Clumber Gardener: Containers will keep up the winter interest

Chris Marlow, Clumber Park head gardener
Chris Marlow, Clumber Park head gardener
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It is clear from the wide choice of container plants available to gardeners in May that summer containers are hugely popular.

Filled with pelargoniums, petunias, lobelias and the like, these will provide colour until the first hard frosts of autumn.

Many of us then plant bulbs and primroses for spring interest, so the container can look dull, either bare compost or the odd flower or two, until spring.

If you’re after interest through the winter months, evergreens, particularly those with variegated foliage or berries, will look attractive, as will a few that produce winter flowers.

Amongst the variegated evergreens, Euonymus, either golden or silver variegated, and upright or spreading, is worth considering.

Silver Queen and Emerald Gaiety have silvery-white tips to their leaf edge, the yellow and green Emerald ‘n Gold also takes on pink tints in cold weather.

This red colouring is even more pronounced in other plants. Many varieties of bergenia, commonly known as ‘elephant’s ears’, because of their leaf shape, turn bright, beetroot red as temperatures fall.

Bressingham Ruby and Eric Smith colour rich claret, as does Overture, which has smaller leaves than many, making it well suited to containers.

Bergenias look great with an arum lily, Arum italicum – Pictum – which has beautifully mottled silver and green leaves in winter.

Winter cold also intensifies the red foliage of Leucothoe – Scarletta and Royal Red are especially fine.

They need a lime-free, ericaceous compost, of which more below.

Evergreens which produce scented winter flowers definitely earn their keep in the garden, helping to lift our spirits on dank days.

The Christmas box, Sarcococca, has glossy evergreen leaves.

Although its cream flowers are small and hard to spot, they are strongly and gorgeously scented and usually open up in January.

Sarcococca confusa is one of the more compact growing.

Two skimmia varieties have decorative flower buds over the winter, those of Rubella are red, whereas Fragrant Cloud has creamy-pale green buds.

Both open to produce scented white flowers in March and are best grown in ericaceous compost, otherwise their leaves can suffer from iron deficiency and turn a sad, anaemic yellow, as does another acid loving evergreen, Pernettya.

Its glossy green leaves and long lasting, bird-resistant red, pink or white berries make a winning combination.

Although they will tolerate a little lime in the soil, winter flowering heathers are also best grown in ericaceous compost. Kramer’s Red is outstanding.

Its magenta flowers are displayed between November and April, set against dark green and bronze foliage.

Myretoun Ruby and Challenger are similarly coloured, but not quite as tall growing.

Compost in winter containers needs to be free draining, so check that any drainage holes aren’t blocked.

Ceramic pots are best lifted off the ground a centimetre or so on terracotta ‘feet’ over the winter to allow water to drain away freely and reduce the likelihood of cold weather damage.

Protect them with bubble wrap and hessian sacking if temperatures really drop as this will help prevent them cracking if waterlogged frozen compost expands.

If the soil isn’t water-logged or frozen, plant bare root trees, shrubs and fruit bushes into prepared ground that has been dug and had well-rotted manure or garden compost added to it.

Continue harvesting in the vegetable garden as leeks, parsnips, winter cabbages, Savoy cabbages and, of course, Brussels sprouts are all in season.

Continue inspecting cannas, corms and dahlia tubers being stored over winter and remove any which are showing signs of rotting.

Keep indoor pot plants looking good by keeping them cool and the air around them moist by standing the pots on trays with moistened gravel.

Cyclamen and azaleas especially will also benefit from this.

Gardening books and hand tools such as secateurs make ideal Christmas gifts.

These can be tactfully suggested to friends, family and loved ones as being suitable presents.

Visit a winter garden – classic ingredients are variegated evergreens, shrubs with decorative stems, such as dog woods, willows and white stemmed Himalayan birch, and winter flowering shrubs, such as witch hazels, viburnums and daphnes.