Your Guide to Winter Container Gardening

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Though winter is often viewed as an off-season for gardening, those of us who love to get our hands dirty aren’t stuck twiddling our green thumbs until the spring thaw. Container gardening is a great way to stay busy when it’s cold out! There are lots of things you can plant in your pots year-round, so there’s no need to give up once the temperatures drop.

The Basics

Many people think of container gardening as a spring and summer activity, but there’s no reason it can’t be extended into fall and winter. If you choose cold-hardy plants that are able to withstand the weather conditions in your area, winter container gardening is possible in many gardening zones.

Start by determining which of the USDA hardiness zones you live in. Though zones 7 through 10 will provide conditions far more suited to container gardening than their colder cohorts, almost every area offers some possibilities. Since plants in containers are more vulnerable to cold than plants in the ground, the general rule for winter container gardening is to choose plants that are hardy to at least two zones colder than your own. Of course, this isn’t completely ironclad, as many trees, shrubs and perennials that are hardy in your zone can live (and even thrive) in containers throughout the entire cold season.

When choosing soil for your containers, you need something loose — avoid using regular dirt. Instead, choose a “soilless” soil mix designed specifically for container gardening. Place rocks or pebbles in the bottom of the container to ensure proper drainage. A quick note: Make sure you place large containers where you want them before you fill them with soil. They may end up too heavy to move once filled. Trust me, I’ve learned that lesson from experience.

The Containers

Selecting the right container for winter gardening isn’t quite as easy as choosing those for use in the warmer seasons. The best containers need to be made of heavy-duty plastic or resin, with a drainage hole and feet to keep it elevated. This will prevent them from freezing to the ground (which can break even the toughest of pots).

Avoid stone, cement and terra-cotta planters, as water will find its way into their porous surfaces, cycle through freezing and thawing, and crack your beautiful pot. Decorative glazed ceramic should also be moved indoors.

The Plants

Though our minds tend to go straight to evergreen shrubs, there are a surprisingly large number of plants that lend themselves to winter container gardening. Here’s just a small sampling to consider:

  • Alumroot (Heuchera)
  • Bee Balm (Monarda)
  • Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans)
  • Eastern Teaberry (Gaultheria procumbens)
  • False Cypress (Chamaecyparis)
  • Golden Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’)
  • Japanese Andromeda (Pieris japonica)
  • Japanese Sedge (Carex morrowii)
  • Japanese Yew (Taxus cuspidata)
  • Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
  • Red-twig dogwood (Cornus sericea)
  • Rubella (Skimmia japonica)
  • Sacred Bamboo (Nandina domestica)
  • Small Soapweed (Yucca glauca)
  • Super Blue Liriope (Liriope muscari)
  • Tasteless Stonecrop (Sedum sexangulare)
  • Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)

Bugleweed is one plant that can work in the winter. Photo: Adobe Stock

For more information on which plants will best handle the winter conditions in your area, ask the staff at your local garden center. Be sure to mention that you will be planting in containers.

You’ll want to establish your plants early enough in the season that they have time to acclimate to their pots before the first hard freeze. Plants in containers need far less water during the winter than they do during the summer. If your container is in an open area where rain or snowfall can water it, you can let nature take care of the watering. Otherwise, water sparingly with a can you keep indoors (to keep it from freezing and breaking).

Move It Indoors

If you’re not really into the idea of putting on snow boots to check on your plants, you may want to consider planting an indoor winter container garden. It doesn’t have to be complicated — no need to build a full-size greenhouse — all it takes is a simple combination of artificial lights with higher indoor temperatures to produce a lovely harvest in your attic, basement or spare room.

Choose your space, set up your grow lights and assemble your pots. One of the best things about container gardening is that you don’t have to worry about spacing your plants! You can place the pots side by side, touching one another. If you’d like to increase how much growing you can do per square foot, install a few shelves! There are some great winter veggies you can grow indoors, including (but not limited to):

  • Swiss Chard
  • Broccoli
  • Kale
  • Lettuce
  • Cabbage

And, of course, there’s always the option of a windowsill herb garden! Nothing like some fresh rosemary, basil or mint to spice up your cooking!

Start your leafy crops in the summer and allow them to mature. This makes it so they don’t need as much sunlight once they’re indoors (and the winter sun is spotty at best). They’ll be able to make do with what light is available until you’re ready to harvest.

Soaking them once a week or so is usually enough; check the moisture level in the soil more often than that, just in case. If the soil is dry, water immediately. In order to protect your floors, countertops, shelves and other hard surfaces, be sure to put saucers under the pots.

Don’t let winter keep you from getting your gardening fix. A strong container, some hardy plants and a little bit of imagination will not only provide some much-needed color to the dreary winter landscape, it will also bring a bit of cheer to even the grumpiest of grinches. Happy container gardening!

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Liz Greene

Liz Greene

Liz Greene is an animal-loving, makeup-obsessing pop culture geek from the beautiful City of Trees, Boise, Idaho. You can catch her latest makeup misadventures on her blog, Three Broke Bunnies.
Liz Greene