Article by Pattie Barron
Why drag summer bedding through winter when there are so many new season’s container plants starring at your nearest garden centre? Just as you’d buy cut flowers to decorate the house, spend a little on the outdoor room by giving balcony or terrace an eye-catching display of foliage and flowers.
For instance, you might emulate the fiery shades of autumn with a group of real trail blazers, using terracotta pots to set the warm mood. Start with a colourful centre point such as Nandina domestica Fire Power, which has lime green leaves that take on burnished tints, or perhaps a phormium like Maori Sunrise, its outsize strappy leaves striped hot pink and bronze. Embrace the shades of the season with the bonfire-coloured foliage of heucheras, notably Marmalade, Plum Pudding and Autumn Leaves. These invaluable evergreens are at their best when their ruffled leaves spill over the edges of pots, so pack them closely together. Add punches of colour with scarlet-flowered cyclamen, rich red pansies or the fire-engine red berries of Gaultheria procumbens. Terracotta troughs are the perfect showcase for bright orange pansies, but for max effect, add twirling tufts of bronze grass Carex comans.
If you want a display that will shine out in a dark corner or brighten the gloomy grey days of winter, consider an ice-cool combo, best set off in a metallic container. Zinc planters are popular – and pricey – but a classic builder’s bucket is inexpensive and has a suitably shiny finish to set off silver, grey and white plantings a treat, and is deep enough to underplant with several tulip bulbs such as glamorous lily-flowered White Triumphator. You could plant a dozen or so purple-blotched white pansies to great effect, but more imaginatively, add one or two silver foliage plants. None is more striking than calocephalus, its twisted silver-white looking rather like small-scale barbed wire, or you could add striking blue-grey grass Festuca Elijah Blue. Berries always add a cheery note, so seek out Gaultheria mucronata, with sugar pink or snow white berries; most garden centre stock them at this time of year.
In a sheltered spot such as a balcony, terrace tabletop or windowbox close to the house wall, cyclamen, with their silver and green marbled leaves and prettily furled flowers in shades ranging from white to magenta, make a great choice. They look good contrasted with heathers, which add height, a contrast in texture as well as share a similar colour palette. For a black windowbox, think pink, and add a rosette or two of ornamental cabbage, with those frilly layers of cream, pink and apple green, to cyclamen and heather for extra pzazz. And in a black windowbox, team white cyclamen with licorice-black grass Ophiopogon planiscapus Nigrescens: drama guaranteed.
From a distance, large-flowered pansies obviously have more impact than violas, but these daintier, smaller flowers have their own special charm. Use them en masse where they can be admired at close quarters, such as a tabletop display, or else in mixed plantings, using bi-coloured gold and garnet or softer pale lemon and lilac to create jewel-like highlights.
Make full use of foliage plants to add balance to flowers. Birds’ foot ivy, its dainty leaves edged in white, is an indispensable trailer to soften the edges of windowboxes. Filigree-leaved evergreen ferns are ideal to contrast with white cyclamen for close-up tabletop displays. Evergreen herbs add texture as well as scent, plus you have the bonus of snipping them for the kitchen: step forward silver-tipped thyme, golden oregano, green and purple sages and rosemary, both upright and trailing. You could keep these as a backdrop right through the year, simply switching the bedding at the change of seasons.
Get full value from your container plantings by underplanting them with dwarf daffodil bulbs such as multi-headed Tete-a-Tete or early riser February Gold, to add an extra layer of cheerfulness come spring. And be creative. A forage in the florists might yield a stash of scarlet dogwood, silver birch or Chinese lantern stems that would add spark to any display. No matter if stems aren’t properly planted, but just prodded into compost: winter containers, whether on terrace table close up, or on a balcony, viewed from a distance, are all about effect.