Designing Fall and Winter Containers

I often hear the words, "You have the coolest job, ever." Depending on how early my sleep is interrupted to go to my cool job (my schedule varies), I may or may not agree with you.

This past Friday, I worked with Brenna Henley, our container designer, to install fall/winter containers for the City Centre.  I had to rise and shine way early,  but that day definitively put my job in the cool column. Below is a step-by-step to swapping out your summer containers for a great fall/winter look. Read on for tips from Brenna on making those seasonal containers rock. 

Step One:

  • Rip the plant material out of your containers that won't make it through a hard frost NOW. (Average hard frost for Western North Carolina is October 23.) We pulled out lantana, pom-pom marigolds, coleus, rudbeckia, salvia--all of it blooming beautifully. And yes, every person that works in the City Centre building expressed what you're thinking now. Wait. What?? They didn't want to see all the pretty blooms of summer go. Neither did we. But, now is the time. 

We had 10 contractor trash bags full of plant material (just plant material, mind you) that we pulled out of the containers. (Black, heavy duty trash bags that contractors use on the job. Don't get excited. They rip, too.)  We can't compost in downtown Asheville at an office building, so we had to haul away the debris. You can compost, or at least give the debris to your municipality. Please do that.

Here's the rule:

Plant your pansies, cabbages, evergreens, and mums now, so they have time to establish feet (roots) and be prepared to go through a cold winter. Don't let garden sentiment get in the way. You want those containers to be winter gorgeous.

Containers emptied, the first step to planting is establishing the bones or the height. This is critical because when pansies freeze (yes, they come back in the spring), and cabbages turn to mush, something needs to hold the container through the winter. These spiral 'Emerald Green' aborviteas will do just that. 

Step Two:

  • Decide if you want your containers to go through winter, or if you're good with fall color only. If fall only is your goal, then your height can be grasses, kales, anything with dimension that serves as that wow factor in your container. If you want your containers to go through winter, you'll need to consider an evergreen. 

Brenna chose the evergreen spiral arborvitaes because the space at City Centre is symmetrical and very easy to showcase. The height of the evergreens mimics the height and straight lines of the surrounding buildings, but the spiral gives it enough "twist" to add dimension.


Add drama. You don't need large containers surrounded by contemporary buildings to add drama. I live in a brick rancher with a tiny front porch. A small terracotta pot is all I have room for. If you're thinking, me too, consider something like 'Sweet flag" (Acorus gramineus 'Ogon') for the drama. A chartreuse sweeping shorter grass that mixes well with purple pansies or a purple heuchera. Same result, different spot.    

'Firechief' arborvitaes will be the filler at the base of the 'Emerald Green' arborvitaes. These 'Firechiefs' are in 2 gallon containers, so they aren't too large for the container, and their blush pink color gets deeper as winter comes on.

The drama and the filler in place.

Only a few pansies were added to be the "icing on the cake". The pansies will freeze back during a hard frost, but will pop back in spring. These are "Matrix" orange. 

Step Three:

  • Texture and filler. The 'Firechief' arborvitaes are the fillers and the color for the containers. Their pinkish-gold hue will turn more bronze as winter approaches. These keep color in the containers long after the pansies have frozen.  For winter containers, blooms aren't the focal point, evergreens or foliage plants like heuchera are.  

We're BB Barns and we don't restrain ourselves on packing in the plants. Who doesn't love a million plants blooming all at once in one big cottage garden look? Typically, that's an easy look to achieve in a container. But sometimes, restraint is good. Consider negative space as space, too. Here, Brenna wanted each element to show. She called the pansies the icing on the cake, and only a few were added. 

Switch it up:

Try new designs and new plants. Challenge yourself to something different this season and see what works and what doesn't. Brenna's been designing containers for BB Barns for 10 years. As she says, "I'm always learning." Ask the staff to make suggestions. That's what we're there for. 

The finished product. One of my favorites that Brenna has designed. Located at the new City Centre downtown Asheville. 

Step Four:

  • Notice your surroundings. See the arborvitae acting as a screen in the background between buildings, and how it serves as a great backdrop for the spiral arborvitae in the containers? And the Zelkova tree that is the same color as the 'Firechief' arborvitaes? Let's be honest, some of that was an accident, but accidents like that come about from years of doing something that eventually becomes intuitive.

Give Yourself Permission to skip perfection:

Definitely learn all you can about design and plants and how they work together in a container (watering needs, sunlight exposure, how long they last in a container), but go with your instincts, too. And, give yourself permission to do what you can do, now. As you garden, your experience grows, and you develop an instinct about what works in your space, what you like, and how you can challenge yourself with new designs. Don't stress over what doesn't work, just make a note of it and move on. 

All Done

The best part about working with Brenna for the day? She's a superstar. Seriously. People stopped and asked a million questions, and everyone wanted her to come to their house and do their containers. And yes, I heard it all day. "Wow, you have the coolest job, ever." Yeah. Pretty much. 


Below is a video of Brenna giving us a few design tips. Hit play and go design.

Written by Cinthia Milner, garden coach, blog writer and outside sales staff.

BB Barns Garden Center serves all of Western North Carolina, upstate South Carolina, and Tennessee.