GRACE HENSLEY IS a garden coach specializing in container design (Fashionplants.com). Hensley knows the power of planting and styling an entry (or a patio, or balcony, or pool deck) to create a botanical welcome. We might not be greeting many visitors these days, but do it for the UPS driver, the nice person who delivers your meals or the postal carrier. Do it for you.
Go generous. Hensley advises selecting containers as big as space (and budget) allows. “Even if it’s plastic,” she says. “You can always hide plastic containers in a basket or slip them into silver pails from the hardware store.” Or invest in terra-cotta or ceramic containers that will last for years and years. Big containers hold more plants (yay!), and the greater volume of soil will not suffer temperature fluctuations the way smaller pots do — especially important when conditions get icy. Large pots are also easier to keep watered (yes; you have to water in winter, unless your container is exposed to the elements and gets plenty of rain).
Think in multiples. Hensley cites design influence from Scandinavian and English designers known for staging displays composed of multiple pots, each planted up with a single plant or multiples of a single plant. This type of mono planting is a good design approach for beginning gardeners. “It’s really easy to change things up by swapping pots instead of tearing the whole planted display apart,” says Hensley. Working with a grouping of pots is also a good tactic when styling compact outdoor spaces where oversized pots would crowd.
Find your anchor: Whether she’s planting a single mixed container or assembling an assortment of pots, Hensley starts by choosing a shrub with multiple seasons of interest to anchor the rest of the finished composition. Favorites include alpine conifers with striking winter color, and broad-leaved evergreens with interesting foliage and form. While Hensley has her list of go-to plants, she advises browsing the nursery for whatever catches your eye — it might be the glowing upright stems of yellow twig dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Flaviramea’), a fine textured pine (Pinus strobus ‘Blue Shag’) or the variegated foliage of Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’.
Complement and contrast. Once you’ve chosen your anchor plant, it’s time to play off its strengths. Complement strong verticals, like twig dogwood or columnar conifers, with rounded forms. Look closely for hidden colors in plant stems and foliage variegation. Now introduce perennials with winter presence that echo those hues. Colorful euphorbia, heuchera, winter-blooming hellebores and heathers are go-to selections for fall and winter containers. “Shop for what looks good at the nursery,” Hensley reminds. “And don’t overlook edibles, like chard, evergreen herbs and kale.”
Finish strong. Hensley packs plants into fall and winter containers more fully than other seasonal plantings because very little growing goes on during these dark months of the year. “Pansies are charming and prolific winter workhorses,” she says. “And I always like a little splash of white to make things pop.” She’s even been known to include a florist cyclamen, still in its nursery pot, for a temporary flash of color.