It’s Never Too Cold for Containers

When temperatures drop, get creative with cuttings and cold-hardy plants

Fine Gardening - Issue 142

If you’re striving for a garden with four-season appeal, don’t overlook your pots. Instead of retiring them for winter, fill them with an eye-catching combo of cold-hardy plants and cuttings. The extra textures and color will instantly brighten your garden’s dreariest season.

Evergreen boughs, interesting pods and cones, and colorful stems and berries are just some of the botanical materials you can weave into a container design. If you are fortunate enough to live in a warm part of the country, living plants are also an option. In regions where freezing temperatures are the norm, gardeners should be aware that the living selections available to them, such as conifers and hardy boxwood, will contribute to container aesthetics but may not survive winter; extreme temperature changes are often too harsh for their sensitive roots.

Location aside, nature provides ample options for wintry designs, as do garden centers and craft stores. Arrange combos using the same principles that apply to warm-season plantings and your winter containers will be equally spectacular.

Reusable materials save time and money

Photo/Illustration: Brandi Spade

If a material looks good and stands up to winter weather, why not reuse it from year to year? The reusable red bamboo poles in this pot offer a strong vertical accent, while living variegated boxwood provides more verticality and a striking backdrop.

Tall, bold gestures such as these are especially important in winter designs. People aren’t as likely to stop and linger when the weather is blustery, so designs need to read well from a distance. For this container, I wrapped dried magnolia leaves around African knobs (available at dried-flower retailers). Reconstructing natural materials and arranging them in clusters is another great way to make designs pop.

Living plants: 1. Variegated boxwood ( Buxus sempervirens ‘ Variegata’, USDA Hardiness Zones 6–8)

2. Stained red bamboo poles
3. African knobs
4. Southern magnolia
5. Noble-fir boughs

Upping diversity spices up small containers

Photo/Illustration: Brandi Spade

As a rule, more variety equals more impact. When designing small pots, use this to your advantage.

Although there is a plethora of textures in this combination, similar forms unify them. Moss-covered orbs, poppy pods, and African knobs dot the horizontal plane, while cinnamon sticks, pheasant feathers, and whitewashed cacao stems add height.

The simple vintage wooden rice bucket grounds the combo. In cold climates, keep wooden containers out of the elements as wood cracks after repeated freezing and thawing.


  1.  Manzanita branches
  2.  Pheasant feathers
  3.  Whitewashed cacao stems
  4.  Cinnamon sticks
  5.  Preserved salal
  6.  Incense cedar
  7.  Poppy pods
  8.  Banana sticks
  9.  Sugar-pine cones
  10.  Moss-covered orbs
  11.  African knobs
  12.  Skeletonized leaves

Enhance your winter designs with unique containers

Photo/Illustration: Brandi Spade

Look to the colorful glazes and decorative etchings on pots as a source of inspiration. The detailed carving on this container draws the eye up to the planting, while the mahogany-stained kuwa stems and black-spruce boughs continue the progression up and out.

Luckily, creating winter containers doesn’t have to mean gardening in frigid temperatures. For this container, I filled a plastic grower’s pot with potting soil and arranged the planting indoors. Once I finished the design, I brought it outside and slipped it into my decorative container.

This durable granite pot won’t crack in winter, but buyers beware: Once you put it in place, you won’t be able to move it until spring thaw.


  1. Mahogany-stained kuwa stems
  2. Reed bamboo
  3. Black-spruce boughs
  4. Southern magnolia
  5. Incense cedar
  6. Driftwood
  7. Winterberry

Convert birdbaths into pots for an extra pop of color

Photo/Illustration: Brandi Spade

This winter arrangement relies exclusively on nonliving materials. Finding complementary shapes and colors is key. Rose hips cascade over the top and between African knobs. Mood moss provides a soft contrast to the browns and reds in the container, while tallow­berry creates a bright white ground cover. These soft shapes are punctuated with wispy spikes of flame willow and scarlet curls willow.

