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Decorate with living greenery

The right plants and a bit of know-how will keep your planters perky all winter long

With the first frost, a gardener’s thoughts turn to visions of lovely living container displays, dressed up for the holiday season. We race to garden centres to deck the entryway with evergreens... only to face brown and shedding branches by February. What went wrong?

With easy preparation and care, your porch planters should not only survive but they should thrive for years. Here’s how to improve their chances.

Choose wisely

The first considerations are the container, the location and the plant selection, says Brad Rooney, Nursery Plant Product Manager for Sheridan Nurseries in Georgetown, Ont. “Locate it in an area that’s protected from cold winter winds,” he advises—or else use a wheeled container that can be moved if needed.

“The larger we make the container, the greater the chance of survival,” says Shawn Patille, senior horticulturalist with Humber Nurseries in Brampton, Ont. (Rooney cautions against pots that measure less than 16 inches in any dimension.)

A stable base is important too. Wood, concrete or resinare good choices. Avoid metal, which conducts heat and cold and terra cotta, which can crumble as it expands and contracts. The pot must drain freely. Rooney points out that the bottom should be lined with lands cape fabric or fine mesh and a minimum one inch of loose gravel, so your roots are never sitting in water.

There’s a wide choice of winter-hardy plants (see sidebar), but some have special needs. For instance, in order to produce new berries next year, holly bushes must be planted in male-female pairs.

Maintain even temperatures

To reduce soil expansion and contraction, line all sides of the container with high-R factor Styrofoam insulation. Patille recommends feeding with a 1:1:17 (high-potassium) fertilizer to further protect the plant against freezing damage.

Once frost sets in, don’t bring the plant indoors; the warmth will trick it into breaking buds instead of getting its needed winter rest.

Wet and wonderful

“What’s going to kill the plant is desiccation of the buds and tender tissue before freeze-up,” Patille warns, so it’s important to water the container well until it freezes solid.

During occasional thaws, the plant will need another drink, says Rooney. “You can’t be afraid to get out there and water!”

Both experts recommend a product called Wilt-Pruf Plant Protector, which can be sprayed onto tender leaves every few weeks in cold weather to keep them from drying out.

These simple and inexpensive steps may be all you need to keep your entryway display eye-popping, not needle-dropping, until next spring.

Pot Hot Shots

Top Plant Choices for Winter Appeal

Deciduous Shrubs:Beautiful branches that weather the cold well. 

Red-stemmed Dogwood (Cornus sericea “Arctic Fire”)

Yellow-stemmed Dogwood (Cornus sericea “Budd's Yellow”)

Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus)

Winterberry (Ilex verticillata), especially “Southern Gentleman” and “Afterglow”

Conifers:

The northern winter classic Dwarf Alberta Spruce (Picea glauca “Conica”)

Nest Spruce AKA Norway Spruce (Picea abies “Nidiformis”)

Mountain Pine (Pinus mugo)

Cedar (Cedrus, various varieties)

Juniper (Juniperus, various varieties)

Broadleaf evergreens:

Leaves and berries provide interest throughout the chilly season

Holly (Ilex x meserveae “Blue Prince”/”Blue Princess”)

Boxwood (Buxus sempervirens)

Bunchberry (Cornus canadensis)

Wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens)

-by Sarah B. Hood