Maria von BrinckenArranging foliage in pots for winter color

Here in New England, our gardens and entries can get pretty bleary as December slides into the Winter Solstice. We know that the March Equinox is a long psychological distance until we might see some color in the landscape. In my garden it’s the early blooming Witch Hazel (Hamamelis) often in February.

Ilex verticillata ‘Sprite’

Ilex verticillata ‘Sprite’

For weeks now, intent on noticing any color in the landscape I’ve been eyeing the scarlet masses of the wild winter-berry (Ilex verticillata) along forest edges and roadsides. But its not always enough for me. The conifer and broad-leaf evergreens that I’ve paired for my winter garden add to my visual needs. But its the act and completion of arranging my containers with greens and sticks that gives me joy.

The arrangements start in late October-early November when the  hard frosts kills the last of the fall and summer annuals. I place rhododendron boughs in them at that time—using the opportunity to carefully prune and shape the larger growing varieties like R. catawbiense,  maximum,  or  PJM. I’ll use Pieris, Laurel, Hollies, Leucothoe, Juniper, Blue Spruce, Yew, or Daphne—it depends on what needs shaping in my small garden.

Before: The containers with only the Rhododendron foliage.

Before: The containers with only the Rhododendron foliage.

The trick to having the branches last is fresh cuts immediately plunged into wet soil. Then watering the containers regularly to keep the greens fresh. (Yes, in November!) It s been a very dry fall here and I wasn’t as diligent as I might have been and some of the boughs dried up and had to be composted. Often, fall rains do the job for me.

After The completed arrangement with White Pine, Fir, Rhododendron, and Red Winterberry

After The completed arrangement with White Pine, Fir, Rhododendron, and Red Winterberry

This morning’s pause between rain storms gave me the opportunity to make the arrangements. I selectively pruned and shaped conifers—fir, white pine, and broadleaf evergreens r. PJM and catawbiense. I use winterberry as I love red at this time of year. I feel connected to ancient pagan celebrations using reds and greens to celebrate coming winter Solstice.

Harvesting/Pruning/Shaping Tips: Here’s the method I recommend to shape the broadleaf evergreens and cull boughs for the winter container arrangement. Select the oldest branches–a maximum of three. Using loppers or a Japanese pruning saw make the cut close to the ground. The plant will grow new leafy branches that will create a robust and healthy looking shape. Cut off the branches from the bough to make pieces about a 2 to 3′ long. You need to plunge the bottom of the branch into the soil about 6″ deep so that heavy winds won’t blow them away.
Note: Best is to limit the kinds of foliage. For example, three different foliage (i.e. white pine, fir, and rhododendron are plenty) and one berried works great. Too many kinds of foliage can ruin the arrangements.

After the first snow!

After the first snow!

Creating the Arrangement Tips: If the container is frozen, pour very hot or boiling water in it to thaw. I do that and let the water do its work while I prune. Easier, if you can make the arrangements on a day when the containers are not frozen. That’s why I was so gleeful yesterday–as its been freezing every night and day for a couple of weeks. Finally, a day when I had an hour and the day was at 50 degrees. Also, I knew that the temps were predicted to plunge back to below freezing the next day.

Before: My winter view from my office design studio

Before: My winter view from my office design studio

Similar to flower arranging, use squares and triangles when you make your arrangement. That means: use 4 or 3 branches of the same material in that shape. For example: start with 4 branches of a conifer, place them in the container in 4 points that would make a square (but angle them–the branches are not vertical to the container). Then add 4 broad-leaf evergreen branches in a square pattern at different heights and a different positions. Then add 3 different foliage. Then add 5 berry branches so you have middle coverage of the color. Step back every so often and look at it for balance of texture, heights, and color. Check out all the views of it. Sometimes you have to play with it if you are new to creating arrangements.

After: My Studio View will cheer me all winter

After: My Studio View will cheer me all winter

If you don’t grow these plants or they aren’t large enough to take a little from this or that—garden centers sell bundles of all kinds of exotic and native evergreens and colorful native branches. If you are good at shaping, then you might ask a neighbor if you can shape their plants and use the trimmings in your containers. They might like some too.

A colorful welcome outside my front door. The pots of ornamental kale add a note of color

A colorful welcome outside my front door. The pots of ornamental kale add a note of color

You can see by the photos the transformation! I’ve made arrangements in the containers that I see from my office computer, from my family room, and entry gardens. These arrangements create a lovely winter view and hold til March.

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Maria von Brincken

About Maria von Brincken

Award-winning landscape designer, garden journalist and lecturer, certified practising designer with the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD), former contributing editor to Landshapes magazine. Sudbury, Massachusetts. Read Maria's full blog at A Garden Maker's Notes

3 thoughts on “Arranging foliage in pots for winter color

  1. Maria, as always, you have an unerring eye for arranging things. My attempts, I suspect, would look more like your friendly local raccoon has had a go.

  2. What a stylish eye you have , Maria. Love your ideas – but hate your temperatures!

    • Thank you! I hate the temperatures too especially when the Polar Votex has its way!

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