Grape hyacinths. Photograph: Anne Green-Armytage/Gap Photos
You’ve ripped out summer bedding and consigned petunias and lobelias to the compost heap, but don’t just stack those pots in a corner until spring. Follow these tips to get the most out of them this winter.
Revitalise old compost
Accepted wisdom was always that the spent compost left over when summer containers fade is useless stuff and should be disposed of, until a trial by Which? Gardening found that this is nonsense: the only thing old compost is missing is nutrients. A low-nutrient compost is ideal for winter anyway, as slow, tough growth is better able to withstand the weather. Tip out old compost on to a piece of tarpaulin, spread it out so the birds can pick through any slug eggs, and then mix with a little fresh compost. Good as new.
Plant winter bedding
Winter bedding can be as colourful as summer bedding. Head to the garden centre and you will find trays of violas, bedding daisies (Bellis perennis), primroses and cyclamen. Buy lots and stuff them into your pots: they want to be close together as they won’t grow much. Fill around them with winter foliage plants such as silvery cineraria, trailing ivies and little box plants.
Plant tulips and wallflowers
Tulips and wallflowers are a council bedding scheme staple, but they make a great addition to a nice little terracotta pot outside your front door. The pairing is popular because it works: the small, bright flowers of the wallflowers providing a foil for the more solid and glamorous tulips to pop through. Buy both now: wallflowers as straggly looking bare-root plants from garden centres, and tulips as bulbs. Avoid mixed-coloured wallflowers such as ‘Persian Carpet’ and go for one strong colour such as ‘Blood Red’, ‘Giant Pink’, or ‘Orange Bedder’, then choose late-flowering tulips to pair with them such as dark purple ‘Queen of Night’, white ‘Alabaster’ or red ‘Kingsblood’. Pack into a pot together, water and wait for spring.
Grow dwarf broad beans
You can sow broad beans all through winter and into spring during mild spells, and they are happy in a container as long as you choose a dwarf variety and a big pot. ‘The Sutton’ is the most compact variety, and best here. Sow direct, five or six inches apart and keep just moist.
Take mint cuttings for the windowsill
If you have mint plants in pots, the top growth will have died down by now. Breathe some winter life into the plant by tipping it out of its pot and snipping a couple of lengths of the white root circling the perimeter. Take a few pieces, each a couple of inches long, and then lay them on the surface of a small pot of compost. Cover with a little more compost. Water and place indoors on a sunny windowsill and you will soon have mint to pick all winter.
Grow pea shoots
Peas are tough guys and happy to be sown in cool weather. In a pot, you have two choices: sow a dwarf type now, such as ‘Meteor’, for early peas next spring, or sow a normal, vigorous type for winter pea shoots. Pea shoots are the foliage of the pea plant, cut while the plant is small and eaten as a salad leaf, with an intense pea flavour. Sow thickly across the surface of the pot, cover with compost, water and keep in a sheltered, sunny spot; start cutting once the shoots are a few inches high.
Garlic is one of the most compact crops and is perfectly happy in a pot. Buy from the garden centre or a good supplier such as mammothonion.co.uk, break up the bulb and plant the cloves just under the surface of the soil, around 4-5 inches apart. Shoots will appear shortly. Keep watered over winter and the new bulbs will be ready next summer.
Pot up hyacinths
Prepared hyacinths are in the garden centre now. Plant them somewhere cool for 10 weeks before bringing them indoors to flower. If you find the scent a little overwhelming for the house, do the same but place the ready-to-flower pot on the doorstep to give slightly more understated wafts of pure springtime.
Plant winter perennial colour
It’s not only cheap, throwaway bedding plants that can bring winter colour to a container. Plant a pot of winter perennials and you will have something pretty to look at all winter, every year. Choose from colourful-stemmed dogwoods, hellebores, heathers, the black-leaved grass Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ and the golden-leaved grass Acorus gramineus.
Protect from the weather
Winter brings hazards for pots: wet weather can make them permanently soggy and rot roots; soil can swell when frozen, cracking terracotta and depriving the plants within them of moisture; and high winds can blow pots over. Place all pots on a trio of pot feet to lift them off the ground slightly and allow for good drainage, and huddle plants together to help keep them upright and create a microclimate that prevents them from freezing solid.