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Here’s how to plant pots that will live through the winter in Wichita

Small evergreens are good choices for containers that can make it through the winter in Wichita. Here, volunteers prepare planters along Douglas Avenue downtown for the colder months. (October 14, 2017)
Small evergreens are good choices for containers that can make it through the winter in Wichita. Here, volunteers prepare planters along Douglas Avenue downtown for the colder months. (October 14, 2017) The Wichita Eagle

The bright splashes of colorful flowers and plants may be gone, but the planters along Wichita's Douglas Avenue have new greenery that should be hardy enough for a Kansas winter.

“In Kansas you just never know what kind of winter we'll get,” said Cindy Carnahan, a real estate agent and gardening enthusiast who helped organize a group of about 20 volunteers who replanted more than 100 pots on Oct. 14.

Wichita home gardeners can follow their lead.

Wichita falls into zone 6b on the U.S. Department of Agriculture's plant hardiness map. That means the average low temperatures range from about 5 below zero to zero. That can limit the choice of plants for a winter container garden.

“There are only so many things that you can put in a pot and overwinter,” Carnahan said.

But that doesn't mean Wichitans have to forgo container gardening in winter, gardening experts say. It just requires some creativity and some willingness to take a chance that cold spells will come later in the season or be short-lived.

For the winter, the Douglas Avenue pots have been filled with selections of three very hardy evergreen plants: winter gem boxwood and emerald green and bowling ball arborvitae, Carnahan said. Cold-tolerant pansies were planted around the bases of the evergreens.

Smaller evergreen plants are an ideal choice for a base plant in a winter container. A dwarf Alberta spruce, for example, can often do fine in a pot year-round for a few years and then be planted in the ground, said Ron Markum, greenhouse manager at Dutch's Greenhouse.

“I like any kind of holly, too, for a winter pot,” Markum said. “If they are healthy, they always look shiny and the berries are attractive, too.”

Markum and Sallie Strole, assistant manager with Johnson's Garden Center, suggested home gardeners use at least a 16- to 18-inch pot when planting an evergreen plant purchased in a 2-gallon container. Although a root stimulator can be used at the time of planting, don't apply additional fertilizer when overwintering.

Scott Vogt, horticulturist and Dyck Arboretum of the Plains executive director, has overwintered coral bells, or heuchera, in pots for the past few years. Coral bells are a vibrant perennial with varieties that come in a range of colors and are cold-hardy to zone 4. Experts advise using plants rated two zones colder than our locale to give them a better chance of surviving the winter.

Here are other winter container gardening ideas and tips for our area:

▪ If you have ornamental grasses growing in a planter, allow them to go dormant and enjoy the seed pods and heads. You can also bundle together cut stalks of grasses and push the ends into the potted soil to make an arrangement, but you might need to stake the cuttings, Markum advised.

▪ Flowering cabbages and flowering kales, and even sage that can be used to season the holiday turkey, are plants that can last longer into the fall season and into part of winter in pots, Markum said. If you notice the colors seem to get a bit brighter on the flowering cabbages and kales, it's because they actually thrive in cooler weather, Strole said.

▪ Find other plant material to use for color and interest. Markum suggested tucking a few lime-green hedge apples, often plentiful in the fall, inside a pot. Wrap some floral wire around pine cones and create a stake with the wire to stick into the pot. Add bamboo sticks cut at different heights. Markum, who likes to clip pages from gardening magazines, has one inspiration photo featuring three bamboo sticks painted red for a holiday-themed pot.

▪ Use cut branches from trees. Markum likes the shape of branches from a corkscrew willow, while Strole suggested branches from an evergreen tree.

▪ Be mindful of your container. Experts advise putting up ceramic or terra cotta pots for the winter because they can crack as their porous material and the soil within them expands and contracts from winter moisture. That said, both Markum and Vogt confessed to leaving ceramic pots outside over the winter without damage in recent years. Markum has even spray-painted pots to add more color or make themed plantscapes.

▪ Remove plants that don't look healthy or aren't cold-hardy.

▪ If you have live plant material in your pot, don't forget to water it, if we don't get any moisture. “People think because it's not hot, you don't have to water,” Carnahan said. Markum recommends that plants – both in pots and in the ground – get 1 to 1 ½ inches of moisture each month during fall and winter.

▪ Plant some daffodil bulbs in the pot now to enjoy early spring blooms.

▪ Winterize any pots that you won't use for fall and winter plantings by removing about 4 to 6 inches of the soil or completely emptying them, and storing them in a garage or shed.

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