If you are tired of the container clich?s of autumn: ornamental cabbages, coloured dogwood branches and? chrysanthemums, you will have a soul mate in Margaret Serreo. She is the horticultural brains behind Toronto?s Fiesta Gardens:? a place for choice plants and a lot of planty wisdom.

We asked Margaret to put together some containers with material she had at hand and easy for anyone, even those who aren?t great designers, to emulate.? Rather than sticking to annuals with a big toss-out at the end of the season, she suggests using perennials especially evergreens. There are now so many gorgeous dwarf forms of every evergreen imaginable that you can go crazy with different shapes from fluffy to pointed to weirdly twisted.?Boxwoods thrive with severe pruning to give a strong structural form.

Where people go wrong in making up containers is that they jam plants in and don?t keep the scale of the plants in proportion with the size of the container (either top-heavy with plants or ditzy little arrangements in huge pots), they are an assault on the eye.? It?s also important to keep in mind the scale of the plants with each other:? use one major evergreen and smaller contrasting texture and leaf sizes for the perennials.

With one superb evergreen as a central focus, see what perennials are left in nurseries or dig up some plants from the garden that will keep their foliage all winter long (grasses, sedges, hellebores and heucheras).

This style of perennial container will last for up to four years and you can tweak it in December with brightly coloured berries, even dogwood twigs or a few ornaments. These arrangements get better as they age and will continue to look more and more glorious.

Here are some Margaret Serreo?s hard and fast rules for dramatic four season containers:

  • Don?t over-stuff containers. Keep them simple and elegant by choosing a maximum of five elements. Use the evergreen as a focal point and build around it with contrasting perennials.
  • Buy at least one good winter-worthy container a year.? ?It?s as good as having a really terrific hair cut,? she says ?and lasts a whole lot longer.? Choose ones with good clean lines, and a simple form, the bigger the better.? These perennial containers must be a minimum of 50 cm wide by 60 cm deep.
  • Make sure to keep the scale of the plants in tune with the container. They should also enhance the shape and colour of the pot.

How to Start

  • Always line the autumn-into-winter container with 3/4inch Styrofoam. Make a paper template for each side, cut the Styrofoam and then with the last one just cut to make it fit. Use the left over bits as a way to have drainage without blocking the hole.
  • Put the container on a riser of about 10cm high:? bricks are good, so are boards. This will mean water flows out properly.
  • Do not use bagged potting soil, which is good only for annuals.? Make your own mix of horticultural sand, topsoil and compost.? Half bagged topsoil; half sand and compost.
  • Once planted, the soil should come within 10 cm of the top. Make up that depth with a layer of mulch (composted pine bark) and, if you like the look, add a layer of gravel to top it off.
  • Water deeply until it comes out the bottom.? Then water once a week until December. Keep a eye on containers during any freeze-thaw times in January and start regular watering in very early spring.? Evergreens keep on transpiring no matter what and you don?t want them getting totally dried out.