By Fiona Cumberpatch published
Bright summer blooms inevitably fade as the seasons shift. But, the best winter plants for pots will keep the spirits lifted and the garden looking beautiful, despite colder temperatures and darker evenings.
There are plenty of stunning winter garden ideas that will bring a smile to your face on frosty days. But one of the best ways to brighten up an outdoor space is to plant some gorgeous containers. With flowerbeds and borders looking a little bare over the coldest season, using pots is a great way to ensure there is still plenty of interest in your yard during the months ahead. Of course, many winter-flowering plants will provide vital nectar for foraging wildlife too – even more reason for introducing them to your plot.
To give you lots of inspiration, we've rounded up our favorite winter plants you can use in your pots for a stunning display.
Create stunning looks for cold-season containers with the best winter plants for pots
Want to ensure your winter container gardening ideas are packed with color, scent and interest throughout the colder weather? Our edit of the best winter plants for pots is the perfect place to start.
1. Winter irises
With their elegant structure and jewel-like tones, irises will brighten any patio or doorstep when winter rolls around. The team at Amateur Gardening suggest 'Harmony' – a stunning bloom with rich purple-blue flowers and a golden band on the fall, which flowers between January and February.
For something a little different, opt for the ice-white 'Frozen Planet', which has pale-blue-tipped petals and will bloom all the way from January to March. 'Pauline' is another beautiful choice, offering a sophisticated shade of plum.
Plant the bulbs in fall in well-drained soil, and for best results, position the containers in full sun. Each plant will grow to around 6in (15cm), depending on variety. There are lots more tips on how to grow winter iris in our dedicated guide.
2. Winter aconites
The sun-yellow flowers of winter aconites cheer us in January and February, says the Amateur Gardening team. 'After flowering, plant them out in humus-rich moisture-retentive soil in semi-shade, where they will naturalize.'
They don't grow too tall – only around 4in (10cm). Try planting up a cluster of smaller pots for an instant uplift, or dot the bulbs around the perimeter of a larger container. Pollinators adore these buttercup-like blooms, so they're perfect if you're looking for winter wildlife garden ideas.
3. Early crocuses
In shades of yellow, lilac, deep purple and frosty white, early crocuses are well-loved winter plants that are perfect for pots.
Try 'Pickwick', a larger variety with white goblet flowers and purple veining, which will bloom in February in milder regions. RHS-award-winning 'Blue Pearl' is another favorite with its silvery-lilac petals and deep yellow throats, or try 'Snow Bunting' for white, star-shaped blooms with sunshine-yellow centers. If you love a deeper purple hue, then opt for 'Whitewell Purple', as shown above.
They like well-drained containers positioned in the sun (they won't flower in shade). After flowering, plant them out in a sunny patch of a border or lawn, where they will form clumps over time.
You can learn more about how to grow crocus bulbs with our guide.
Coral bells, otherwise known as heucheras, have pretty flower spikes in summer. However, the frilly, semi-evergreen foliage in a wide range of colors makes it a good pick for winter container planting too, especially in regions where temperatures don't drop too low.
Amateur Gardening suggests 'Marmalade' as a variety to try, with its caramel and pink leaves to warm the winter scene. To set a moody, dramatic tone, opt for 'Black Pearl', whilst 'Sugar Frosting' as shown above looks gorgeously festive against ruby-red viola 'Rose Blotch'.
Plant them in moist, well-drained pots in sun or semi-shade. You can find more of the best plants for winter color in our guide.
5. Pansies and violas
Create a container of pansies and you are guaranteed a cheering display all through autumn, winter and into early spring. These bedding plants are one of the best plants for beginners if you follow a few simple rules. Choose plants which are labelled as 'winter-flowering' to guarantee they will thrive in colder weather.
Plant them out at the start of autumn (before the end of September), so they form buds before the frosts arrive. Plant in multi-purpose compost with a handful of grit to aid drainage. In dry spells, or if there is an Indian summer, make sure the compost is moist to touch – plants can still dry out and die in the colder months.
