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Winter Containers

by Rhoda Maurer, Greenhouse & Grounds Manager


No doubt, spring, summer and fall are spectacular in the Finger Lakes.  But the winter months are often a time that brings to mind some of the most profound small pleasures.  In the bleakness of the winter landscape, discovering a flowering shrub or a perennial that still has foliage glistening in the morning frost brings a feeling of hope and lightheartedness.  Carefully chosen containers planted for winter interest offer us a chance to brighten up entrances or frequently viewed areas of the garden in the stark days of winter.  This past week, the Greenhouse & Grounds Crew started planting the large white containers on campus for the winter season.  Jordan Hall and B&P containers are finished while we are waiting on a donation from Larry Smart’s willow program to finish the containers at Barton Lab.

one of the two containers at Jordan Hall

Environmental conditions will influence both the container materials and plant palette from which you choose.  Concrete, metal, lead, or fiberglass composite containers weather best.  Terra cotta often breaks from effects of temperature fluctuations and some plastics become brittle in cold temperatures due to degradation from UV light exposure.  Many parts of a plant are affected by winter conditions.  Roots are exposed to the freezing and thawing of the media within the container; generally, the larger the container the better the insulation from low temperatures.  Above soil level, branches, leaves, flowers, berries and buds experience drying winter winds, scalding rays of the sun on a bright winter’s day and air temperature extremes.  Therefore, plant selection based upon a zone or two hardier than the one for our growing area helps to ensure adequate hardiness for winter container culture.

Adequate drainage is required in winter containers along with good water retention.  It will be necessary to monitor water requirements and water as necessary.  Plants still transpire even if they are not actively growing; this will be especially true of broad-leaf or needled evergreens on a windy day.

In winter, our local landscape becomes simplified in color and forms prevail.  Designing winter containers with this concept in mind can assist you in either integrating them into the garden or making them a dominant feature.  Unusual forms as that of Harry Lauder’s walking stick (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’) or corkscrew willow (Salix matsudona ‘Torulosa’) will make a dramatic statement about form.  The colorful stems of many shrubby dogwood or willow cultivars will make a colorful addition to any container.  As a point of technique, you can place cut branches from Cornus sericea ‘Cardinal’, C. sericea ‘Silver and Gold’ and many other shrubby dogwoods  in containers after planting the under planting to create the “effect” of a shrub surrounded by groundcover.  The branches remain turgid and colorful throughout the winter months and only start to desiccate after the temperatures begin climbing in spring.

Gardening at this time of year heightens one’s appreciation for simple beauty and a respect for the perseverance of plants in a harsh environment.  Walking by a fragrant flowering shrub, noticing the way the light on a winter’s day plays with snow covered berries, or catching a glimpse of bright color from the stems of a dogwood certainly lifts the spirit.  With careful planning containers can add significant pleasure to the winter garden.  I hope you enjoy what we’ve created for you.


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