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There are many options to choose for the best winter plants for pots and borders. Rather than winter presenting a dull and colorless season in the garden, your outdoor space could in fact be full of color and interest with some careful planning.
There is a huge variety of plants that can add seasonal interest – from flowering evergreens, vibrant fiery steams, tactile tree barks, and colorful pops of colour from winter-flowering bulbs – so ensure you include these in your winter garden ideas.
The amount of color and choices of plants will differ to some extent depending on the area where you live. 'Depending on how mild the local climate is during winter, some gardeners may be able to grow cool-season annuals throughout the winter months and well into spring. In places with cold, snowy weather the winter color season may only last until the arrival of freezing temps or heavy snowfall,' explains Zolene Quindoy, head of horticulture at Yardzen.
Best winter plants for borders
'In colder winter months, color in the garden might be sparse, so every splash of it counts,' says gardening expert and writer Matt James. 'Happily, there are plenty of opportunities to brighten up those grey days and improve the view from your house.'
'Winter-blooming annuals are a popular option for adding color to the landscape,' adds Zolene Quindoy.
When looking for the best winter plants, it also serves to lend nature a helping hand, providing essential food for birds and pollinating insects as wildlife garden ideas.
'Many pollinating insects emerge earlier than usual with our changing climate so it is really important to offer them food from early-flowering shrubs and perennials, such as mahonias,’ says Jonny Norton, head gardener at the National Trust’s Mottisfont estate. These, along with many other best winter flowers can provide crucial food sources for pollinators.
When choosing the best winter plants for borders, start with evergreen shrubs and trees, which will add an essential backbone to your garden. 'Many trees and shrubs have brilliant bark or colorful flowers and are at their best in winter,' says James.
Underplant trees with woodland bulbs and hellebores, and consider flowering plants that will add fragrance to enliven the senses.
Although of the same family, violas are distinguishable from pansies as they tend to have smaller flowers, but are often grouped together when looking at the best winter pansies.
'Violas are one of the shortest options – usually between 6-8” tall – so they work well in walkway borders where they can be viewed up close,' says Zolene.
'Alternatively, they can be planted en masse for a dramatic display of color. Violas are also a good candidate for planting over bulbs, as their fibrous roots are not aggressive and easily allow bulb foliage to poke through toward the soil surface,' she adds.
They can also be added to winter hanging basket ideas for colourful displays by entrances.
'Snapdragons offer the widest range of flower colors and heights, as varieties have been bred to come in pastels as well as bright hues, and with flower spikes ranging from 6” to over 3’ tall,' says Zolene.
It is easy to learn how to grow snapdradons and 'these staples of the sunny, cool-season border can tolerate light frost, and are hardy to USDA Zone 7. When freezing temps arrive, plants will benefit from a layer of mulch to protect the growing points on the crown, so growth can resume in spring,' adds Zolene.
'Fibrous (wax) begonias are among the best winter plants that work equally well in borders. Their blooms range from red, pink, and white, and there are varieties with green or deep bronze foliage,' says Zolene.
Plants are intolerant of frost and are only cold hardy in USDA Zones 9-11. Fibrous begonias prefer full sun in most climates, but will benefit from some afternoon shade in warmer locales. Leaf color is more pronounced in full sun.
Make sure you know how to overwinter begonias to keep them looking their best.
4. Viburnum tinus
This glossy evergreen is among the best winter plants. 'It produces fragrant pinkish-white winter flowers, and is easy to grow. It prefers part-shade in clay or moist soils,' explains gardening writer Leigh Clapp.
This is a great choice of flowering shrub to plant in a front yard for visitors to brush past its fragrant blooms on their way in.
5. Daphne bholua
Plant in a sunny, sheltered position and enjoy the heart lifting blooms in the depths of winter.
6. Ornamental cabbage
Unusual but worthy additions to the list of best winter plants are ornamental cabbages and kale.
'They are related to the edible crops of the same name, but have been bred for a compact, rosette habit and showy foliage, ranging from green to purple with white or rosy accents,' explains Zolene.
'Varieties with smooth leaves are often called ornamental cabbage, while those with crinkled leaves and frilly edges are referred to as ornamental kale. Their compact and uniform shape makes them particularly well-suited to creating patterns or tidy border rows.'
Both types perform well in full sun, but will benefit from some late afternoon shade in warmer climates. Leaf color is best when the weather is below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and plants can tolerate temps as low as 5 degrees Fahrenheit.
Whether planted in borders or in drifts beneath trees, milky white snowdrops add a magical air to winter gardens.