Pack the container with plants for a full display. Deadheading flowers regularly will encourage repeat blooming. For extra impact, opt for one color, rather than a mix of shades – try 'Swiss Giant Orange' for a blaze of gold, or 'Coolwave Raspberry' for a cushion of velvety plum.
Whether it is a shade of white or dark pink, heather is one of the best winter plants for pots as it brings delicate beauty to your displays. It also makes a good bee-friendly plant.
Heathers only thrive in acid soil, so buy a bag of ericaceous compost. Add a 1–2in (2.5–5cm) layer of grit at the base of the container first, as they do not like to have soggy roots. Grow them in a sunny spot, or partial shade.
Good choices for winter flowering varieties are E. carnea 'Springwood White', which has trailing stems, and E. carnea 'Springwood Pink' for a bright pop of color.
7. Foliage plants
Winter containers don't have to feature flowers: there is a fantastic choice of instant foliage plants available from garden centers or via mail order. Opt for pale, silvery colors with interestingly-shaped leaves such as calocephalus, which has been added to this planter above.
You could also go for the downy leaves of dusty miller (Senecio cineraria) or try the frivolous, frilly leaves of ornamental kale such as 'Northern Lights', which intensifies in color as temperatures plummet.
A mix of foliage plants in similar tones looks stunning in the same pot. Soften the edges with an easy-to-grow evergreen trailing ivy such as 'White Wonder'.
The Christmas rose, or hellebore, adds a touch of romanticism in the bleaker months. They come in a subtle rainbow of colors, from pure white and dusty pink to apricot and rich purple and they can cope with cold conditions, including frost and snow.
Hellebores are mainly evergreen, flowering in January and continuing to early spring. They can be combined with other plants in the same pot, but a simple container of one color will create maximum impact.
Plant them in a multi-purpose compost in a container, deep enough to fit with the top of the existing compost level. Water well and place in a shady spot.
You can find out more on how to grow hellebores in our guide.
9. Scented plants
Although we associate scented plants with warm summer days, there are some cold-weather heroes which are perfect for placing by the porch for a blast of fragrance in winter sunshine.
Sweet box, or Sarcocca confusa, is a brilliant option for the best winter plants for pots. It has a profusion of tiny, spidery, white flowers on glossy evergreen leaves in the winter, which turn into black berries over summer. It's an easy-care plant, with no pruning needed. Just remove any dead sprigs in late spring. For best results, plant in John Innes No.3 compost, and make sure that the soil is kept moist.
For a beautiful citrus scent in a pot, try winter-flowering honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) which has creamy-colored flowers on semi-bare branches from January. Plant in a large container for the best results. There are more tips on how to grow honeysuckle in our guide.
10. Japanese skimmia
Bright berries add a splash of welcome color to any winter garden ideas, and when paired with glossy, evergreen foliage, the display can be stunning. Japanese skimmia has domes of neat evergreen foliage, and the female plants are topped with bright red berries through December and into January.
Buy a female plant and pair it with a male, such as 'Kew Green' or 'Rubella', to ensure the presence of berries. The shrubs prefer partial shade, and they will cheer up a dark spot.
Our feature on the best evergreens for your garden has more inspiration.
They may need a bit of extra TLC, but it's worth learning how to grow camellias for the spectacle of showy flowers lighting up the patio in late winter. Camellias come in shades of pink, red and white, with open flowers contrasting with their evergreen foliage.
They're ideal for growing in pots to add some winter interest to your patio gardening ideas. But, they do need to be planted in well-drained ericaceous (acid) soil, and if possible, they should be watered with rainwater from a water butt.
Put them in a sheltered spot near the house, and protect early buds from frost with horticultural fleece. Prune after they have flowered, and keep them well-watered through spring and summer, as this is when the buds are forming. It's definitely worth the effort, as they will reward you with a stunning display in late winter and early spring.
12. Festuca glauca
Ornamental grasses fit beautifully into a modern garden, but some of them are perennials which die back in the winter. Add a few pots of tasteful blue fescue (Festuca glauca), however, and you get a lot more bang for your buck with a year-round display of texture and a soft blue-green color.
