Christmas Container Gardening
by Rob Sproule
If there is any truth in the expression “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” it may help to explain the intensity of the love affair that we Albertans have with our gardens. As we cloister together in our centrally heated homes through the depth of winter, our thoughts drift to the warming sunlight and thawing breezes of May.
For a few euphoric months in the Albertan calendar, frost stays at the gate. The textures of tropical containers and the colours of ripe cherries and tomatoes fill our long, lingering afternoons.
We adore our gardens but at this time of year it can seem that the creativity of container gardening is far away. It’s not.
This article is about making container gardens that stay green through the snow. It’s about cheating winter of its prize by not deserting our front yards to it. Yes Virginia, you can container garden in the dead of winter, even in Alberta.
Container Gardening in Winter
In the past decade, evergreen boughs have sprung up around front doors across North America. As the frost and snow descends, robust branches of cedar, pine, and fir are replacing the darling buds of May.
Fresh evergreen arrangements are an ideal way to utilize your summer containers for another season. Many of us already get 2 “turns” out of our containers by replacing spring pansies and marigolds with fall mums and kale. In November the containers are sitting there; why not use them?
Fresh greens have exploded in popularity in recent years because they offer cold climate gardeners a chance to be creative outside over the holidays. Large Garden Centers offer dozens of varieties of boughs, not to mention branches, cones, and countless accessories that allow you to be as creative as you were in the spring.
For outdoor use, look to cedar, pine, and fir to form the foundation of your creation. Western red cedar is one of my favourites. It’s a playful, fragrant green and brings a deliciously smooth texture. Silver fir is excellent because the undersides of the needles have a subtle silver tinge that glimmers under porch-lights.
There is a parade of coloured ingredients available to add visual pizzazz. Ilex, or winterberry, boasts stems of clustered red berries that catch the eye where ever they are. Avoid Ilex with shriveled berries or if considerable berries fall off when you handle the stem.
Stems like curly willow, dogwood, or even birch add a bold vertical appeal. Curly willow is my favourite as the twisted stems bring a jester’s twist to the overall silhouette. Choose dogwood or birch if you prefer more contemporary straight lines.
Buying & Caring for your Fresh Greens
Just as with spring bedding plants, a great container starts with healthy ingredients. Evergreen boughs are essentially cut flowers, so it’s important to get them fresh. Before you buy, give them a gentle shake and if the needles rain down, move on.
The best thing about putting greens outside is they will look beautiful as long as they stay frozen. A lot of people “de-Christmasize” their urns after the holidays by removing the festive ribbon, shiny balls and twinkly lights and enjoy their greens until the world starts to thaw in March and they can replace the cedar boughs with spring pansies.
If you arrange your container before it will stay consistently frozen, or if we experience a mid-winter, Calgary-like chinook, try to splash some water on the greens. Freeze/ thaw cycles are a winter container’s mortal enemy because they draw the moisture out of the branches and dry out the needles.