'Snowdrops are an absolute must; they lift the spirits like nothing else and remind us of the delights of spring to come,’ says Jonny Norton.
For a long, successional display that lasts from mid winter to spring, choose a few different snowdrop varieties, although you should prioritize the common species Galanthus nivalis. ‘In time it will self-seed and colonize, creating an ever more spectacular snowy carpet,’ adds Norton.
Make sure you know how to plant snowdrops. Planting young snowdrops ‘in the green’, in springtime, is the best way to establish them. But planting the bulbs in the fall is less expensive. ‘For a natural look, cast the bulbs and plant them where they fall,’ says Period Living’s gardens expert Leigh Clapp.
Combine snowdrops with other winter-flowering plants for the best result. ‘Snowdrops mixed with winter aconites and hellebores will create a really beautiful winter sight,’ says Norton.
The common name for the cornus family of plants, dogwoods are hardy deciduous shrubs, and add a dramatic feature to gardens during winter, when their foliage fades to reveal vibrant stems. They are also among the best fast growing shrubs.
‘Dogwoods are really stunning, especially if grown in groups,’ says James. ‘Try Cornus ‘Flaviramea’ for lively yellow-green stems and Cornus ‘Winter Beauty’ for orange-yellow. Those of Cornus ‘Siberica’ are bright scarlet.’
For a stunning contrast with other winter favorites, ‘plant dogwood as an informal hedge and underplant with snowdrops,’ adds Clapp.
Also learn when to prune dogwood trees to keep them looking their best. Dogwood needs coppicing hard in early spring. ‘To encourage vivid color every year, simply prune the shoots back hard to 8-12 inches from the ground,’ says James.
Also known as Christmas roses, hellebores are some of the best winter plants for sheltered gardens with lots of trees, as they need a semi-shaded position.
It's easy to learn how to grow hellebores which are 'highlights of winter gardens – look to the pure white helleborus niger and then the orientalis hybrids, with their many different colors and markings,’ says Norton.
The low-growing plants are also beloved of bees and other pollinating insects, providing much-needed food at this scarce time of year, and they also work well as woodland plants.
‘Hellebores tolerate most soils but do best in rich, moist, free-draining soil, or in raised beds so you can admire the nodding flowers more easily,’ says Clapp.
To maintain hellebores, deadhead the flowers once they have died back in the spring, and in winter remove any dead leaves.
Mahonia makes a fabulous backdrop to other plants in a winter garden, and depending on the variety works at the back of a border or as ground cover. They are good shrubs for shade if you have darker corners of your garden.
As an evergreen shrub, mahonia adds structure and color year round with its pinnate leaves. In winter the plant yields spikes of delightfully fragrant flowers, which provide food for bees. Then these fade in the spring, to be replaced with clusters of deep purple berries in the fall.
‘Mahonia is good in well-drained or moist soils in shade or part-shade,’ says Clapp. ‘Cut back after flowering to keep it to a manageable size.’
Heather is an often underrated plant that plays an important part in winter gardens. ‘It injects color that stands out against the seasonal browns and greys, or the fiery red winter stems contrasting with frosty or snowy backdrops,’ says Clapp.
‘By planting a variety of heathers, you can entice bees into your garden year round, benefit from evergreen ground cover, and enjoy the range of colors of both blooms and foliage through the seasons.’
It’s best to plant heather in the fall or early spring. Many varieties – namely calluna – thrive in acidic soil, while some types – erica – can grow well in neutral to alkaline soil. So it’s important to know what type you have.
Best winter plants for pots
When selecting the best winter plants for pots, bear in mind that most plants grow very little at this time of year.
'Start with good-sized plants and don’t be afraid to cram them in closer than normal for instant impact,' says James.
Perhaps the best thing about growing winter plants in pots is that you can completely control their soil type and position, moving them around the garden to suit.
'Don’t forget to position containers where they’ll get as much light as possible,' adds James.
See our guide on how to plant a winter container for further inspiration.
Part of the viola family, pansies are an icon of winter gardens. ‘They are simply my favorite winter plants for pots. With beautiful and colorful flowers that thrive in cool temperatures, you will have a cheerful display during the winter,’ says Codey Stout, head operations manager at TreeTriage.
Pansies will flower in mild spells right through to early spring. ‘Plant them en masse in containers with other traditional favourites, such as cyclamen, violas, polyanthus and primrose, to maximize the effect,’ adds James.
Plant established seedlings in pots in the fall, and they will be thriving by the time winter arrives.
‘Ideally, put your pots of pansies where they can get the morning sunlight, then move them to the shade to avoid the heat in the afternoon,’ says Stout.
