Gardeners ask me about the best winter plants for pots and borders to use for winter interest.
I can’t give you a definitive list because plants for winter containers both here and in most other climates change depending on where you live; they also change seasonally. Some plants are better used as annuals, others as perennials, some need protection from harsh winters, others do not.
Top 10 Best Winter Plants for Pots and Borders
You’ll find broad lists of plants that may work best for your garden throughout the rest of this article (just keep scrolling). But instead, I’m going to offer a few suggestions tailored specifically to my current zone seven location – based on my own experiences with these species over many years.
1) Basket of Gold – Aurinia saxatilis or Alyssum desertorum
This is a fantastic ground cover that looks great all winter long. It seldom blooms in my zone but is evergreen, thrives in sun or shade, and spreads quickly to form mats of tiny leaves. The mat remains green through winter even when snow covers it. If you are looking for something to put between flagstones on your patio or walkway this might be a perfect choice. ‘Basket of Gold’ is not as fast-growing as some other varieties I’ve tried but it’s more compact which makes division easier – if necessary.
2) Mediterranean Oregano – Origanum vulgare hirtum
Oregano can be temperamental with both too much water and too little causing leaf loss. But once established it is winter hardy in my zone and the flavor of the leaves makes it well worth growing. The variety ‘Compactum’ or ‘Norton Gold’, with its purple-tinged foliage, looks particularly interesting all year long – but especially so when set off against snow.
3) Dwarf Russian Sage – Perovskia atriplicifolia
Russian Sage is a shrubby perennial that thrives in poor soil, has pinkish blooms that attract butterflies, tolerates heat and humidity as well as both cold spells and light frosts, and needs little water to stay looking good all winter long. It doesn’t need much pruning either which makes it great for gardeners who are less than diligent about this type of maintenance.
Gardeners in warmer climates should look for Perovskia ‘Little Spire’ which is a more tender variety that blooms at a smaller size but will not survive winter below zone eight or nine.
4) Dwarf Ornamental Pepper – Capsicum annuum
Peppers are one of the most colorful fall and winter garden crops. The fruit starts out green and changes to bright red, yellow, purple, orange, or chocolate brown as it matures on the vine. Most peppers need warm nights to ripen their colors so they do best in southern states, but some varieties have been bred to stay compact and cold hardy so they can be grown as far north as zone four.
“Dwarf Frizzle” is an example of a miniature ornamental pepper that grows well in containers and makes a great addition to any winter garden.
5) ‘Black Pearl’ or ‘Zwartkop’ calla lily – Arisaema candidissimum
The name for this plant comes from the black splotches on its white spathe – which add interest when it is in bloom but also give you fair warning if you try to pick up one that hasn’t yet unfurled. I have never been stung by one, but they do have sharp spines so keep your fingers away from the mouth of the flower! When my daughter was a child I used a cut flower stem as a toy sword and pretended it was a scorpion’s tail.
The black “sting” spoiled the game and I was reminded to keep my hands away from this plant. The leaves stay green all winter and make a great foil for snow, and the flower stem will give you an additional six weeks of interest starting in mid-winter to early spring.
I’ve seen calla lilies grown in pots here but they do better if not confined to such small spaces – especially when young. Plant them well outside the pot (at least two inches below the rim) so that water will not collect in their crowns. Older specimens can be brought indoors to overwinter in very bright light on a sunny windowsill where it is important to keep soil evenly moist at all times. Cold should also be avoided because they are susceptible to root rot when temperatures drop below 55F°/12C°.
6) Creeping Red Sedum – Sedum rupestre ‘Angelina’
This is one of my favorite plants for winter because it has attractive pinkish-red leaves, tolerates both shade and sun, spreads quickly with no maintenance at all, works well in pots or in the ground, and can even be used for edging a walkway or path. Be sure to plant it where you don’t mind the foliage color being highlighted by snow – it really glows.
7) Hardy Geraniums – Geranium sanguineum & macrorrhizum “Dawn”
Hardy geraniums are a great plant for a winter container or border because they have textured leaves, bloom from early spring until frost, and produce attractive berries that remain on the plants all winter long. “Dawn” has deep pink blossoms and purple-red stems which stand out nicely against blue-green foliage even during the darkest part of the year.
These plants are most often grown as annuals, but if you buy plants labeled hardy geranium they can be treated as perennials in zones four through eight. Hardy geraniums need regular feeding to stay healthy so choose an organic fertilizer specially formulated for blooming plants and follow label directions carefully – since too much nitrogen will encourage leaf growth at the expense of flowers.
8) Christmas Cactus – Schlumbergera truncata
Christmas cacti are hearty, exotic-looking plants that have been popular with growers and collectors for many years. They tolerate a wide range of growing conditions which makes them tough choices for winter container gardens – but they work very well in a sunny window indoors or out. Because they bloom at Christmastime it is easy to remember where you put the plant when you take it inside after Thanksgiving.
When allowed to go dormant in the basement family members can search all through December trying to figure out who left the Christmas cactus behind. In order to get flowers each year, it is important to allow at least half of the plant’s stem tips to die back before bringing them indoors. If you don’t plan on having your plants produce flower buds in winter, don’t bring them inside since the plants will not need to go dormant when left outdoors.
9) Cyclamen – Cyclamen coum ‘Sylvan Beauty’
Cyclamens are some of the earliest bulbs to bloom so once you’ve found a place where they receive adequate light they can be an exciting part of your early spring garden design. A pot filled with cyclamens and pansies is a cheerful sight on dreary January days.
Most varieties prefer cool temperatures and shady conditions but there are at least two types that do well in sun: Cyclamen coum ‘Sylvan Beauty’ and Cyclamen persicum var. Citrinum which has bright yellow flowers. Regularly removing spent flowers will encourage the plants to produce more blooms.
10) Daffodils – Narcissus tazetta ‘Yellow Cheerfulness’
Like many early spring bulbs, daffodils are not tolerant of summer heat or drought so they make excellent container plants where their needs can be met. Use a well-draining potting mix with lots of organic material to help provide adequate water during dry spells. Daffodils are especially good for winter window boxes since they grow quickly and bloom before other perennials have begun to show their leaves.
For best results fertilize monthly with a citrus/oil fertilizer that will promote strong root growth as well as give your plants an energy boost now that days are getting longer.