If you know anything about me, then you know that I love to decorate the house for the holidays—the mantel, foyer, kitchen—I’ve even been known to add a few blooming paperwhites to the bathroom. But I don’t stop there. A big part of the holiday experience at my home starts outdoors, with festive window boxes and porch containers.
I am blessed to live in the countryside — and on a mountain to boot — so I more than appreciate the beauty around me. I look for every opportunity to bring in as many natural elements as possible when decorating, starting at the front door.
The containers flanking my front doors are dressed and ready to greet family members and visitors every day of the year, but especially during the holidays. Even when it’s 25 degrees and snowing, I want guests to feel welcome before they even come inside.
How to start? Make sure your containers are cleared of all summer and fall plants and add clean potting soil. You’ll want to water the soil to help anchor any branches and foliage that you add. In addition, water occasionally throughout the month to keep branches and plants hydrated so they look their best.
I use a variety of evergreen branches to fill my containers to the brim. Pine, fir, spruce, arborvitae, juniper, yews, boxwood, holly, and magnolia add texture and a lush green backdrop for the decorations to come. You can cut your own branches, visit a local nursery, or stop by a Christmas tree lot for a good selection.
Consider adding some colorful or interesting tree or shrub branches for height and interest. Red and yellow twig dogwood branches are classics, but curly willow and ‘Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick’ branches are unusual and definitely increase your container’s “cool” quotient.
The use of birch logs and branches in winter displays has grown in popularity, and the white textured bark is a nice contrast to dark evergreen needles. I also think red berries, namely holly and winterberry, are requirements for every outdoor winter container. It’s worth growing both of these shrubs for the decorating possibilities alone.
For additional texture and shape, try adding some dried hydrangea flowers. I’ve had good luck with Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’ and ‘Incrediball,’ as well as Hydrangea paniculata ‘Limelight.’ The natural parchment color of the dried blooms is quite pretty, but if you need a pop of color, you can always spray paint them. A light frosting of red on the blooms is the perfect touch—a dusting of color without being overwhelming.
Dried herbs are a wonderful scented addition to containers. Rosemary, thyme, and lavender are good choices, and I urge you to look around your garden and yard for other dried perennials and seed heads you might use. Perovskia, or Russian Sage, looks good every day of the year, and its silvery foliage could be a beautiful addition to a display. Dried allium flower heads left over from spring have a wonderful large lollipop shape that would bring an additional round dimension. I especially like Allium ‘Globemaster.’
And don’t forget pine cones. Assuming you collect them from your own yard, the price is right, and you can use them indoors and out in any floral display. Take your pine cone game a step further and track down some Sugar Pine cones, which are anywhere from 12″ to 18″ in length. Your local nursery or craft store might carry them, or they’re worth tracking down online. Not only are they truly impressive in size, but they also make for a great conversation starter—tell your brother-in-law you grew them in your backyard and stand back.
My final piece of advice for your outdoor floral show can be summed up in one word: abundance. Fill containers and window boxes to the brim to maximize their impact. You don’t want a stingy display during the holidays. Really take advantage of the opportunity that the outdoor portion of your home brings to set the tone for what visitors will find inside. “Shop” for design elements in your own yard, try a few new or unusual natural elements, and share nature’s bounty with your family and friends.
By P. Allen Smith
P. Allen Smith is one of America’s most recognized garden and design experts. His Moss Mountain Farm serves as a place of inspiration, education, and conservation. Book tours at pallensmith.com/tours.
Find and purchase seasonal plant varieties at PAllensFlowers.com.
More Gardening with P. Allen Smith
- P. Allen Smith’s Moss Mountain Farm
- Sunflower Power
- Hydrangea Varieties for Every Garden
- Caring for Your Summer Flower Garden
- Plant the Right Rose
- Zinnia Flowers Save the Day