'They are tolerant of frost and can bloom through the winter down to Zone 8. Plants are hardy to Zone 6, and if care is taken to protect the crowns from freezing – by covering with a layer of mulch – these resilient little plants will happily resume blooming as the soil warms in spring,' adds Zolene.
Cyclamen are wonderful for providing cheer in the garden at the bleakest time of year, with blooms of white, pink or red. They are also among the best Christmas plants.
While they can naturalize in the ground, they work beautifully in pots and hanging baskets, and can even be used as part of winter houseplant displays.
Cyclamen coum is a particular favourite of plantswoman Sarah Raven: ‘It’s almost as lovely in leaf through the fall as it is in flower in early spring,’ she says.
‘Along with early snowdrops and aconites, the miniature flowers can’t help but lift winter-dampened spirits, and the three together, cut and arranged in a small glass, is cheer-giving.’
Plant young cyclamen in the fall, or as tubers for flowering the following year. Position pots in a sheltered site, protected from heavy rain, and deadhead spent blooms to prolong flowering.
'They are intolerant of wet feet, so ensure the planting site has excellent drainage or plant in containers. Cyclamen prefer part sun – morning is best – to bright shade. Some varieties have variegated foliage and others are lightly fragrant,' adds Zolene Quindoy of Yardzen.
Winter-flowering primroses are brilliant at brightening up those dull corners in the garden, as they thrive in part-shade. 'Primroses add light to dark areas in tones of white, yellow, cream, pinks,' says Clapp.
They are perennials that are well equipped to survive harsh winters, and will continue to multiply year after year.
Primroses should ideally be planted in early fall – choose two or three varieties for a successional bloom that lasts from late fall to early spring. Some varieties, such as Everlast, will flower for as long as six months.
The plants don’t like to sit in water, so make sure you choose a well-draining potting mix when planting primroses in containers.
With their fabulously flamboyant flowers, winter camellias are one of the first blooms to break through in later winter or early spring, and grow very well in pots. However, if you want them to flower even earlier, opt for Camellia sasanqua varieties, which bloom through fall and winter.
Find out how to grow camellias. The plants prefer well-drained acidic soil, and are best planted in the fall, so they can establish their roots before the frosts set in.
You will need to pot camellias in fresh potting mix on every 2-3 years, once they have outgrown their containers. Position them in a partially shaded spot, as they can struggle in full sun.
It's also important to know how to prune camellias to get the best out of these delightful plants.
5. Winter aconites
Originating from shady woodlands, winter aconites add a cheery dose of sunshine on the darkest of days, flowering in January and February. Their shallow roots make them perfect for pots, and they require minimal attention.
Plant in moist but well-draining soil, and position the pot in a partially shaded spot. Like snowdrops, they are best planted ‘in the green’, just after flowering, but you can alternatively plant bulbs in the fall.
Are there any plants that flower in winter?
There is a long list of plants that flower in winter. The best winter plants include flowering shrubs, bulbs and annuals. with myriad choices for borders or pots.
Among the flowering shrubs, in addition to those listed above, are Hamamelis ‘Aphrodite’, Sarcococca confusa and Skimmia japonica, while other winter flowers include winter clematis, crocus, heuchera and many more.
What plants can you put in pots for winter?
There are many plants that work well in pots for winter adding much needed color to patios and terraces, among them winter pansies, violas, cyclamen, ornamental cabbages and snowdrops, to name but a few.
'Some spring bulbs can be planted in containers and made to bloom indoors during winter. This method is called “forcing” and it requires pre-chilling the bulbs for a designated amount of time in order to simulate the natural dormancy period – which varies by bulb type,' adds Zolene.
'When the pre-chilled bulbs are planted and moved indoors, the bulbs respond to the warmer temperature as if it were spring, and the bulbs sprout and bloom outside their normal bloom time. Suitable bulbs for forcing include amaryllis, which once planted take 6-8 weeks to bloom; narcissus – paperwhites and daffodils – tulips, and hyacinth. The latter are highly-fragrant and just a few bulbs can perfume an entire room.'
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As editor of Period Living, Britain's best-selling period homes magazine, Melanie loves the charm of older properties. I live in a rural village just outside the Cotswolds in England, so am lucky to be surrounded by beautiful homes and countryside, where I enjoy exploring. Having worked in the industry for almost two decades, Melanie is interested in all aspects of homes and gardens. Her previous roles include working on Real Homes and Homebuilding & Renovating, and she has also contributed to Gardening Etc. She has an English degree and has also studied interior design. Melanie frequently writes for Homes & Gardens about property restoration and gardening.
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