The sun has finally started shining after an unusually chilly spring, and you know what that means for us gardeners… Time to start thinking about our winter displays!
While we definitely advocate basking in the glory of summer, savouring the colourful blooms you’ve planted and nurtured and feeling the sun’s gentle rays caress your skin, there is a lot to be said for planning ahead and making sure your next season’s preparations are in motion in good time.
In this article we’ll introduce seven plants that are well suited to spending the winter outdoors in pots.
How we chose our plants
We’ve prioritised plants that strike the perfect balance between hardy and attractive, ensuring a beautiful display throughout the least forgiving weather of the year.
Where there are different varieties available, you can be sure that the plants chosen in this guide will hold their own against the British elements.
We’ve also aimed to include plants that have received the RHS Award of Garden Merit: an award signifying particular suitability for the UK growing conditions.
And now for the list –
Let’s begin with this flower, sitting resolutely amongst a light smattering of snow. Although we’re not graced with this white winter weather every year, there’s a high enough chance that it’s worth choosing plants that can handle it.
Pansies are a perennial favourite amongst British gardeners, and for good reason. They’re pretty, they come in a whole rainbow of colours, and the myriad varieties ensure there’s something for every season.
For winter displays we particularly recommend the following varieties –
- Viola cornuta (horned pansy)
- Viola x witrrockiana Joker Series (pansy Joker Series)
- Viola cornuta Alba group (horned pansy Alba Group)
If you’re one of the vigilant readers who noticed that the Latin names for pansies given above all include ‘Viola’ – that’s because pansies are derived from violas.
While all pansies are violas, not all violas are pansies. This means there are some distinct viola varieties that also make for great winter growers.
To ensure bloom in winter you’ll want to deadhead on a regular basis during flowering season. Varieties suited well to winter growth include –
- Viola ‘Nellie Britton’
- Viola odorata ‘Wellsiana’ (sweet violet ‘Wellsiana’)
- Viola ‘Huntercombe Purple’
3. Christmas rose
For another delightful winter floral bloom, Christmas rose (full name Helleborus niger) is a good bet.
Given the name, it’s no surprise that this plant fares well in winter conditions, and gazing out onto a handful of white flowers on a snowy Christmas morning will make you feel like you’re living in a Christmas card.
The Christmas rose isn’t a recipient of the RHS Award of Garden Merit, but it is a renowned plant for pollinators.
This means that in spring and summertime, the times of year where bees and butterflies are most active, they’ll be attracted to your Christmas rose.
Take a countryside walk in the winter months and you’ll almost definitely see the colourful blankets of heather spilling out across the landscape.
The pinks and purples are a pleasure to look at, and thanks to the tireless endeavours of many generations of gardeners, you can bring all manner of heather varieties into your own garden.
In terms of varieties suited to outdoor pots, you’re spoiled for choice. The RHS lists 51 types of heather that have winter as their season of interest and are in receipt of the RHS AGM.
We’ve narrowed it down to a few that have a bushy habit, lending themselves slightly better to container growth than their mat-forming brethren –
- Calluna vulgaris ‘Peter Sparkes’ (heather ‘Peter Sparkes’)
- Calluna vulgaris ‘Tib’ (heather ‘Tib’)
- Calluna vulgaris ‘Beoley Gold’ (heather ‘Beoley Gold’)
- Calluna vulgaris ‘Kerstin’ (heather ‘Kerstin’)
- Calluna vulgaris ‘Dark Beauty’ (heather ‘Dark Beauty’)
5. Alum root
This semi-evergreen perennial has a stunning red colour that will bring something undeniably stylish to your winter garden, especially if you’re lucky enough to see it backdropped against a display of white snow.
Alum root (also known as Heuchera) is a little different to the floral plants we’ve seen so far in the list – something that speaks to our belief that having a combination of different plant types and aesthetics in your displays will create engaging and appealing layers of visual interest.
This plant likes full sun or partial shade, and thanks to its hardiness can survive in exposed or sheltered positions.
As a semi-evergreen it will continue to hold colour year-round, and will take between two and five years to reach its full size of about half a metre squared.
6. Golden creeping Jenny
If you’re looking for a plant to tumble attractively over the edge of your winter containers, then golden creeping Jenny is a good shout.
This evergreen perennial is mat-forming when grown on the ground, but provides excellent cascades of colour when allowed to grow beyond the edge of a pot.
As with alum root, this plant provides something a little different from the flowers at the beginning of our list.
Golden creeping Jenny looks great in a pot by itself as you can see above, but it’s also great when combined with other plants or flowers in a curated display.
Our hope is that you’ll leave with a few different options of where to go next, so versatile plants like this one are a must-have!
7. Sweet box
While this may sound more like something you’d find under the Christmas tree, rest assured that sweet box (Latin name sarcococca confusa) is a flowering evergreen with a lot to offer to the winter gardener.
The diminutive white flowers with their captivating aesthetic and intriguing tendrils make a great contribution to a winter garden.
And while winter is the main season of interest, this plant will burst forth with a purple-black berry bloom in autumn, making it useful in other seasonal displays as well.
For best results with sweet box grow in full or partial shade, in a sheltered position in any aspect.
Things to keep in mind
When choosing winter plants you’ll obviously want to ensure that they’re hardy enough to survive in cool conditions.
Here are some other things to keep in mind to give your plants their best shot at thriving –
- You don’t need to feed plants during the winter, as their rate of growth and nutrient consumption decreases.
- Following from the above, you should expect much slower growth in the winter months! Don’t despair if you can’t see much change in their size.
- You don’t need to water as much, either. Check soil before watering to ensure it’s not already moist.
- Lift your pots off of the ground on bricks or specially designed plastic feet. This reduces the risk of them freezing which can lead to damage.
- You may need to move plants from their usual spots to ensure they’re getting enough light over the darker winter.
Roll on winter!
While many gardeners live for the unparalleled medley of life, growth, and colour that spring and summer provide, there’s a real charm to winter gardening. The solitude, the colours, and the different combination of plants and palettes on offer.
Our aim with this list is to give you a few ideas of which plants to grow in containers in winter, and to hopefully point you in the direction of curating your own delightful displays for the snowy months.
The recommendations here are far from exhaustive, both in terms of plants and their varieties. With a little research you’ll be able to go from winter gardening novice to seasoned pro, and your colourful containers will bring joy to any guest who has made the error of consigning themselves to a winter without any floral blooms.
We hope you have fun researching, planting, and basking in the beauty of your winter gardening efforts.
As a horticultural therapist, professional gardener and freelance writer, Ed is passionate about the healing properties and processes of gardening and nature. With a background in occupational therapy, Ed now runs a community garden where he aims to encourage and enable the local community to grow fruit, vegetables and cut flowers and experience the many benefits of gardening. Ed lives in West Sussex with his young family and golden retriever, where they look to live the good life by growing as much of their food as possible. See Ed's website here.