Now’s the time to smarten up window boxes for the winter season. Here’s how.
Make a plan
A visit to your local garden centre is a great way to get inspiration, but do some planning first. Measure your container for a rough idea of how many plants to buy. And think about the style and colour of your house – exterior and interior – you might fall for an orange plant, but will it clash from inside your sitting room?
Thrillers, spillers, fillers
You could block plant a simple row of white cyclamen or dusky pink heather– contemporary and stylish. But for more variety, it’s useful to think ‘thrillers’, tall evergreen plants for structure, ‘spillers’ like ivy to trail down containers and ‘fillers’, for the gaps.
Compact evergreen shrubs such as pretty small-leaved hebes make good structural ‘thrillers’ as does Skimmia x confusa ‘Kew Green’ – go for symmetry here, one or three. For something bright and cheerful Skimmia japonica ‘Nymans’ has jolly red berries, Gaultheria Procumbens pink ones and Solanum Capsicastrum has cheery orange fruit like tiny clementines. Silvery Calocephalus brownii (Silver Bush) works well too. Evergreen ferns such as asplenium (hart’s tongue) or ornamental grasses such as coppery Anemanthele lessoniana (Pheasant’s grass) or Carex testacea provide interesting form and leaf texture.
As an alternative to classic ivy, a nice ‘spiller’ is Muehlenbeckia complexa – maidenhair vine, with an abundance of springy burgundy stems lined with fresh green round leaves. Otherwise soft silvery leaved Helichrysum petiolare looks good with whites purples and pinks and vinca minor (periwinkle) will have the added bonus of spring flowers.
If you want colour, use fillers such as winter flowering viola or pansies – which come in everything from dark purple to orange and will keep flowering through the winter if deadheaded. Dusky pink or white hellebores such as Heleborus niger look great and I love the silvery foliage of H. ‘Silver Dollar’. For bigger containers heucheras, with their large handsome evergreen leaves in everything from rich plum to lime or orange brighten up a winter day. The dramatic purple variety ‘Obsidian’ complements cool steely blue Festuca glauca for a smart window box combo. And for a spring surprise, underplant the whole box with bulbs such as dainty Iris reticulate, crocus, daffodils an muscari.
As a rule, restricting your colours to two or three will avoid your planter looking like a fruit salad as a design teacher once described it. The same goes for plant varieties – ideally go for plants that have similarities, adding an element of contrast for interest. But whether you’re drawn to a simple colour scheme of white and green or something more exuberant, it’s all a matter of personal choice. The best way of getting combinations you like is to put them together at the garden centre and keep changing them until you’re happy. After all, it’s only temporary, so you can afford to be a bit experimental.
When you get your plants home, it’s a good idea to empty old compost and start again. Cover drainage holes with broken terracotta pots or grit. Arrange the plants and fill the gaps with potting compost – adding grit if the plants need good drainage, firm down and water.