Winter is coming. The days are getting shorter and we’re beginning to make preparations around the house for colder temperatures. We may already be experiencing feelings of dread for the long winter months, but there’s one thing we can do to brighten our spirits: look forward to a splash of color in the garden.
To help us prepare for the gray and cold days, we can get some of our favorite pots ready for planting (yes, even in the winter!). Here are 10 year-round container plants that can tolerate the winter freeze—even if we don’t think we can survive them.
10 Year-Round Container Plants
In addition to Holly, the quintessential cold-weather plant (thanks to its evergreen foliage and ability to withstand cold temperatures), there are several other ways to brighten up the gloomy winter months.
All of the following plants are well-suited to South Shore Massachusetts’ hardiness zone (head here to learn more about climate zones).
- Emerald Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’) 
- Color: Dark green, upright growth
- Size: Up to 15 feet tall, 4 feet wide
- Region: Hardiness zones 4-8
- Care: Medium watering, full sun, 3-4 feet spacing
If you know anything about arborvitae, you’re likely picturing a large, tall evergreen. While you can certainly grow arborvitae to reach its average height (15 feet)—making it perfect for privacy screens and wind breaks—planting it in a container will keep it more compact.
In addition to providing a wind break to keep your patio, porch, or deck slightly insulated from the winter chill, you’ll get to enjoy its rich green color all winter long.
- Bergenia (Bergenia cordifolia) 
- Color: Dark green-bronze red leaves, bright pink flowers
- Size: Up to 15 inches tall, 12 inches wide
- Region: Hardiness zones 3-8
- Care: Tolerates most soils but prefers well drained soil, rich in humus. Shade tolerant.
Known as ‘Winter Glow,’ this clump-forming evergreen perennial truly stands out with its thick red stems and dark pink flowers that make their appearance in late fall.
Its colorful expression doesn’t stop there though—the Heartleaf Bergenia has deep green flowers that take on a dark bronze-red appearance once winter hits, providing some much needed color when everything else appears dull and gray.
Perfect for beginners, this Bergenia is easy to grow and very low maintenance, It’s disease-free and not demanding in terms of water or fertilizer. It’s also resistant to common pests like rabbits and deer (but still watch out for slugs and snails).
- Green Mountain Boxwood (Buxus) 
- Color: Glossy dark green, cream flowers in April and May
- Size: Up to 5-7 feet tall, 3 feet wide
- Region: Hardiness zones 4-9
- Care: Keep out of full winter sun, protect from strong winds, remove heavy snow accumulation, use good organic mulch (i.e. compost or bark)
This broadleaf and upright evergreen is typically grown as a hedge, but also does well in a container. The evergreen foliage will retain its attractive green color throughout the winter. However, be careful to keep it away from strong winter winds and full sun, otherwise the foliage may take on a brownish-yellow color—known as “winter burn”. Better yet, periodically rotate the container so that the plant experiences even exposure to light.
Growing it in a container will keep this boxwood smaller and with a more elegant shape than other boxwoods. While it’s a slow-growing shrub, you’ll notice that over time, ‘Green Mountain’ grows into an elegant pyramid shape, making it a great adornment for a patio or deck.
- Rock Cotoneaster (Cotoneaster horizontalis) 
- Color: Fine texture, dark green, simple leaves, light pink, showy flowers in late spring
- Size: Up to 15-40 feet
- Region: Hardiness zones 5-7
- Care: Requires full sun to partial shade, moderate water requirements until established. Prefers well-drained soil.
While rock cotoneaster is considered an evergreen and can withstand temperatures as low as 15 degrees Fahrenheit, you may notice that some of the small leaves disappear at temperatures around this. However, it’s the berries that truly stand out on this winter-friendly container planet.
The winter berries are the point of interest for this plant, making it a perfect addition for a cottage-style garden. The small pome fruits will ripen between September and October and the foliage will take on a purplish color in winter. Rock cotoneaster is native to China and is perfect as a creeping or draping plant.
- Golden Sword Yucca (Yucca filamentosa) 
- Color: Dark green swordlike leaves with a golden yellow center
- Size: Up to 2-3 feet tall, up to 2-3 feet wide
- Region: Hardiness zones 4-11
- Care: Tolerates some shade, but prefers sunny and dry conditions. Ensure that soil is well-drained.
There’s nothing quite like a yucca. It’s become quite a popular garden choice because it combines well with other plants—not to mention its striking spiky shape, which is a great visual asset year-round.
The evergreen plant is hardy and is known for its toughness. It’s easy to grow, native to some areas of Central and North America, and a perfect low-maintenance plant for a container. Tolerant to drought, deers, and frost—this is one year-round container plant that should be in every garden.
