Here are seven potted plants you can reuse when the ground thaws.
Container arrangements are most interesting when they feature plants of varying heights, built around a centerpiece such as a red twig dogwood. These hardy, medium-sized shrubs reveal purple branches after their leaves fall. The Sibirica cultivar offers bright red branches while Aurea surprises with sunny yellow leaves on blood-colored branches. If space is an issue and you need a dwarf variety, try Kelsey, whose leaves turn rusty brown. Probably the best feature of redtwig dogwoods is that most are hardy to zone 2.
In spring, plant these shrubs in partial shade where they can either be watered regularly or remain consistently moist. They spread via underground channels, which can be handy if you want to grow a hedge. Otherwise, prune at the base every two years to maintain the shape you want. Although they will stand out against a fence or wall, remember to plant them beyond the eaves of a house to ensure they can receive rainwater.
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Create visual texture in a planter by placing lower varieties, such as lemon honeysuckle, around a more vertical centerpiece. This shrub is evergreen in zones 8 and above, but overall hardy in zone 6. It has tiny variegated leaves that grow in lateral branches, which can be pruned as needed. For a solid color, use Baggesen Gold, which glows almost chartreuse.
Once winter has passed, plant a honeysuckle in full sun in your garden. It looks beautiful when contrasted with dark green shrubs – you can pair it with a bright euonymus or a faux Mexican orange shrub. Because honeysuckles grow in a mound shape, they also look attractive next to taller accents such as Wichita blue junipers or pyramidal arborvitaes.
For pops of orange, rust and ruby red, consider coral bells, a versatile perennial. These herbaceous plants offer large, rounded foliage and bright colors, as well as tiny flowers that attract hummingbirds. What is most unusual is that the veins of coral bells are often darker than the color of the leaves, resulting in luxurious patterns. The Marmalade variety produces frilly amber leaves dusted with pink, while Delta Dawn bursts with murky pink color and lime green edges. For the deepest, most autumnal red, try Fire Alarm.
Since they are about a foot tall at most, coral bells work best at the front of a garden border. Plant them in an area with partial sun and well-draining soil. They may lose their foliage to winter cold, but can often be revived with compost or fertilizer in spring. Most are hardy to zone 4.
When a fountain grass sways in the breeze, it’s hard not to touch it. These gentle beauties can also work as a vertical element in a plant arrangement. The type called Burgundy Bunny grows to about a foot tall with dark red blades and fuzzy seed puffs. Black-flowered fountain grass grows to two feet tall with plumes of dark shade. In warmer zone 9 climates, the cultivar Rubrum sends up purple blades and Red Buttons produce compact carmine flowers.
Although fountain grasses can be drought tolerant once established, they grow best in sunny areas with regular water. Visually, they pair well with prairie plants like purple coneflower, black-eyed Susan and milkweed.
The strangely named dog hobble or leucothoe (pronounced lew-coth-oh-ay) is one of the most overlooked but reliable shrubs. These shade-loving evergreens come in different sizes and variegations. An adorable cultivar is Curly Red, sporting leathery leaves with red tips. It is dense and sinuous, adding unique interest to a fall container. A rounder choice is Zeblid, which displays rich scarlet foliage in spring. Finally, Rainbow is a larger specimen with an enchanting variegation of green, white and pink.
Designers often use leucothhoes in sunny and lightly shaded areas. Although they are hardy to zone 5, they need protection from harsh winds in colder climates. With intermittent watering, larger specimens make an attractive evergreen backdrop, and smaller ones can be grown near the front of a part-shade border.
The sun-loving spurge may look more like a summer plant, but some hardier cultivars are suitable for a fall pot and will act as a pretty bright orange and red leaf. For example, the greenish-blue foliage of Blue Haze cools the warmth of Fire Alarm Coral Bells. Purpurea has dark purple foliage and complements any reddish color in an arrangement. Plus, with whorls of rubbery leaves, some euphorbias create a fun, funky shape. Because they crave warm temperatures, they may droop in snowy climates, but can survive zone 6 winters if wrapped or mulched.
In spring, plant euphorbias in full sun near the border. They give off a rockery vibe when paired with other succulents, like Autumn Joy sedum or hens and chicks. When planted near bushy perennials such as mugwort, they add sculptural architecture. Blue varieties close to purple smoke bombs or ninebarks create a spectacular visual accent. Just be sure to wear gloves when pruning euphorbias, as they release a skin-irritating white sap when cut.
In a container, sedge serves as a spiller – a plant that cascades over the edge of a pot and softens it. And for fall, their colors are unbeatable. Variegated Japanese sedge has yellow-green striped blades that curve elegantly among other plants. The blades of a weeping brown sedge are delicate copper-colored strands. Both of these part-shade conifers retain their color well in winter, although in harsher zones like 5 or 6 they may die back partially and need combing back the following spring.
In the garden, sedges look great on borders. Variegated Japanese sedge brightens the dark green ovals of bergenias and contrasts with other shade plants such as palmate hellebores or light blue hostas. Weeping brown sedge pairs well with coral-flowered begonias and pops against magenta phlox. When placed near a large rock, a sedge will slightly obscure it, adding a touch of mystery to the garden.
Karen Hugg is an ornamental horticulturist and the author of “Leave Your Problems Behind: How to De-Stress and Cultivate Happiness with Plants.”