Six on Saturday: Happy Pots in January

Dianthus, Dusty Miller, Holly fern and Strawberry Begonia keep these pots green through the winter.

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January and February might be months gardeners choose to take off.  After all, it is hard to get too enthusiastic with a northwest wind blowing and temperatures dropping, even if the sun shines for a few hours of the day.  Plant choices dwindle as temperatures drop, and frozen soil makes it even more challenging to keep potted plants hydrated.  Leaves may get crispy edges when roots can’t absorb enough water to replace moisture lost to cold, drying winds.  Frozen soil is almost as limiting to plant growth as dry soil.

That’s why I pay attention and take note of potted plants that still shine with vigor and health by late January.  I get excited by every winter flower, green leaf, and promise of continued growth.  Granted, our winters here in Williamsburg may be milder than most.  And our coldest, frostiest weather often waits for February or early March, just as we’re primed for spring.  But I’ll tell you that last night was in the 20s here, and it had only warmed up into the 30s when I took these photos.  These are a few plants that have proven themselves sturdy through colder nights and icier days in winters passed.

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Lemon Cypress

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Winter hardiness is part of a plant’s bio-chemistry and is enhanced by it leaf structure.   While some leaves turn color and drop in late summer, other’s shine on through winter, deeply green and glossy.  It is good to have a selection of good winter hardy plants to fill a few pots here and there to cheer up a winter weary heart.

Conifers are common choices for evergreen pots.  Their green needles and scale- like leaves, with their waxy coating, give them some of the best protection from winter cold.  They can withstand drying winds better than many other types of woody plants.  If they aren’t in a location to receive regular rain, remember to check their soil and water them as needed.

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Holly Fern with Hellebore and Viola

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I like small evergreen shrubs in pots and have tried many different varieties.  Camellias are always nice because in addition to attractive foliage, they also bloom when little else is in bloom.  I’ve also had good luck with Osmanthus and hollies.  Mahonia, or Oregon Grape Holly makes a nice pot as there is usually room to plant under its lowest branches.  Most of these can live on for a few years, especially if you are willing to pot them ‘up’ into larger pots as they grow.  Eventually, all but the dwarf varieties will want to be transplanted into the garden, unless you decide to prune their roots and branches to keep them potted as bonsai.

Evergreen ferns also work extremely well in pots alone, or in combination with other plants.  We have several good choices in Zone 7b.  Native Christmas ferns, Polystichum acrostichoides, remain a deep, almost blueish green on very traditional fronds.  They may eventually grow to 18-24″ once established.

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Italian Arum and Ivy share this pot on the porch, a happy pairing for the last several years.

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A smaller native selection is the Ebony Spleenwort, which has a shorter, narrower frond.  It has a very dark stipe and a long, narrow frond.  Ebony spleenwort can grow in very shallow soil.    The hybrid Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Autumn Brilliance’ has beautiful copper color on new fronds, and older fronds remain a vibrant, deep green all winter.  This is a good fern to include with spring blooming bulbs because its new growth is so striking.

For a large, showy display, use a Holly Fern, Cyrtomium falcatum.  This large fern can fill a pot in a few years, and its large textured fronds grab attention.  It is glossy deep green and easy to grow in shade to partial sun.

While ferns may be the ‘thrillers’ in winter pots, consider underplanting them with ground covers such as Strawberry Begonia, Saxifraga stolonifera and Ajuga.  Both keep growing through the winter and quickly bounce back after a freeze, slowly covering the soil before putting on a beautiful show of flowers in mid to late spring.

Hellebores always make beautiful pots in winter, but may not make it through the following summer, unless you have them in the shade in a large pot.  If you want to keep the plant going for another year, consider moving it into the ground before June.  Hellebores provide large, beautiful leaves year round and several months of flowers, beginning sometime between December and March, depending on the variety.

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Camellia ‘Yuletide’ was just planted this autumn alongside maidenhair ferns and hardy Cyclamen. This photo was taken the first week of January and the shrub is still in bloom, though the maidenhair fern continues to die back for winter. Various spring bulbs will emerge under the shrub in the weeks ahead.  This pot greets visitors at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.

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Another favorite winter perennial is Italian Arum, which grows well in pots or the ground, and spreads out a bit year by year.  I buy rhizomes in the autumn and start them in small pots, then plant them into the garden or into potted arrangements once their first leaves appear.  It has an insignificant flower in May, but is grown mostly for its beautiful leaves.

There are other more colorful plants for winter pots, but they don’t always hold up as well to the cold.  Heuchera keep leaves over winter here, and grow new leaves when the weather turns mile.  They can stay in the same pot for many years, expanding a bit each year, and only need older leaves trimmed from time to time.  We also grow Violas, Snapdragons and Ivy.  I love Ivy in pots and hanging baskets as an easy, tough ‘spiller.’   More and more, people focus on Ivy’s invasive nature and less on its beauty.  If you use it, have a plan to keep it contained.

When so many trees are bare, annuals spent, and perennials mere ghosts of their summer selves, it is comforting to still have a few pots of beautiful, healthy plants growing around the garden.   Most of these plants have a year round presence, and so should blend in to summer planting schemes, as well.  Sometimes you can leave the pot as it is from one season to the next, and sometimes you may switch plants in and out around these winter stalwarts.  It is as much science as art, and far more pleasure than effort to keep them thriving.

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Strawberry Begonia with Italian Arum

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Many thanks to the wonderful ‘Six on Saturday’ meme sponsored by The Propagator

Please visit my other site, Illuminations, for a daily quotation and a photo of something beautiful.

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