The Case For Planting Winter Pots

I wrote the following article for the December issue of the Michigan Gardener Magazine. For those of you who do not have access to this magazine, I thought I would reprint the article.

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Few moments are as daunting to a gardener as that moment when it is apparent that the gardening season is coming to a close. The stems of some perennials will dry, and persist in the landscape the entire winter. Those with juicy stems will drop to the ground, and begin decomposing as the temperatures dip below freezing. The trees regale the landscape their leaves in full and vibrant fall color. Hidden behind that beautiful display is the process by which the trees are going dormant in preparation for the winter season. Every Michigan gardener is well aware that we have 6 months of the year to enjoy and work in the garden, and that trying other 6 months in which the garden is dormant. Gardeners handle the off season in a variety of ways. They read. They make plans for a new garden. They order seeds, and plants. Some put together a collection of new perennial plants to try. Others grow tropical plants – indoors.
A good many gardeners make sure to include trees with great bark and berries in their landscape. Others leave their perennial gardens intact until the spring. Snow can highlight a dormant garden in a beautiful way. Some gardeners just fret their way through the winter as best they can, or go south when they are about to black out from the prospect of one more day of winter weather. I have another idea worth considering.

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Having been in the container garden business in the spring, summer, and fall for many years, it only took one simple stray thought to entertain the notion of planting pots for the winter. Many gardeners have containers gracing their landscape. Pots at the front door are welcoming. Pots on a terrace provide an environment to the time spent outdoors entertaining. Multiple pots can screen an untoward view. Containers filled with lights are an alternative form of landscape lighting, especially designed to avert the dark that comes early and stays long. Window boxes are a way of integrating nature and architecture. A great container can be the perfect focal point in a garden. A great container planting is a landscape in miniature-wherever you want it. Arranging a winter container has only one hard and fast rule-the container must be frost proof. Think wood, stone, stoneware, metal, stoneware, rattan,or concrete, as opposed to terra cotta.

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I have seen lovely containers planted with dwarf evergreens, but live plants in pots are problematic in Michigan winters. Even miniature evergreens have substantial root balls. If you pots are on the small side, you may not have room to put together an interesting collection of plants. A group of evergreen plants do not grow up and into each other over the winter that will culminate in a gorgeous arrangement. They will look their same separate selves in April as they did the previous November. Worst of all, it is very difficult to keep evergreens alive in pots over the winter. Mugho pines and boxwood can be hardy in pots, if the weather and water conditions are just right. Hardiness in plants refers to plants whose roots are in the ground. Live plants with their roots above ground in containers can be challenging to keep alive. This is all by way of saying that beautiful winter containers can be constructed from cut natural materials, exactly the size and shape you need them to be. There are no end of cut evergreen stems available in the latter half of November. Douglas, frasier, noble and silver fir boughs are readily available. Fir is a great choice of a cut green-they stay green a very long time. For unusual greens, cut boxwood, German boxwood, berried juniper, Port Orford cedar, and countless other specialty greens are available for purchase. Interested in a cut green that will last until April without any hint of dry or brittle needles, or color loss? Mountain hemlock. I shy away from anything beyond a few bits of cedar and white pine-they will dry out and fade long before the winter is over.

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We do not stick cut evergreen stems into the soil in a pot. We take the soil in a pot down four inches when the summer or fall pots are emptied, in preparation for the winter arrangement. We construct a 4-6” thick dry floral foam form which is wedged into the top of the pot. The top third of the form sticks up above the rim of the pot. Each cut evergreen branch is roughly sharpened with the blade of a pair of pruners, and cut to a length representing the finished width of the arrangement. Each branch is stuck into that foam form at whatever angle seems natural and right. I like to approximate the shape of a naturally growing and graceful evergreen shrub. The branches usually grow in a horizontal configuration. Sticking evergreen branches into soil means every branch is awkwardly vertical. Few evergreens hold their branches vertically. A foam form means the gardener has the means and discretion to create a winter container that speaks strongly to the natural order of things. I have seen gardeners top their pots with evergreen wreaths, but wreaths do not have the scale and heft demanded by most pots.That thick evergreen blanket can have no end of other materials tucked into it. Eucalyptus pods are a striking texture, and a lovely wintry blue color. Winter berry (provided it has been thoroughly sprayed with Vapor Gard) is a natural source of red. Pods, twigs and bits from the field or garden can loosen and endow the appearance of the greens.