- Cyclamen (Cyclamen cilicium) 
- Color: Dark green heart-shaped foliage that has silvery patterns, magenta-colored blooms
- Size: Up to 3-6 inches tall, 3-6 inches wide
- Region: Hardiness zones 3-9
- Care: Can survive very low temperatures, doesn’t need deadheading or weeding. Grows best in fertile, well-drained soil in part shade. Keep an eye out for squirrels and mice.
This frost-hardy plant is perfect to have in a pot, but it’s the delicate white and rosy-pink colors that truly make it something special. The fall-flowering bulb produces twisted petals that have a splash of magenta in them. Even better, they start to bloom when temperatures drop—so you can expect their beautiful splash of color in fall, winter, and sometimes even spring.
Unlike most other perennials, cyclamen becomes dormant in the hot and dry months of summer. For this reason, you’ll want to plant the bulbs in fall so that you can enjoy the slightly honey-scented blooms for several weeks and their accompanying dark green foliage for the entire winter.
- Camellia Hybrids (Camellia x williamsii varieties) 
- Color: Glossy green foliage, bright pink blooms
- Size: Up to 2-3 inches tall, 2-3 inches wide
- Region: Hardiness zones 6-9
- Care: Requires moist, well-drained soil, can tolerate shade or sun
There’s nothing quite as rewarding as an evergreen shrub that flowers during the winter months. This is what you can expect with certain varieties of Camellias. Known as “queens of the winter flowers,” these evergreen shrubs have exquisite pink, magenta, and salmon-colored blooms that can truly light up a garden when everything else is sleeping.
Japanese Camellia (Camellia japonica) is the best option for the winter garden, preceded by it’s fall-blooming relative, Camellia sasanqua. You’ll be able to enjoy the five-inch blooms from late winter to mid-spring—exactly when we can all use something to brighten our spirits.
The Camellia x williamsii varieties are the true stars of winter, though. The hybrids are vigorous, hardy, and can tolerate low light. Even better, they’ll bloom for months—in some cases from November until April.
- Fuldaglut Sedum (Sedum spurium) 
- Color: Dark green leaves that change color in winter, cerise blooms in summer
- Size: Up to 6 inches tall, 12 inches wide
- Region: Hardiness zones 4-9
- Care: Prefers full sun but can grow in partial shade
Either alone or as a complement to one of the other container plants on this list, Fuldaglut sedum can make a big splash with its tiny foliage. The delicately scalloped leaves transform from a dark green color to bronze-red or burgundy in winter.
This is a quick growing plant, even in poor soil. While it’s typically used as a ground cover, if put in a large container, the plant will spread quickly—producing pollinator-friendly pink flowers in summer.
During winter, the frost-hardy succulent will thrive outdoors, especially when in full sun. This plant is hard to kill, making it a great choice for beginner gardeners.
- Blue Star Juniper (Juniperus squamata) 
- Color: Silver-blue foliage that takes on a purplish heather-blue color in winter
- Size: Up to 2-3 feet tall, 3-4 feet wide
- Region: Hardiness zones 4-8
- Care: Tolerant to deer. Requires well-drained soil. Low water needs.
This dwarf evergreen shrub is a common winter-friendly container plant. Native to China, Taiwan, and Afghanistan, this juniper is now a popular choice for American gardeners—thanks to its stunning foliage and low-maintenance nature.
Perfect in a rock garden or container, this sun lover grows well in any type of soil and provides a beautiful splash of purple color during the winter months. Its season of interest isn’t just winter though, you can expect the stunning and showy foliage to look great all year long, especially in a coastal or cottage garden.
- Japanese Pieris (Pieris japonica) 
- Color: Glossy or leathery green, green-yellow, bronze-red, purple foliage and pink or white blooms
- Size: Up to 9-12 inches tall, 6 inches wide
- Region: Hardiness zones 6-8
- Care: Prefers full sun and moist, well-drained soil. Protect from strong winter winds.
Commonly known as lily-of-the-valley bush or fetterbush, this slow-growing evergreen shrub is native to Japan, Taiwan, and China. It typically grows in mountain thickets, which says something about its hardiness in winter temperatures.
The showy white or pink inflorescences make their appearance in late winter, following the floral dark red or pink buds that are attractive throughout fall and winter.
The foliage makes for another seasonal stand-out feature. The evergreen foliage impresses all year long, transitioning between green, greenish-yellow, bronze-red, and purplish colors.
How to Properly Overwinter Plants in Containers
Winter is tough—for both humans and plants. While we may enjoy the strong winter sun, our plants may not be able to tolerate it as well. Additionally, they’ll have to withstand gusty winter winds and a risk of drying out. What’s more of a stressor, however, is the risk of root damage caused by constantly changing temperatures.