This granite wabi basin is one of my favorite winter containers because of its multifunctional use throughout the year. In summer, it collects rainwater for birds and wildlife, and in winter, its unique shape enhances any cold-season planting. Consider adding dried fruit to your designs so that they can double as a food source for birds.


  1. Flame willow
  2. Scarlet curls willow
  3. African knobs
  4. Rose hips
  5. Mood moss
  6. Tallowberry
  7. Pea gravel

Prepare your container combos for winter

Photo/Illustration: Brandi Spade

Harsh afternoon sun and freeze/thaw cycles take their toll on plant materials and pots. The sun can dry out and discolor evergreen cuttings, while freezing water can cause containers to crack. You can minimize these effects, however, by taking a few precautions.

  • Protecting plants: Mini­mize discoloration and dryness by placing pots in low light with eastern and northern exposures. If you have your pots in the harsher southern and western light, consider choosing plant material such as black spruce, Norway pine, southern magnolia, and plants with colorful stems. These plants and plant materials hold their color and moisture in sunny areas.
  • Protecting pots: Consider creating your arrangement in a plastic container, then placing the arrangement inside a decorative pot (photo). This can make moving the arrangement less of a strain on your back. If you want to plant directly in your pot, prepare the pot beforehand by filling it with soil and letting the growing medium dry during fall. The lack of moisture in the soil will minimize contraction and expansion. Boughs and woody plant material also help absorb moisture in the soil.

Revisit a traditional design to add a dramatic punch

Photo/Illustration: Brandi Spade

Instead of potting up a pyramid-shaped conifer, give this centuries-old design a try. A Biedermeier is a conical arrangement composed of concentric rings. Although this design is not common in modern times, it is a fun way to combine many different materials or alternate a select few.

In this container, every ring has its place. Norway-pine boughs and Jeffrey-pine cones provide a solid base, while winterberry provides a sense of movement. Dried oranges pick up the color of the container, while dried pomegranates echo the form of the oranges.

To make the cone base, fill a metal obelisk with floral foam. Push dried leaves, fruit, and boughs directly into the foam. The copper pot used here nicely reflects sunlight and light bouncing off snow. It is also lightweight, durable, and resistant to damage from freeze/thaw cycles.


  1.  Norway-pine boughs
  2.  Jeffrey-pine cones
  3.  Winterberry
  4.  Southern magnolia
  5.  Dried oranges
  6.  Noble-fir boughs
  7.  Dried pomegranates
  8.  Norway-spruce cones
  9.  Pepper-berry tips
  10.  White pine
  11.  Murii cones
  12.  Orange winterberry
  13.  Weeping-willow branches
  14.  Variegated boxwood

Unexpected living plants give pots a twist

You may prefer all living material during the growing season, but winter is an opportune time to mix living plants with nonliving objects. In warm climates, hardy succulents, such as agave, make an unexpected addition to winter plantings. Lemon cypress adds a soft, vertical touch, while yellow twig dogwood offers a hard edge and rosemary supplies subtle movement. Keep watering these living plants until the ground freezes.

Round glass balls provide contrast to the sharp, spiky forms in this arrangement. The rustic ceramic bowl complements the surrounding cool colors of winter and, with proper care, holds up well throughout winter. Northern gardeners might consider using cut dogwood stems and enjoying this arrangement inside.

Living plants:

1. Lemon cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Goldcrest’, Zones 7–11)

2. Yellow twig dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’, Zones 3–8)

3. Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis , Zones 8–11)

4. Agave (Agave sp., Zones 7–11)


5. Jeffrey-pine cones

6. Glass orbs

7. Reindeer moss

8. Mood moss

View Comments


  1. diane_lasauce 12/06/2015

    Fabulous! Thanks for sharing!

  2. User avater
    CynthiaDow 05/14/2019


  3. User avater
    ArmandLewis 06/12/2019

    like it

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