The spiky hummocks of foliage look particularly good in galvanized zinc containers. They need moist, well-drained soil, so add a handful of grit to the compost when planting.
The grasses might benefit from being divided every three years to stop them looking shabby. With a sparkling coat of frost, they will bring pleasure to the coldest days.
The flag-like flowers of cyclamen offer tons of beauty during the winter months. And, whether you prefer a hot splash of lipstick pink or a more ethereal palette of white for your garden color scheme, there's a flower to suit.
The ones on sale in supermarkets tend to be tender, indoor cyclamen. So, make sure you choose a hardy variety called Cyclamen coum or Cyclamen hederifolium if you're after the best plants for winter pots. Plant them at the same depth as the pots you buy them in and avoid letting the containers becoming waterlogged, as this will damage the roots.
They can be bought as bulbs, but for a quick solution, ready-grown plants are inexpensive and create an instant uplift.
They're among the first flowers to nose through the ground in January and February, and a pot or two of snowdrops delivers a welcome boost to wintry gardens.
Snowdrop bulbs can be planted in the autumn, or they may be grown 'in the green' (with their leaves still attached) in March or April for flowering the following winter. They are happiest when growing in the ground in a shady garden border or raised bed – those grown in containers will need repotting every year.
Don't forget about the greater snowdrop too (Galanthus elwesii) – it has large, honey-scented white flowers above glaucous leaves in January and February.
You can find out more tips on planting bulbs in our dedicated guide.
What plants are good for winter pots in shade?
Even a garden which doesn't get much sun can be brightened with a container, providing you choose the right type of plants. Try these three winter varieties:
- Skimmia japonica 'Obsession': This evergreen shrub, growing to 31.5in (80cm), has red berries in fall and winter and scented spring blooms. It grows best in moist, well-drained pots of regular or ericaceous compost in sheltered shade or semi-shade.
- Mahonia x media ‘Charity’: An evergreen shrub, 13ft (4m) in height, this plant has architectural foliage and yellow flowers that exude a beautiful scent in winter. After flowering, plant it out in humus-rich soil in shade or semi-shade.
- Hedera helix ‘Buttercup’: This slow-growing trailing ivy has lime-green and lemon-yellow leaves when positioned in a shady spot, or bolder yellow leaves in sun. Avoid overcrowding, and plant in well-drained soil.
There are plenty more suggestions to brighten up a gloomy garden in our shade garden ideas guide.
How often do you need to water winter pots?
True, summer is peak time for watering. But your containers will still need some attention with the watering can from time to time in winter, especially after sunny or windy weather.
The RHS explains how conifers and other evergreens should be checked at least weekly and watered if necessary, especially if they are under cover. However, avoid watering if frost is forecasted.
It's important to ensure that your containers have good drainage. Allowing plants to sit in cold, waterlogged soil will do them no good at all.
How do you plant a winter container?
Planting up a winter container is super simple – just follow Amateur Gardening's tips below:
- Use a pot with good drainage. If there is one large hole in the base, add pieces of broken pot to the bottom to prevent compost washing out.
- Use a multi-purpose organic compost or, if the plants are going to stay in the container for a long time, opt for John Innes No 3.
- In a winter pot, plants can be placed closer together than in a summer container display, as they grow more slowly in the cold.
Our feature on how to plant a winter container has more in-depth advice on creating a gorgeous outdoor display.
An experienced freelance journalist, editor and columnist writing for national magazines and websites, Fiona now specialises in gardens. She enjoys finding and writing about all kinds, from the tiniest town plots to impressively designed ones in grand country houses. She's a firm believer that gardening is for everyone, and it doesn’t matter if you have a single window ledge or an acre, there’s always peace and joy to be found outside. The small town garden of her Edwardian terraced house is currently a work in progress as she renovates the property, but her goal is always to fill it with flowers, climbers, colour, fragrance – and as many of her treasured vintage finds as she can possibly fit in.
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