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As for a centerpiece, no material is as lustrous and colorful as fresh cut twigs. Red twig, yellow twig, and gray dogwood will look fresh in a container all winter long. Cut willow twigs have been known to root in a container over the winter. Curly and straight copper willow, black willow, and pussy willow are but a few of the available choices. We do zip tie our twigs to a stout bamboo pole, the end of which will go deep into the pots. Big centerpieces may need additional bamboo poles or steel rebar inserted all around the perimeter, through the dry floral foam and down into the soil of the pot for extra stability. These additional stakes may need to be wired together. Winter weather can be fierce; thoughtful and patient construction is a must. What you casually insert into a winter container on a calm November day may not hold up in the snow and wind of January. Constructing a winter pot is very different than creating an indoor arrangement.
A winter container takes on the personality and taste of the gardener in charge with those finishing touches that come next. Some will like sparkly picks added just for the holidays. Others will like pine cones, field weeds, magnolia pods or an abandoned bird’s nest. Natural dry seed pots are readily available in the fall. Preserved and dyed eucalyptus can add an unexpected punch of color to a winter arrangement. Good quality eucalyptus does not run, bleed, or fade. Still others favor fresh cut magnolia branches, or dashes of Port Orford cedar. Artificial picks are both convincing and weatherproof. Like the floral foam forms, they can be used and reused over a number of years. Dry stems of hardy hibiscus, butterfly weed, hydrangea, and Bear’s Breeches are beautiful in winter pots. Who knows what materials a fallow field or garden might provide. The materials available from the garden, farmer’s market, garden center or weedy field are just about limitless. Planting pots for winter is an entirely different way of gardening, but it is gardening nonetheless.

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A winter pot is the perfect vehicle by which to introduce light into the winter season. The garden is not only dormant, it is dark. Lights in winter pots on the porch, walk, or along the driveway welcome guests. A pot positioned by the stairs from the deck into the yard can light the way. Light strings are readily available in the fall. Placing them in the winter landscape is a form of gardening. 10 strings of mini lights will not consume much energy, but they will help to banish the dark. A new series of warm light LED strings from Holland are available this year. They are indestructible, very inexpensive to run, and last better than 50,000 hours. A fistful of lights at the bottom of a centerpiece will keep that centerpiece visible long after dark. We have a season ahead where daylight is scarce, gray skies are regular, and the dark comes early and stays late. Lit winter containers light up the winter landscape in a warm way.
A solidly and thoughtfully constructed winter container will delight, entertain, and console a gardener’s eye for as long as 6 months.

More specific commentary and pictures are to come in the next few weeks. All of the above pictures were taken at my house this past December.  I have no idea what will take shape for this year, but I am looking forward to the process.

At A Glance: One Stem At A Time

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All of these winter containers came to be, one stem at a time. I hope you enjoy the pictures as much as I enjoy the process.

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one at a time (2)one glass drop at a time.

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DSC_6573Lots of the pots pictured above were done by Rob. I learned from him how to slow down, and work one stem at a time.  He is confident enough to let a design evolve.  Nothing hurries him.  My advice?  Don’t hurry.  Take one step at a time.  Have fun.  Be challenged. Go ahead. Our 2014 winter and holiday container construction is underway-I hope yours is too.

Freezing Weather

holiday containers 2014 (5)Our recent weather has been much more like January than November.  Day time temperatures the the 20’s, and night temperatures in the low teens does not mean we postpone our winter container work. Even if we could, there isn’t any need. If the prospect of doing winter container arrangements is leaving you cold, perhaps some of our techniques might help make it more satisfying.  Trying to create is tough when one’s fingers and toes are numb. Most of our construction is done indoors-in our garage. Any enclosed space will be a more comfortable environment in which to to work, even if it isn’t heated much. When we do go outdoors, it is for active work-the installation part.

holiday containers 2014 (6)Some of our centerpieces are constructed ahead of the installation time.  A very stout bamboo stake is at the center of every centerpiece.  All of the other materials are arranged around that stake.  Sometimes a good quality rubber band helps to keep the materials in place until you get everything arranged exactly as you wish.  For large and heavy materials, a loose zip tie will do the trick.  For very heavy materials, another pair of hands is best.  Once all of the materials are arranged to suit, we tighten the zip ties with a pair of piers.  Very bulky and heavy materials are secured with concrete wire. A centerpiece may have multiple components or layers.

holiday containers 2014 (7)We construct forms for our greens from dry floral foam.  We glue two layers together for added strength. All of our premium greens are in the range of 18″ long, and are fairly weighty.  Large scale pots may ask for that entire width over the edge in order to look properly proportioned. We can get 2 lengths of greens from one long bough for smaller pots. For pots larger than 36″ in diameter, we usually glue the foam form to a piece of 1/2 inch thick exterior plywood for added support.  The winter pots need to look good over a long period of time in which the weather can bring high winds and heavy snow. Nothing is more miserable than trying to repair a winter container arrangement gone over in mid January or February.  The foam form is secured to the soil in the pot in two ways.  We remove the top 4 inches of soil, so the lower level of foam fits down into the container. The upper level holds all of the boughs.  We sharpen the stems of the greens, for a tight fit.  We then drive rebar through the foam and greens into the soil, and wire the steel posts together. The hole you see in the center of the foam-a place for the centerpiece.  Foam forms do not have to be exact.  They are an armature giving support and flexibility to the finished arrangement.

holiday containers 2014 (8)All that remains to add to the centerpieces on site are those finishing materials that gives each winter container a distinct and unique look. Very contemporary winter pots may be as simple as a mass of twigs set into cut greens. There are plenty of other materials available, should you want a softer look.  These winter pots have sinamay (also known as poly mesh), bleached pine cones, pale gold holiday picks, and mini vine rolls. Rob does a great job of sourcing a wide variety of materials that can find their way into winter pots. He likes giving every gardener lots of choices. We have a long winter containers 2014 (3)All of these accessory materials are either wired to the greens, or wedged into the stick stack.  All of these materials will be fine outdoors over a winter. Does this process seem like much too much work?  It isn’t really-as the process from raw materials to finished container is not only fun, but doable.  Any gardener can do winter pots for themselves.

