Diarmuid Gavin: Autumn pots
Pretty pots packed with autumnal colours will smooth your (garden) path into winter
Autumn is here and soon it will be time to pack away light clothing for another year and to dig out the jumpers and jackets. The same goes for our hanging baskets, pots and containers - they are starting to fade and need a change of outfit for autumn. Many bedding plants are exhausted at this stage, having flowered continuously since May, and are only fit for the compost heap. So as we approach the new season, let's have a look at what's suitable and will be hardy enough to look good through to spring.
The first thing you need to consider is what container you are going to use. Good drainage is essential to avoid waterlogging during winter, so make sure your container has drainage holes, and layer some cracked terracotta pots or gravel at the bottom. If using terracotta pots, check that they are frost-proof. Use a free-draining compost - for best results, discard old compost from pots and add some well-rotted garden compost and slow-release fertiliser.
Evergreen shrubs will make excellent focal points in pots. They provide good structure all year round and can be enhanced by the addition of seasonal bedding throughout the year. Topiary plants always look sharp and smart - this could be a small clipped conical bay or a box ball. Or you could go for something a bit quirkier: spiral or animal shapes. Box is a good choice for shady spots and there are other evergreen shrubs, like euonymus, skimmias and hebes, which will also do a good job.
Evergreen sedges such as Carex suit life in containers and make attractive focal points. Carex comans 'Frosted Curls' has striking silvery green foliage while C. elata 'Aurea' (Bowles' Golden Sedge) has golden foliage that curves gracefully. Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens' (black mondo grass) can look well in contemporary containers, planted with some spring bulbs that will change the look next season.
You can introduce some vibrant colour around your focal points by using winter bedding such as Bellis perennis (daisies), violas and polyanthus. I'd pack these in fairly tight, as they're not going to grow a huge amount over the coming months. While there are many tempting displays of bedding chrysanthemums in the garden centres at the moment, remember these are not hardy and will need to be taken in before the first frost. Similarly, some of the bedding cyclamen on sale are tender, so just check before you purchase if you intend them for outdoors. Ornamental cabbage and kale are fun, colourful additions, whose pink and purple colours intensify as the weather gets colder.
Another way of introducing colour in winter is using plants that provide highlights in their foliage - for example, the silver of helichrysum; cream and green trailing ivies; Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea' (Golden Creeping Jenny) and Euonymus fortunei 'Emerald 'n' Gold'. While light levels are okay now, you need to visualise what will cheer you up on a grey November day. Probably the best foliage plant is heucheras, which come in an array of colours. You can have delicious Heuchera 'Key Lime Pie', which has bright green ruffles; H. 'Marmalade', which has bright pink undersides, or the classic H. villosa 'Palace Purple'.
Choose evergreen ferns such as the native Asplenium scolopendrium (Hart's-tongue fern) and Polystichum setiferum (soft shield fern). If you made leaf mould from last year's leaf fall, this would be ideal to add to their pots, as they like slightly acidic and humus-rich compost.
Finally, winter-flowering heathers are a good low-maintenance option for pots. Erica carnea cultivars come mainly in white and pink flowers, and would look lovely planted in a row in small individual pots. Unlike many heathers, it doesn't need acidic soil so will mix happily with your other choices.