Plants in containers feel somehow more manageable, especially if you’re new to gardening, says Elly West, and a carefully thought-out container display can really create a strong focal point when there is not much else to look at

It’s sometimes hard to feel motivated in the garden at this time of year, when the days are short and it’s still so cold outside. Evergreens, berries and winter stems are all working hard, but the vibrancy of spring is a good handful of weeks away, and something new and fresh to fill the gap could be just what is needed to get outside and start enjoying the garden again.

This is where a carefully thought-out container display can really create a strong focal point when there is not much else to look at, especially if you place it in a prominent spot such as next to the front door, to give you and your visitors a cheerful welcome. Whatever the size of your outdoor space, or however adept your green-fingered skills are, just about anyone can include a few pots that will ring the changes and create a seasonal display. My very first garden – which was behind a London Victorian terrace – was jam-packed with pots as border space was scarce and it was an easy way to try out new plants and really take notice of their progress and what they had to offer, as opposed to border plants that would sometimes get lost among the plants (or weeds!) around them.

Plants in containers feel somehow more manageable, especially if you’re new to gardening. It’s relatively easy to keep an eye on a container display, cosset and tend to it. Plants generally get off to a better start in fresh new compost – you can water and feed as necessary and move the whole lot into shelter if the weather turns particularly harsh. Once the display is past it’s best, it can be moved to a hidden corner of the garden, or replanted anew. Pots can be shuffled around as you wish, either to create new planting combinations with other pots or within the border.

So if you’re planning to create a new display, the fun starts when you choose your container. For a cohesive look, choose pots of the same colour or material – a group of traditional terracotta, or lead or faux lead planters for example. Some of the modern fake materials such as stone or lead look as good as the real thing, but at a fraction of the weight, not to mention cost.

Or if you already have a mismatch of colours and styles that you don’t want to change, you could ‘zone’ them, grouping together the ones that are similar to one another and spacing them out around your garden. You can always paint your existing pots a particular colour if you do want to give them a revamp and create more unity. But of course, it’s all down to personal choice. My old London garden contained a complete medley of colours and styles, and I was perfectly happy with that.

If you’re choosing new pots, go for those marked as frost-proof. Your plants will be dictated by the size of pot you choose. A row of small pots filled with just one type of plant can make for a simple and elegant display, or you may want to splash out on a larger pot that will take a combination of plants. The downside to having a large container is that it can be very heavy to move once filled with compost and plants, so consider putting it on castor wheels, or fill the first half of the pot with broken polystyrene packaging to reduce the weight.

…Evergreens, berries and winter stems are all working hard, but the vibrancy of spring is weeks away. Something new and fresh to fill the gap could be just what is needed…

Choose a loam-based compost such as John Innes No. 3 for permanent displays that include shrubs, as it holds nutrients and water better than general multi-purpose compost. Make sure your container has holes in the base, and place a few crocks in the bottom to help with drainage and stop them getting clogged up. It may sound obvious, but if the pot is large, put it in its final spot before you fill it.

Then comes the other fun part – choosing your plants! I like to start with a feature shrub for structure and to make a statement, and at this time of year it’s going to be chosen for its evergreen foliage or stems. Consider one of the smaller varieties of phormium, such as ‘Jester’ which has colourful strappy, grass-like leaves, or a dogwood such as Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’, which has amazing stems in glowing shades of orange, yellow and red. Although these shrubs will likely outgrow their space after a few years, they can then be planted out in the border. Other good winter shrubs to include are Euonymus ‘Silver Queen’, which has silvery leaves that will light up a shady corner, or Skimmia japonica ‘Rubella’ with its clusters of red flower buds.

Grasses are also great for winter displays, adding lightness and movement. Most Carex varieties are evergreen, and I also love the black grass, Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’, which adds low-growing drama to the edges of a pot. Ferns and hellebores are other long-lived plants you could include that are happy in pots, with hellebores bringing beautiful early spring flowers as well as attractive leaves.

Think, too, about plants that will trail over the edge of your container, such as small-leaved ivies and periwinkles. Then it’s time to think about flowers. Check what’s looking good at your local garden centre right now, but you can’t go wrong with jewel-like cyclamen, primulas, heathers, winter pansies or violas. All of these are widely available in a range of colours. You should also be able to find pots of spring bulbs ready planted with their green tips just breaking the soil, which will keep the display going and give you something to look forward to.

Arrange everything on the ground first, then fill your container about two-thirds full with compost. Tip the key plants out of their containers and tease out the rootballs if they are slightly pot-bound. Position them on top of the fresh compost, then place the other plants around them. Back fill with compost, firm it down and water in well, even if rain is forecast. Ta-da! Stand back and enjoy.

Plant of the month: winter pansies
One of the best things about pansies and their daintier cousins, violas, is the cheerful and vibrant colour they bring through the colder months, and the fact that there are so many different colours available. When I lived in London, every year I used to fill my window boxes with dark red pansies that matched my curtains. They are easy to grow and inexpensive, filling the stands in garden centres, supermarkets and markets. Choose plants that have lots of new buds ready to burst and don’t let them dry out once planted. Keep deadheading the old flowers and they will keep going for weeks, if not months on end.

• ellyswellies.co.uk

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