Laidback Gardener Tip of the Day

Decorate Flower Boxes for the Winter

20151109ANothing says more clearly “it’s fall and I’m depressed” than a flower box emptied of its annuals sadly awaiting the first snows of winter. Yet it is so easy to convert that empty summer flower box into a winter decoration that will add punch to your winter landscape. Just use your imagination!

Ideally, your box would still in place, emptied of its plants but filled with potting soil, because soil will act as a support for decorations you’ll be adding. Here’s what to do.

The Harvesting Expedition

Take a tour of your yard or, with permission, a neighbor’s, seeking bits and pieces of nature’s beauty to use in decorating your flower box. You’ll need pruning shears and a basket or large bag in which to gather your findings.

20151109CWhat should you harvest? Whatever you like! Evergreens are classics: conifer branches (spruce, cedar or pine), stems of euonymous, holly and other evergreen shrubs, etc. All will keep their color through winter if you harvest them late in the fall. Don’t forget trees, shrubs and climbers with persistent fruits and berries: winterberry, cranberrybush viburnum, bittersweet, certain crabapples, etc. And the colorful branches of dogwoods and certain willows with bark in shades of red, orange or yellow… or spray paint other leafless branches in the colors of your choice. Conifer cones are also attractive, especially the larger ones, not to mention the stems, leaves and flowers of ornamental grasses as well as dried hydrangea flowers. For extra pizzazz, add the twisting stems of corkscrew willows or Harry Lauder’s walking stick (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’).

Go easy as you harvest, though, especially with shrubs, trees, and conifers: you don’t want to remove the branches that will be needed on the plant next summer. Fortunately it is usually easy to find secondary stems or branches somewhat hidden from view that won’t show if you prune them off.

What About Adding Plants?

20151109FI hesitate to recommend including plants in your winter flower box, unless you live in a mild climate, because even hardy plants often don’t make it through the winter in containers, especially when they were freshly planted in the fall. After all, the soil in a pot freezes much more thoroughly than soil in the ground. The secret is to use extra hardy varieties, ones adapted to colder climates than yours. If you live in zone 5, for example, avoid plants labelled zone 5, but it shouldn’t be too hard to a few that are hardy a zone or two colder. Look for plants with evergreen foliage: miniature conifers, sedums, and dwarf periwinkle (Vinca minor) are examples of fairly hardy additions you could use.

In milder climates (zones 7 and above), this is less of a problem. Try heucheras, English ivy, hen-and-chicks, etc. In a mild climate, even a few extra-hardy annuals may make it through the winter in a flower box: ornamental cabbages and pansies, for example, are easily hardy in zone 7.

Raiding the Attic

Of course, you can limit yourself entirely to “natural ingredients” found in your yard, but you can also raid your stock of Christmas decorations for red or white ribbons, strings of lights, Xmas balls, and other ornaments. There are no rules when it comes to decorating a flower box!

Decorate to Your Heart’s Content

How you organize your arrangement is entirely up to you: just let your imagination run wild!

20151109BYou can stick stems upright in the soil of the flower box, use them to create a dense groundcover or have them lean or even drip over the sides. A bit of florist wire can be useful to fix pinecones and other stemless finds so they won’t blow away.

True enough, sometimes birds come in midwinter to feast on the berries you used… but if the flower box is located right in front of your window, as it usually is, that can actually be be a good thing, as you’ll be able to enjoy watching them from only inches away.

I’m sure you’ll be more than satisfied with how your arrangements look when you finish, but the arrival of a little snow will make them even more attractive. Make sure you take a few photos of the display to brag about on Facebook!

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

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