Pots spread color around

Garden Muse
by: L.E. BASKOW, Not just for small spaces, containers can bring bursts of color to a large garden, too.

To help me survive winter, give me hot chocolate, butternut squash soup and containers brimming over with beauty.

Glancing out my window on this rainy morning, 'Spider's Web' aralia is a happy sight. The big, hand-shaped leaves - edged and marbled with cream - look tropical, glowing against their black ceramic container. Nearby, orange New Zealand sedge spills out of a rustic brown pot, its silky foliage catching the winter light.

I like to fill a big container with just one dramatic plant, and enjoy each individual as a focal point. But designer Betsy Huber (betsysblooms.net), who specializes in container gardening, likes to create a more complex picture.

She begins with an anchor plant at the center of the pot. Typically, it's an evergreen shrub that looks gorgeous all year. Then she underplants it with perennials and annuals for seasonal interest.

Boxwood is one of Huber's favorite anchor plants.

'It looks good in all styles of plantings and containers. It's a workhorse - disease resistant, low maintenance and good in sun or shade,' she says.

'Green Tower' boxwood, with a slender, upright silhouette, grows about 6 feet tall and 2 feet wide. It's perfect for small spaces. You don't have to clip it, but Huber likes trimming the edges to keep it nice and green.

'It just depends on how manicured you want it,' she says.

Low and fan-shaped, 'Winter Gem' boxwood spreads up to 3 feet wide and will fill a container all by itself. If you want a cone-shaped boxwood, Huber suggests using Buxus sempervirens - it's easy to sculpt.

She also likes compact strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo 'Compacta') as an anchor plant, with white waxy flowers in late summer and ball-shaped fruit in winter that resemble strawberries. Another favorite is heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica), which has the beauty of bamboo minus any of the headaches.

'It's got lots of movement - delicate, evergreen, bamboolike leaves,' she says. Red fall color and clusters of bright red berries hold into winter. Huber prefers 'Gulf Stream,' with blue-green summer foliage; 'Plum Passion,' with purple leaves; and 'Sienna Sunrise,' with red and golden tints.

Huber surrounds the central focal point with shorter annuals and perennials.

'For winter, the most reliable bloomers are winter pansies - it's wonderfully refreshing to have flowers that hold up well,' she says. In shade, she likes perennial Lenten roses (Helleborus x hybridus) with winter blooms in shades of pink, green, white, burgundy, near-black and even yellow.

Colorful leaves also look good in the middle layer of containers. The fine-textured foliage of 'Winter Chocolate' heather turn rich, reddish-brown in winter.

In contrast, the thick, satin leaves of 'Evening Glow' bergenia are like large ears.

'To make these dark tones pop, underplant them with the opposite colors, like chartreuse spike moss, golden 'Angelina' sedum or striped liriope,' Huber says. Or plant golden coral bells like 'Lime Rickey' or 'Citronelle' and contrast them with dark blood-red pansies.

Window boxes also are wonderful to dress up the winter garden. Because they're more exposed to cold and wind, it's vital to fill them with hardy, stable plants.

Huber puts gravel at the bottom for good drainage, then adds potting soil, then a layer of daffodil bulbs. Between the bulbs she plants winter pansies, heathers, liriopes and coral bells. Ivy makes a great finishing touch.

'I love the variegated ivy, especially with yellow variegation - it requires so little and is gorgeous draping over the edge,' she says.

No pot is completely safe from cracking in winter, but a deep container with thick walls and a glazed finish has a better chance of surviving extreme cold.

'When it's really chilly out, hold off on watering,' Huber says. Pots exposed to wind, and too heavy to move, can be protected with bubble wrap.

Make sure your container has drainage holes. If a pot is sitting in a bed, lift it up on pot feet, an inverted saucer or a big flat stone. Raising the pot prevents it from becoming water-logged by groundwater.

Use a high-quality, light soil mix with plenty of organic matter.

'Black Gold (www.sungro.com) and Pro-Gro mix (www.pro-gromixes.com) are my favorites,' Huber says.

And even though it rains in winter, she recommends watering containers every week to 10 days. The surface area of a pot is small, and pots dry out faster than beds.