How to Work Wonders with Winter Container Gardens

When autumn mums fade, don’t put your containers into hibernation. You can work wonders with cedar and spruce, berries and baubles—and a few insider tips.

From spring to fall, Mary Starnes and Gretchen Jacobs, co-owners of The Windowbox Gardener and Porch Pots Direct in Indianapolis, work with a palette of living plants. So in November and December, they welcome a switch to long-lasting evergreen cuttings, willow branches, birch logs and berried stems. "It's one of our favorite seasons, and a fun time to create something large and amazing when nothing is growing," Jacobs says.

The two have been designing winter containers for over a decade—and learning the whole time. "It's embarrassing to look back on those early pots," says Starnes with a laugh, recalling a container with a wreath on top and pinecones piled in the center. These days, it's all about layers, variety, height and customization, personalizing pots to match a client's style or color preferences.And also, they say, designing containers that aren't just temporary holiday accents, but can look cheery all winter with just a little TLC.

Winter window box with sprays of winterberries and tiers of noble fir, Scotch pine, southern magnolia and English variegated boxwood
EE Berger

Seeing Red

Embrace classic red and green with sprays of winterberries and tiers of noble fir, Scotch pine, southern magnolia and English variegated boxwood. Finish the look with snow-white pinecones and metallic ornaments.After the holidays, you can pull out the winterberry stems and red balls, and let the container ride out the season as a muted green, white and gold arrangement.

Winter window box with white birch logs, twisting fantail willow branches, gold-painted twigs, pinecones and metallic balls
EE Berger

Triple Play

A trio of contemporary black containers holds a woodland array of white birch logs and twisting fantail willow branches, plus gold-painted twigs, pinecones and metallic balls. The greens roster includes Norway spruce, Scotch pine, English variegated boxwood, firs and flat cedars. Dried elements like birch logs, sugar pinecones and willow branches are an investment but can be stored in a cool, dry place to reuse next year.

Winter window box with English variegated boxwood, Norway spruce, blue spruce, Scotch pine and noble fir
EE Berger

Moody Blues

English variegated boxwood reigns among layers of Norway spruce, blue spruce, Scotch pine and noble fir. Build contrast along the front edge with cascades of silver fir and flat cedar, and bring out the natural blue tones of the evergreen with ornaments, artificial blue berry stems and dried eucalyptus. Big is better with arrangements like this. Cut branches two to three times the container height for real impact.

Winter porch box with blue spruce, Norway spruce, white pine, southern magnolia, English variegated boxwood and cypress
EE Berger


Blue spruce, cut from the homeowner's backyard, inspired this towering porch container. That showpiece specimen stands tall in the middle, surrounded by Norway spruce, white pine, southern magnolia, English variegated boxwood and cypress. Finish with mini birch logs, white-dusted pinecones, vine balls, lotus pods and dried black eucalyptus.

Two women smiling
Gretchen Jacobs (left) and Mary Starnes. Janelle DeWolf

Winter Container Plant Tips

Learn to craft a winter container—and keep it looking fresh.

Shop Around

Source greens from a tree farm, garden center or your backyard. (You might not use as many varieties as the pros, but aim for at least two or three.) Find magnolia at nurseries or online, and hit crafts stores for willow branches, pinecones, dried eucalyptus, birch logs, lotus pods and weatherproof ornaments.

Pick a Pot

Choose a large resin, metal or stone container. (Avoid terra-cotta or ceramic; they may crackin the cold.) Fully fill with potting soil. (It's OK to reuse old stuff.)

Go Green

Layer evergreen cuttings, starting with large branches in the center. Round out the sides and bottom, draping cedar along the edge. Insert branches into the soil to keep them secure and hydrated.

Make it Yours

Add accents that suit your home and style—classic Christmas, jewel tones or natural neutrals. You can roll pinecones in a paper plate of paint to color their tips, or spray-paint branches in bright whites or metallics. Keep pinecones and ornaments in place by attaching them to long skewers using wire or hot glue.

Light the Way

If you like, add battery-or solar-powered twinkle lights. Tuck the string in well, so it's hidden during the day.

Take Care

When finished, fully soak the soil with water to hydrate the greensand allow them to set before freezing temperatures. Water every two weeks if not watered by rain or snow. Occasionally, give containers a once-over and pull out tired branches and tuck in new ones.

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