Rita Randolph is a container garden artist and plant collector who owns Randolph’s Greenhouses in Jackson TN. She was the author of Fine Gardening’s Container Gardening Issue for 2009, which features many of these combinations. For comments or info, contact from her web site randolphsgreenhouses.com.

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Festive Fall and Winter Containers
by Rita Randolph       #Containers   #Design   #Fall   #Ornamentals

Just because it’s fall and the temperatures drop, it doesn’t mean that gardening has to stop and you throw in the towel. Our plant palette changes with the seasons, and that means selecting the proper plants for this time of year, yet still fulfilling our desire for color and texture.

I start my fall and winter containers at the same time, because some gardeners may not want to plant their pots twice. Fall containers sing of grasses and mums, while winter containers are mostly comprised of colorful evergreens and conifers with a few persistent perennials mixed in.

Fine Foliage

Grasses and sedges are favorites for providing fine foliage that separates and complements other plants. Carex ‘Evergold’ is probably one of the prettiest evergreen variegated grass-like plants, maintaining its brilliant variegation all winter long in cascading clumps. Carex testacea (orange hair sedge) has lovely copper foliage, its color is a gorgeous complement to fall pansies and mums. Acorus gramineus ‘Ogon’ is an evergreen sweet flag. ‘Ogon’ has small fan-shaped growth with leaves that stand vertical then dip a little on the ends with petite elegance. Ophiopogon ‘Nigrescens’ (black mondo grass) is another dwarf grower for those smaller pots where you need just a spot of color from a plant that won’t get very large. Festuca glauca (blue fescue) is an easy-to-grow evergreen, or shall I say “everblue,” frosty-colored grass with beautiful, soft cascading foliage. There are surely too many more wonderful grasses to mention. 

This miniature Chrysanthemum ‘Seizan’ is instantly amplified by the thrilling lemon grass and colorful pumpkins surrounding it.

This small container sits next to my steps. The tapestry of foliage, flowers and grass-like plants remain beautiful all winter long and into the next year.

Juniper ‘Gold Cone’, Buxus sempervirens ‘Variegata’ and Carex ‘Evergold’ make a perfect trio in this low bowl. The pot is top-dressed with native mosses to keep the soil from splashing out and to hold in moisture.

At first what might seem to be unlikely partners, white pumpkins decorate the feet of variegated ivy, ferns and ornamental grass. This arrangement looked great even after the fall season was ending. 

Medium Height Fillers

Heucheras, especially the H. villosum hybrids, are among my favorite plants for showy fall and winter color, yet I can enjoy these frost tolerant plants twelve months out of the year. Shades of earth-tone bronze are found in ‘Southern Comfort’ and ‘Caramel’ while ‘Citronelle’ is brilliant chartreuse. H. ‘Mocha’ and ‘Brownies’ are just as chocolaty as they sound, mixing well with yellow and orange violas. ‘Plum Pudding’ and ‘Purple Petticoats’ will complement combinations with violet or pink tones.

It’s sad that one of my favorite plants has a pest named after it, (euonymus scale) but Euonymus fortunei (wintercreeper) and numerous other dwarf of spreading varieties adorn my winter pots with their brilliant variegation and gold foliage. One variety is E. ‘Butterscotch’, that only grows an inch or two a year, making it perfect for alpine pots and miniature fairy gardens.

A series of small, young plants all together in close quarters make for a perfect centerpiece. The container can be enjoyed for a while then moved up into a larger pot.

Heuchera ‘Southern Comfort’ is a vigorous evergreen mounding plant. They like extremely well-drained soil yet regular watering. Their native habitat is rocky slopes in part sun, so they adapt exceedingly well to growing in containers.
A variety of small, compact yet bushy little evergreens make up this alpine trough.

Reaching Up

To give me height in containers, I usually turn to taller sturdy grasses, hollies, conifers and berried shrubs. Pyracantha looks great all year with its twisty branches, persistent foliage and brilliant fruit that last until the birds pick them off! P. ‘Orange Glow’ or one of the yellow forms will mix with fall colors, while I use the red berried ‘Red Column’ in later containers for Christmas and beyond.   

Juniperus virginiana (Eastern red cedar) and other junipers are perfect for winter containers. Sometimes columnar, sometimes pruned and trained into topiary shapes and spirals, many junipers are sturdy, heat tolerant plants too, thus making my containers last for a year or two before changing them out. When these shrubs and small trees are underplanted with complementary foliaged plants, they are an alpine dream come true. When the right plants are gathered together, shades of green take on a lush look, even during the coldest winter months.  When I want a formal look, I’ll add simply blue or white pansies and violas. When a brighter more casual theme is desired, we add brighter mixed colors.

Panicum ‘North Wind’ softens a  pyracantha in full fruit. Carex testacea, Heuchera ‘Southern Comfort’ and  orange violas ring the container.

A Juniper virginiana stands above Osmanthus ‘Goshiki’, Heuchera ‘Citronelle’, Liriope ‘Peedee Ingot’ and white violas.
I love to play with small conifers and evergreens. Their shapes an form are as individual as us! Each one is a plant of its own, some fatter than others, some not so full. It just makes life more interesting if you mix them that way.

Bringing the season indoors

As we get closer to the holidays, you can bring a little contrast to seasonal flowers by adding more colorful foliage with houseplant collections. A number of tropical houseplants look great with poinsettias and forced bulbs. Blooming holiday annuals such as begonias can add dimension to otherwise predictable arrangements.

Winter is a good time to do a little trimming on your evergreens, using them for seasonal arrangements. Don’t be afraid to take a little here and there, shaping up your branches. Magnolia, Arizona cypress, cedar and boxwood are all long-lasting greens for the holidays. Wire up a few pinecones and you have yourself a beautiful homemade arrangement.

During the fall months, collecting a basket full of assorted plants to bring indoors is always made easier when you add a little grass and a pumpkin or two.

A ‘Strawberries and Cream’ poinsettia is added to a mixed basket of begonias, Dianella, ivy and mosses to make a unique gift.

From Tennessee Gardener Volume VII Issue IX. Photos courtesy of Rita Randolph.


Posted: 10/02/13   RSS | Print


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Karen Atkins (Michigan - Zone 6A) - 09/16/2014

Gorgeous arrangements. Very inspiring writing too. Well done!

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BarbS - 02/07/2016

What do you do with your containers in the winter in WI?  Once my veggies or flowers are done I pull out the roots and vegetation but is it best to keep the dirt in and cover it during the snowy winter months or dump it out?  Also, is it possible to grow perennials such as rose bushes or blueberries in large containers and if so how do I overwinter them so they don’t freeze?

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Karen Atkins (Michigan - Zone 6A) - 02/12/2016

I think you should always start with new soil mix. Remember, the soil in containers is continually changing in PH and nutrients - because of what the “hostage” plants are extracting from it. The roots can’t search any further for the things they need.Though there are people that overwinter things in garages, while they are dormant, watering - but infrequently - I have not had success myself with it. So I choose to remove perennials and shubs from my containers and window boxes in fall and transplant permanently somewhere in the yard (or a friend’s yard) Then I start fresh with new ones every year.

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