.
Pansies flower best in cool, damp conditions in light or dappled shade, but are robust enough to endure all but the very harshest conditions. Unlike violas or violets, they will thrive in full sun as long as they are never allowed to dry out. But they should never sit in wet soil either, so make sure that they have good drainage.
Leafmould makes the perfect open compost for pots, but any loose, light growing medium suits them.
Hellebores and primulas
Hellebores make excellent pot plants and give their best display in the winter months. The oriental hybrids are the most common, starting to perform from February onwards. For earlier colour, go for the stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus), with its red-rimmed, apple-green flowers that look as though they’ve been dipped in blood; or the fragrant hellebore (Hellebore odorus), which has plain green flowers. The Christmas rose (Helleborus niger) has many hybrids and will flower from the end of the year, while looking very handsome in a good pot even when only in leaf.