Finally, I got the timing right. I went to a couple of big box store garden centers to see what plants they had before their merchandise turns to Christmas in October (Halloween is currently in full gear). I found a good selection of plants suitable for fall-winter planters. There were candidates among the ornamental grasses, shrubs, vegetables, herbs and flowering plants.
The first plant I picked up was a rush named Blue Arrows. Rushes are grassy-looking plants frequently planted in moist areas. However, Juncus inflexus Blue Arrows does not need a lot of water. This variety is heat- and drought-tolerant when established.
It has a strong upright habit which provides vertical structure to a planter. It grows 24 to 36 inches tall, which makes it an attractive thriller if you follow the thriller-filler-spiller formula for container design. Its blue-green leaves will add a bit of drama when backlit by the low winter sun. Its mature diameter is about 14 inches.
Blue Arrows is winter hardy in Zones 4 through 9. Expect it to be semi-evergreen. If it is knocked down by a hard frost you may want to fortify its vertical aspect with some red floral sticks during the holiday season. The plant should be cut back in late winter to make room for new spring growth.
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Dwarf English Boxwood, Buxus sempervirens Suffruticosa is a good long-lasting staple alone or in a mixed container. This dwarf grows slowly and eventually matures at about 2 feet tall and wide. It is valued for its dense rounded leaves and compact growth. Grow it in full sun to partial shade.
English boxwood is hardy in Zones 6 through 8. It has shallow roots so mulch it well to protect them from winter cold and summer heat. If you want flowers with your boxwood, plant pansies for a lovely three-season display. Add English ivy to complete a classic look during the cool season. You will need to replace the pansies and ivy for hot weather and bright summer sun.
You may find some winter bronzing on boxwood leaves in response to a combination of winter wind and direct sun. Normal color returns with new spring growth.
Less compact and faster growing dwarf American, Japanese and Korean boxwood are typically less expensive than the English variety. Look at all of them; you may prefer one of the looser cousins. Pay attention to their mature size when you choose.
Christmas fern, Polystichum acrostichoides, is a native fern that looks much like a smaller version of the ubiquitous Boston fern we see hanging on porches during the summer. Christmas ferns grow to approximately 24 inches high and wide. These ferns thrive in part shade or full shade. In moist settings they must be well drained. Once established they will tolerate some drought.
This tidy-looking fern is worth growing in shady spot in a container or in the ground. It is cold hardy in Zones 3 through 9. Christmas fern spreads slowly by rhizomes. If grown in a mixed planter as a filler plant, keep an eye on it after a year or so because spreading roots will eventually need to be removed and the fern divided.
Florists often use the fern’s glossy green cut foliage in floral arrangements. The leathery leaves have long been used in Christmas decorations, too.
Swiss chard ‘Bright Lights’ shows itself beautifully in a winter container. Its lush leaves with their bright purple, red, orange, pink, yellow and white stems add color and interest. Pick outside leaves when they are about 12 inches tall. More leaves will grow from the middle of the plant.
This leafy vegetable grows well in sun to part shade (3 to 6 hours of sun daily). It needs regular fertilizer — slow-release works well. Swiss chard is semi hardy; it can endure moderate frosts, but be aware that leaves will die back and likely the plant too will die in a hard frost.
Rushes, boxwood and Christmas ferns are year-round plants. You can keep them in your container and dress around them for spring and summer.
Reach Debbie Menchek, a Clemson Master Gardener, at firstname.lastname@example.org.