A Fresh Approach to Winter Containers

Incorporating live plants in your design opens up more possibilities than you ever imagined

Fine Gardening - Issue 160

Designing containers in winter can be a challenge. With fewer plants available in many parts of the country, even the best container designers often resort to arrangements of cut greens and colorful branches. Some add fruit, pinecones, or lights to distinguish their containers from the ubiquitous greens and winterberry arrangements, but not so with container designer Roanne Robbins of Kittery, Maine. Roanne’s philosophy is simple: Plants possess a beauty of their own during winter—dormant or not—and working with them as they appear in nature opens up many possibilities. In fact, every container over the next couple of pages includes live plants. Once you experience Roanne’s unique and sustainable approach to container design, we guarantee that you’ll never resort to cut greens and berries again.


Go for gold

(photo above)

The plants in this container are colorful enough to stand out against even the grayest of winter days. Placing them in a white vessel additionally illuminates the gold tone of the cypress, the variegation of the boxwood, and the tawny blades of the ornamental grasses.

1. ‘Heavy Metal’ switchgrass (Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’, USDA Hardiness Zones 5–9)

2. Dwarf Alberta spruce (Picea glauca var. albertiana ‘Conica’, Zones 2–6)

3. Holly (Ilex sp., Zones 5–9)

4. ‘Marginata’ varie­gated boxwood (Buxus sempervirens ‘Marginata’, Zones 6–8)

5. ‘Golden Mop’ Sawara cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Golden Mop’, Zones 4–8)

6. ‘Ice Dance’ sedge (Carex ‘Ice Dance’, Zones 5–9)


Play up the tones of the season

A small wintergreen plant is used effectively to break up the evergreens, while picking up nicely on the hues of the berries and the terra-cotta planter. The ornamental grass—though dormant— centers the planting, drawing your eye evenly to each element.

1. Winterberry (Ilex verticillata cv., Zones 5–8)

2. Fountain grass (Pennisetum cv., Zones 6–11)

3. ‘Elegans’ Norway spruce (Picea abies ‘Elegans’, Zones 3–8)

4. Compact fernspray Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Filicoides Compacta’, Zones 4–8)

5. Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens, Zones 3–8)


Tall, lean, and sleek

This upright oblong container calls for a slender composition that picks up on its yellow tones. A palette of gold and deep green plants with needlelike textures does the trick. The green foliage and yellow-toned plants move your eye seamlessly through the arrangement, while a broad-leaved osmanthus grounds the planting. A spray of yellow-twig dogwood branches adds just the right finish.

1. Yellow-twig dogwood sticks (Cornus sericea cv., Zones 3–8)

2. Japanese umbrella pine (Sciadopitys verticillata, Zones 5–9)

3. ‘Goshiki’ variegated osmanthus (Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’, Zones 7–9)

4. ‘Pygmaea’ dwarf Japanese pieris (Pieris japonica ‘Pygmaea’, Zones 6–8)

5. ‘Kramer’s Red’ heath (Erica darleyensis ‘Kramer’s Red’, Zones 7–8)

6. ‘Fernspray Gold’ false cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Fernspray Gold’, Zones 4–8)


Tip: Leave stones and mosses in a container throughout the year, and rework your design around them to reflect seasonal plant options. The perennials or shrubs that you remove from season to season can be added to the garden.


Add a pop of color to late winter

A Korean fir takes center stage in this antique galvanized vessel, while the commanding leafless birch branch mimics a stark winter landscape. The hellebore and woodland sedge give the planting a burst of color and movement; the fine strands of the variegated sedge break up the dark leaves of both the fir and the hellebore.

1. River birch branch (Betula nigra ‘Little King’, Zones 4–9)

2. ‘Silberlocke’ Korean fir (Abies koreana ‘Silberlocke’, Zones 5–8)

3. ‘Nana Gracilis’ Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyp­aris obtusa ‘Nana Gracilis’, Zones 4–8)

4. Gold Collection® Jacob hellebore (Helleborus niger ‘HGC Jacob’, Zones 4–8)

5. ‘Evergold’ sedge (Carex oshimensis ‘Evergold’, Zones 6–9)


Create a garden scene

Adding a large stone to a planter is an effective way to form a scene not often found in container plantings. The stone serves as a foundation—much like hardscaping in a garden—and provides spaces around which to create movement and depth with plants.

1. Assorted mosses

2. Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens, Zones 3–8)

3. ‘Blue Planet’ spruce (Picea glauca ‘Blue Planet’, Zones 2–6)

4. ‘Jean’s Dilly’ spruce (Picea glauca ‘Jean’s Dilly’, Zones 2–6)

5. American beauty­berry (Callicarpa americana, Zones 5–9)

Designer Q&A with Roanne Robbins

Roanne Robbins is a floral and garden designer, amateur baker, and moss collector in Kittery, Maine. She is coauthor of Continuous Container Gardens: Swap in the Plants of the Season to Create Fresh Designs Year-Round and a firm believer that container planting is most successful when there is little plant waste from season to season.

What myths exist about container design?

I’m not for the whole “thrillers, fillers, spillers” mantra. I think we should move away from oversimplifying container design and bring real design terms into the conversation. Gardeners young and old should be concerned with texture, balance, scale, form, motion, and proportion. It’s not as catchy, but it will give you a bit more freedom and range.

What are some of your go-to plants for container design?

I love using ground covers and strawberries as textures. Experimenting with unexpected perennials in container designs is also superfun.

Are there container-design styles the way there are garden- or landscape-design styles?

I feel that container-design styles are the same as garden-design styles. That said, I don’t know how serious we should take these labels. A boxwood in a galvanized trough could just as easily fit a cozy-cottage, ecochic, or modern-minimalist style. To me, design is more about the story you are trying to tell, the mood you are trying to capture, and the connections you are trying to make to the larger environment than about in which category the planting fits.

If you were forced to use only one plant in a container, what would it be?

I love shrubs that change from season to season. I adore fothergilla (Fothergilla spp. and cvs., Zones 4–8) in a con­tainerized setting. A single plant like that can constitute a design so long as it interacts well with the vessel and its surroundings.

Are there any plants that don’t belong in a container?

No. I’m all for experimentation, even if you end up with a failure. Every three years or so, I plant a redbud (Cercis spp. and cvs., Zones 4–10) in a container, and it never goes well. One of these days, I hope it will work out.

Lynn Felici-Gallant is the associate editor.

Photos: Lynn Felici-Gallant; John Gruen. Illustrations: Elara Tanguy

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