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In composing a winter pot, keep in mind that you are without that miracle we know as growing. The winter pots are the same size and scale on the last day of winter as they are on the first. Eucalyptus is bulky-a single bunch will go a long way.  If your container is large, consider 2.  If you want to feature this material, go to three bunches, and use fewer fresh cut twigs.  Sinamay is a synthetic mesh that when rouched like smocking, will occupy lots of space.  No amount of snow will distort the shape you create from the beginning.  I brush the snow off my sinamay at home when the snow threatens to bury it. Curly Grapevine rolls create a lot of volume from not much material.  These mini vine rolls are perfect for adding an airy layer of interest to this pot.

First National 2014 (2)The materials in these pots are subtly colored, but are of a volume proportional to the size of the pot.  The centerpieces is red bud pussy willow, in a 5-6 foot height.  Some pots need a tall element. Branches are graded by height, so the height you need is the height you get.    The fresh cut natural branch sets the stage for the character of all of the other elements.

First National 2014 (3)Though the pots are 36″ tall, and 36″ in diameter, the arrangement is graceful.  Each pot is different, as they are done by hand.  Done by hand can endow anything you with a certain feeling.  Containers imagined and arranged by gardeners have that hand made look. The evidence of the human hand is always attracts my attention and interest.

holiday containers 2014 (4)These pots could stand as is until the spring.  I don’t mind a little sparkle during the winter.  Alternately, they would work just as well, if the sinamay and pale gold sparkle picks came out after New Years.
holiday containers 2014 (2)These very large containers have enough variation in materials to provide some interest, even though the color palette is subdued.

holiday containers downtown 2014The steel gray color of the pots was an important consideration in the selection of the materials.

holiday containers 2014 (1)Few things pain me more than pots sitting empty over the winter. Pots full of this or that, enduring over the course of the winter, speak to the hope that grounds every gardener.  The garden goes on all year round, does it not?  Some seasons, the forms and available materials are different. No reason not to celebrate, whatever the weather.

The Materials


Let’s suppose you have a great collection of materials.  A truckload of one gallon pots of wildflowers.  50 perennials of 5 kinds in the trunk.  2 flats of groundcover.  10 flowering stems from the garden asking for a vase. A palette loaded with brick.  5 yards of compost. A box of tulip bulbs.  A small tree in the markdown lot at a local nursery. The remains of the branches from a dead tree. A truck load of fallen leaves. A cutting from a rose. A pack or a pound of seed.  The trimmings from a boxwood or yew hedge.  The log rounds from an old tree that had to come down. A collection of galvanized buckets. The cuttings from a rosemary plant. All of those materials may be asking for something to be made for the garden.

cedar-cone-and-grapevine.jpgGreat materials fuel any great garden project.

hardy-hibiscus-stems.jpgAn armload of stalky cuttings from  perennial garden in the process of being cut back for the winter might have a place in a winter display.  Coming up upon the winter season, what can be harvested from the landscape may make the long winter easier to bear. Great materials are also readily available from your local farmer’s market.  Our market features birch poles, red twig dogwood branches, dyed integrifolia, and pine cones. The natural materials available come the end of the gardening season will be the mainstay of my winter containers.


The  genius of natural materials can drive great design, and great work.   Any natural or living material that happens to come into my arms is a call to make something of it..  Making something  of a collection of plants, a pile of dirt, or a group of materials, is one way to describe a gardener.  The byproduct of making a garden is an opportunity to repurpose materials that can carry on and delight into the next season.   In the late fall, gardener make plans to endure the long winter.  Making something beautiful of the garden harvest will make the winter easier to bear.

okra-pods.jpgThe gorgeous cut stems from the dogwood and willow, the garden and the forest floor or the field next door-what will you do with them?  These materials are asking for an expression from you. To follow-a few ideas. My ideas-take from them what you will.  Go on to take those materials, and interpret them how you will. To follow, some stick works that might inspire you to create something all your own.

grapevine-wreath.jpggrapevine wreath

DSC06434stick stacksDec 17 2010 069yellow twig dogwood


Michigan holly

winter-container-arrangements.jpgwinter container arrangements

red-twig-dogwood.jpgred twig dogwood and Michigan holly

bleached-twigs.jpgpainted sticks

copper-curly-willow.jpgcurly copper willow

yellow-twig-dogwood.jpgyellow twig

December 17 2012 019grapevine

mixed-twigs.jpgmixed sticks

native-red-twig-dogwood.jpgnatural red twig

Nov 28 2012 084farm grown red twig

winter-container-arrangements.jpgthe sticks-what will you do with them?