Here are seven container plants you can reuse when the ground thaws.
Container arrangements are most interesting when they feature plants of varying heights, built around a centerpiece such as a red twig dogwood. These hardy, medium-sized shrubs reveal crimson branches after their leaves drop away. The Sibirica cultivar offers brilliant red branches while Aurea stuns with sunny yellow leaves on blood-colored twigs. If space is an issue and you need a dwarf variety, try Kelsey, whose leaves turn a rusty brown. Probably the best feature of red twig dogwoods is that most are hardy to zone 2.
In spring, plant these shrubs in part-shade where they can either be regularly watered or otherwise stay consistently moist. They spread via underground runners, which can be handy if you’re aiming to grow a hedge. Otherwise, prune at the base every two years to keep them shaped as you like. While they show well against a fence or wall, always remember to plant them beyond a house’s eave to ensure they can get water from rain.
Create visual texture in a planter by tucking lower-lying varieties, such as the lemon beauty box honeysuckle, around a more vertical centerpiece. This shrub is evergreen in zones 8 and above, but overall hardy to zone 6. It boasts tiny, variegated leaves that grow in lateral branches, which can be trimmed as needed. For a solid color, use Baggesen’s gold, which almost glows chartreuse.
After winter has passed, plant a box honeysuckle in part to full sun in your garden. It looks stunning when contrasted with dark green shrubs — you might pair it with a glossy euonymus or Mexican mock orange shrub. Because box honeysuckles grow in a mound shape, they also look attractive beside taller accents such as Wichita blue junipers or pyramidal arborvitaes.
For punches of orange, rust and ruby red, consider coral bells, a versatile perennial. These herbaceous plants offer big, rounded foliage and bold colors, plus tiny flowers that attract hummingbirds. What’s most unusual is coral bells’ veins are often darker than the leaf color, making for luxurious patterns. The Marmalade variety produces frilly amber leaves dusted with pink, while Delta Dawn bursts with murky rose color and lime-green edges. For the deepest, most autumnal red, try Fire Alarm.
Since they grow about a foot tall at most, coral bells function best at the front of a garden’s border. Plant them in an area with partial sun and well-draining soil. They may lose foliage from the winter cold but can often be revived with compost or fertilizer in spring. Most are hardy to zone 4.
When a fountain grass sways in the breeze, it’s hard not to reach out and touch it. These gentle beauties can also function as a vertical element in a plant arrangement. The type called Burgundy Bunny grows to about a foot high with dark red blades and fuzzy seed puffs. Black Flowering fountain grass grows two feet tall with dark umber plumes. In warmer zone 9 climates, the Rubrum cultivar sends out purple blades and Red Buttons produces compact, carmine blooms.
While fountain grasses can be drought-tolerant once established, they grow best in sunny areas with regular water. Visually, they pair well with prairie plants like purple coneflower, black-eyed Susans and milkweed.
The oddly named dog hobble or leucothoe (pronounced lew-coth-oh-ay) is one of the most overlooked but reliable shrubs out there. These shade-loving evergreens come in various sizes and variegations. An adorable cultivar is Curly Red, sporting leathery leaves with red tips. It’s dense and twisty, adding unique interest to a fall container. A rounder choice is Zeblid, which displays rich scarlet foliage in spring. Finally, Rainbow is a bulkier specimen with enchanting green, white and pink variegation.
Designers often use leucothoes in dappled sun and lightly shaded areas. Though hardy to zone 5, they need protection from harsh winds in colder climates. With intermittent watering, taller specimens form a nice evergreen backdrop, and smaller ones can be grown near the front of a part-shade border.
The sun-loving euphorbia might feel more like a summer plant, but certain hardier cultivars are appropriate for a fall container and will act as a pretty foil to bright oranges and reds. For instance, the greenish-blue foliage of Blue Haze cools off the heat of Fire Alarm coral bells. Purpurea has dusky purple foliage and complements any reddish color in an arrangement. Plus, with whorls of rubbery leaves, certain euphorbias create a fun, funky shape. Because they crave warm temperatures, they may sag in snowy climates but can survive zone 6 winters if wrapped or mulched.
In springtime, plant euphorbias in full sun near the border’s front. They give off a rock garden vibe when paired with fellow succulents, such as the sedum Autumn Joy or hens and chicks. When planted near tufted perennials such as artemisia, they add sculptural architecture. Blue varieties near purple smokebushes or ninebarks create a dramatic visual accent. Just be sure to wear gloves when pruning euphorbias, since they leak a skin-irritating white sap when cut.
In a container, sedge grass serves as a spiller — a plant that cascades over the edge of a pot and softens it. And for fall, their colors can’t be beat. The variegated Japanese sedge has striped, yellow-green blades that arch elegantly among fellow plants. The blades of a weeping brown sedge are delicate, copper-colored wisps. Both of these part-shade evergreens hold their color in winter well, though in harsher zones like 5 or 6, they may die back some and need combing the following spring.
In the garden, sedges look great at the border’s front. Variegated Japanese sedge brightens the dark green ovals of bergenias and contrasts with other shade plants such as palmate hellebores or light blue hostas. Weeping brown sedge goes well with coral-flowered begonias and pops against magenta phlox. When set near a large rock, a sedge will lightly screen it, adding a touch of mystery to the garden.
Karen Hugg is an ornamental horticulturalist and the author of “Leaf Your Troubles Behind: How to Destress and Grow Happiness Through Plants.”