Keep it cute: Tips on decorating outdoor garden containers for the winter months

The tabletop vase combines assorted greens and red for a festive winter look. (Betty Cahill, Special to The Denver Post)

“He who marvels at the beauty of the world in summer will find equal cause for wonder and admiration in winter” said John Burroughs, an American naturalist from the last century. Maybe I am stretching his observation a bit, but it sounds like Mr. Burroughs would approve of cold-weather landscape decorating to boost some of that winter admiration.

And why not? Who wants to view the obvious eyesores that remain after the active summer growing season? Eyesore No. 1: kaput outdoor containers. Nod if the formally dynamic summer blooming plants now appear drab and dead.

Without intervention, these bowls full of lifeless sticks and bundles of inert flora will remain until next spring. How boring is that? And why do outdoor containers have to look dormant from fall until next spring? They don’t!

Just say “no” to dreary outdoor pots. Embrace this time out from the busy outdoor growing season and perk up your soul and your outdoor containers with your own organic designs.

A metal container is filled with internet-ordered curly willow. You can save the willow in the basement in the off-season, and it should last several years. At the base are free fir branch cuttings from a nearby Christmas tree lot. Additional decorations could easily be added. (Betty Cahill, Special to The Denver Post)

Creating and assembling winter outdoor containers, also called porch pots, are a natural progression between leaf raking and shoveling snow. Timing is important, so do not delay and allow the spent foliage and soil to freeze solidly in place. Winter porch pots are fun to decorate and so easy, even for the artistically challenged like me.

First, a word on caring for outdoor containers in general. Some containers are much more frost- and freeze-tolerant and can handle sitting outside all winter. If you want to do that, a drainage hole is a must. Heavy plastic, metal, wood, marble, cast iron, high quality glazed, stone and fiberglass containers are the most weather-resistant. Terra-cotta is likely to crack from the ongoing cycles of freezing at night and warming up during the day.

Despite being labeled cold-weather-tolerant, there is the possibility that containers left outdoors can get damaged. (No doubt, whoever coined the phrase “crackpot” did so during the winter.)

Methods to protect less cold-tolerant containers include moving them into garages or sheds for the winter, or elevating the containers on bricks or boards so they are not in direct contact with the cold ground or surface, then cover the soil (remove dead foliage first) with heavy plastic or a tarp to prevent snow and moisture from entering, which can contribute to cracking. Some people use bubble wrap around the outside and then drape and tie the entire container. They are all good ideas.

Let’s get decorating

There are many ways to fill porch pots.

  •  Use live plants that are more cold-hardy than average plants that grow in the Denver area.
  •  Spring-planted ornamental grasses in a container fade to beautiful shades of red to brown in fall and all winter. Let grasses remain in the container to provide decorative winter appeal. If they get crushed from snow, a quick brush off should bring them back to the upright position.
  •  Use branch and plant cuttings from your yard. If your yard is low on plant material, network with friends or  ask family members if you can clip from their backyards. They’d appreciate an outdoor creation as a return favor.
  •  Purchase materials from various retail outlets.
  •  For fresh greenery, consider obtaining a permit from the U.S. Forest Service to cut Christmas trees. Use trimmed pieces in a winter container and for other projects like wreaths and swags.
This stunning porch pot has it all–layers of evergreen, pops of red and sprayed white branches say welcome winter! (Betty Cahill, Special to The Denver Post)

When using live plants in containers, be sure they are two USDA hardiness-plant-zones colder than here along the Front Range. Plus, location matters: They need to be in protected sites out of extreme wind and cold elements. Denver and surrounding counties are considered Zone 5 for plant hardiness. For outdoor containers, shop for Zone 2 specimens, such as evergreen junipers, boxwood, spruce and pine that will fit in your container. Ideally, the plant should be planted early enough in the fall or late summer and given time to grow and acclimate before cold sets in.

This option might be better to try next fall. Look for plants on sale in case they don’t winter over. Evergreen plants in containers will need watering until the soil freezes.

The outdoor tabletop metal bowl has pinecones and miniature pumpkins. Switch the pumpkins for ornaments after Thanksgiving. (Betty Cahill, Special to The Denver Post)

Do-it-yourself creations

These are some basic guidelines, since there are no absolute style and design rules. Empty the containers of dead foliage before decorating and before the soil freezes. Frozen potting soil is difficult to remove unless it comes out in a solid block after carefully being tipped over. With loose soil,it’s easier to poke in branches, do-dads and greenery.

  • Gather the fill materials. This is where you can really go to town (or to the nearest thrift store, hobby store, discount center or your favorite garden, grocery store or florist). It is OK to combine store-bought faux foliage with real and dried items.
  • Use green or tan twist ties and attach to greenery or twigs where needed. Spray painting objects is an option, too. Many outlets that sell porch pot materials (fresh-cut greenery, berry boughs, etc.) may not start stocking these items until Thanksgiving.
  • Online companies sell kits and all sorts of supplies for outdoor winter pots. But you can shop in your own backyard for free foliage. Red and yellow dogwood sticks add color plus vertical winter interest. (These shrubs are fine to prune this time of year; they will grow back next spring.) Dried foliage, and flowers, rose hips and seed pods add depth and interesting fall muted tones.
  • The traditional thriller-filler-spiller model often used for summer containers also works for outdoor winter pots. A single specimen works, too, or a combination. Try filling a decorative container with pinecones and miniature pumpkins, and later in fall switch to secondhand Christmas tree ornaments for a simple yet seasonal work of art. (Note: Pinecones fallen to the ground are free. However, do not pull them from trees growing in public right of ways, forests and parks.
  • With loose potting soil filled at least half-way in the container (add more as needed to reinforce and anchor), start with the centerpiece or middle first. An example would be tall vertical twigs or sticks. Next, use a lower layer such as spruce branches right next to the centerpiece for fullness, and finish with foliage at the base. Poke in seasonal orange or red winterberry twigs (faux berries works well if fresh are not available, which also tend to be pricey). This basic three-layer container could easily be jazzed up with the addition of contrasting colored evergreen branches and other plant materials. The video under “resources” shows this in more depth. Build it and they will come (to admire). Adding lights or some of the battery or pre-lit props add the final pop to any outdoor container masterpiece.
  • And, finally, don’t forget the wreath or swag on the front door.
This weather-proof recycled container looks awesome with curly willow (thriller), large flocked pinecones, spruce and red winterberry (filler) and pine needles (spiller). (Betty Cahill, Special to The Denver Post)

Winter-decorated porch pots often hold their staying pizzazz through March. After that, we get anxious and start turning our attention toward spring. Fresh greenery that has dried can be composted. Transition to early spring containers, if you like, with pansies and pussy willows. After the season, store any intact sticks and decorations that can be used next year.

Happy outdoor-container-decorating fun!

Resources 

Many locally owned independent garden centers sell outside porch pots, wreaths, swags, Thanksgiving and Christmas decorations and supplies. Check with your favorite store for availability and stroll through their aisles for more ideas. For many examples and ideas, check Pinterest or search outdoor container images online.

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