Fortunately, we can do several things to give our plants the best chances for survival—even when the mercury drops.
Promote Healthy Drainage
When picking out a container for your year-round plants, you’ll want to take drainage into consideration. If you have a container that doesn’t have a hole in the bottom, you’ll need to drill one.
Alternatively, if there is a hole—but it’s too large—you might want to add a paper coffee filter at the bottom so that you don’t lose any soil.
Beware of containers that come with pre-attached saucers. These may look great from a convenience standpoint, but you may find that emptying any overflow is difficult, which may result in waterlogged roots—or worse, the collected water may freeze.
Similarly, don’t worry about adding gravel in the bottom of the container. This is a myth that has proven to be unnecessary, and may actually do more harm than good .
Protect Against Temperature Fluctuations
Just as the roots are your main concern with watering, they should also receive some special attention when preparing for the cold winter months.
We certainly don’t like to experience constant fluctuations in temperature, and neither do your roots. Leaves and stems may be able to withstand cold, icy conditions, but the roots are more susceptible to cold damage—particularly the roots of young, immature plants.
If you’re able to, try to sink your potted plant into the ground, then surround with wood chips or another type of mulch to provide some added insulation. The ground temperature will remain more constant and your container won’t be exposed to the elements as much.
Even if you can’t physically insert the potted plant into the ground, be sure to remove it from the pavement and simply place it on the ground instead. Pavement undergoes the freeze-thaw cycle more severely than the ground, as it can be heated by the sun and then experience a considerable drop of temperature during the night.
If possible, it’s also best to put the container in an area that’s typically shadier—generally on the north or east side of your house. Southern exposures are known to have the greatest fluctuations in temperature, so these areas should be avoided.
If this is still impossible—say, for instance, that you live in an apartment and don’t have much room outside of a patio—then you still have a few options.
- Plant the container as early as possible: If you have a healthy plant with more established roots, you’re giving it a leg up to survive the cold temperatures and tolerate winter stress.
- Choose plants that are hardy for cooler zones: If you don’t already have a healthy plant with mature roots, then choose a plant that’s able to withstand colder temperatures. For instance, in South Shore Massachusetts (zone 6) we’d likely look for plants that can tolerate zone 4 conditions (like areas in the Northern United States).
- Choose a bigger pot: If you’ve got a bigger pot with more soil, you’ll have more insulation. The larger the volume, the better off the roots will fare. Even better, select a large pot that has thick walls (at least one inch).
- Group several containers together: To insulate your plants, group them together, putting the hardiest plants on the periphery. If you’re really worried about the cold, you can even put straw bales around the grouping of pots.
- Use mulch: While snow can actually serve as an insulative mulch, you can also mulch your containers with shredded leaves, straw, or wood chips. If temperatures get really cold, you can even bundle up your plants in blankets, bubble wrap, or burlap (which can be wrapped around the containers).
Choose the Right Container
Choosing the right container is absolutely essential when it comes to overwintering your plants. Here are a few things to consider:
Stone, fiberglass, iron, lead, or heavy plastic are the best materials for a winter-friendly and frost-proof container.
Wood containers are generally pretty durable, and also make for good winter containers. Containers made with non-porous materials (i.e. plastic, metal, or concrete) are also durable and can withstand the elements—but they can get heavy very quickly, and may be difficult to move. Additionally, plastic pots may crack after being exposed to the elements for several seasons.
Resin or foam pots are a lightweight option to metal or concrete, but they may topple—especially with taller plants like arborvitae.
Glazed pottery will work well throughout the winter. Untreated porous containers, like ceramic and terra cotta may not be able to withstand the constant temperature fluctuations. They may end up cracking from the stress of a freeze-thaw cycle.
If you’re sold on your terra cotta pot, however, you can do something to winterize it: paint the inside with pool paint . This will help to prevent cracks from forming by minimizing the amount of moisture that’s able to get into the porous surface.
With less rainfall occurring over winter, you’ll have to take the watering schedule into your own hands. To minimize the risk of freezing water, the best time to water your plants is during the day, when temperatures are highest.
While it may seem unnecessary to water during winter, your plants will still need adequate moisture. Plus, water will actually provide some warmth to the plant’s roots. Your dry plants may seem healthy during the winter, but inadequate watering may cause latent damage that isn’t noticed until spring.
Get Ready to Bundle Up
Fortunately, there’s still time to get your garden ready for some year-round foliage—and we’d be happy to help! Feel free to get in touch with any questions you might have about winter-friendly plants, or how to get started early with some springtime garden preparations.
Also, don’t forget to check out our Christmas tree guide. Now’s the time to start preparing for the winter holiday season and the most important indoor container plant—your Christmas tree!