HANGING baskets are normally thought of as a beautification for the summer garden.
However, the use of hanging baskets for the winter garden can provide foliage interest and some much needed colour during our grey coastal winter.
The construction of a winter hanging basket is similar to a summer basket with the exception of some plant design changes needed to address freezing temperatures and abundant rainfall.
To build your own winter basket select a basket material that can withstand freezing such as wire-frame, wood or plastic. Fragile ceramics are not recommended. Do not use plastic liners or water reservoirs since extra water is unnecessary during winter. The best winter baskets are made using wire-frames to allow planting on all sides and the top. Line the wire frame with a fiber mat or sphagnum moss to retain the soil and plants. If you are using a wood or plastic basket then no moss is needed. When planting, place the plants close together, closer than you normally would in a summer basket to provide a full look right away since no plant growth will occur during winter. Do not incorporate slow release fertilizers or other growth additives into the soil since no growth will occur during winter. Fill the basket with a soil that is pH adjusted, has good aeration and drainage to compensate for abundant winter rain.
Hang the basket where it will receive maximum sunlight since winter light is lower in intensity than summer. Hanging the basket under the roof overhang does provide protection from the elements but it's not absolutely necessary since the plants chosen must be hardy to withstand freezing solid.
Plant selection is easier than you might think, but an adjustment from the normal "summer perception" of hanging baskets is needed to assure a lovely and durable final product. Choose plants for the basket according to your geographic location, amount of light or shade and the desired effect. It must be understood that winter baskets are primarily a function of foliage colour and foliage texture, since few flowering plants are available that are suitable for hanging out in the weather to be frozen solid. Broadleaved, coniferous and evergreen plants provide the best display and frost tolerance. Many small grasses, dwarf shrubs and some winter perennials make effective displays. Winter annuals such as pansies or wall flowers can be effective in limited numbers for short periods, but those plants should not be relied on to make a big colour contribution.
Winter baskets are shortterm crops (six months to maybe two years) which allows larger growing plants to be used. Choose plants that are hardier than our climatic zone eight so they are able to withstand freezing solid. Select plants with brightly colored and interesting foliage since flowering will be limited. Purchase plants in a small pot size that will fit into the basket type. For wire-frame baskets pot size should be no bigger than a three or four inch pot size so the plants can be inserted through the side of the wire-frame.
Plants that are not effective doers in winter baskets include winter cabbage and kale, some pansy species and plants that do not tolerate rain. Some good winter basket plants are heaths and heathers with brightly coloured foliage, dwarf variegated ivy, Cotoneaster dammeri, Euonymus Emerald n Gold, Gaultheria procumbens, Arctostaphylos species, Mahonia nervosa, Viburnum davidii and many other plants with colourful or texturally interesting foliage.
Winter basket maintenance is quite simple during winter with more maintenance needed if you plan to grow the basket through summer for reuse during a second winter.
For winter maintenance, water in advance of frost and water only as required, considering the cooler winter weather, as opposed to watering on a schedule. Minimal preening and cleaning is needed to maintain presentation in winter. Do not fertilize since the plants will generally be dormant.
If you plan to continue growing the basket through summer for a second winter season then summer watering, fertilizing, pruning and augmenting plant material will be needed. These baskets are generally good for one or maybe two winter seasons. If you decide to grow your winter basket for only one year, in spring the basket can be torn apart and the plants planted out into the garden to live on.
Most importantly, winter baskets require creativity, a perceptual shift in thinking and some experimentation to achieve beauty.
Todd Major is a journeyman horticulturist, garden designer, writer, consultant and organic advocate. For advice contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org