Expert advice from 'Gardening Which?' by Rosemary Ward Go on, splash out and plant a container in that dull corner of the playground. Nothing beats looking out of a window to a flash of colour - it really can lift your spirits. But you need to think beyond a once-a-year display - as soon as there's a nip in the early morning air, it's time to chuck out your chintzy summer bedding and plant some stylish new displays.
Think big. Large containers make more impact, and thick pot or concrete walls give good insulation. Make sure you've got good drainage by raising the containers on bricks or pot feet, and put a 3-5cm layer of crocks or pebbles in the bottom.
Paint dull containers to match your colour scheme. For a permanent finish, first seal the inside of the pot with diluted PVA adhesive (do exactly what it says on the tin), then use masonry paint on the outside. But for a cheaper and more colourful option that will easily last the season, you can use household emulsion (go for sample pots).
Use a multipurpose compost. You can reuse last year's as long as you've had no pest or disease problems. Improve its structure with a few handfuls of grit or perlite per bucketful of compost, and add slow-release fertiliser granules at the winter rate (look on the packet for instructions). Or use free-draining garden soil or clay soil improved with grit and garden compost - trials by Gardening Which? members show this gives equally good results.
Summer containers must be constantly topped up with water and nutrients, but in winter, plants grow slowly, so will not need any additional feeding. You may need to water pots and tubs only once a week. But keep checking - containers can dry out even in wet weather. Remove dead flowers and leaves to reduce the risk of fungal infections such as grey mould (botrytis). Treat greenfly with Polysect or ready-to-use natural pyrethrin sprays. Keep smaller plants in their pots, just pushing them into the container's compost and swapping them for fresh ones when they fade. For example, autumn-flowering heather could be replaced by spring-flowering polyanthus.
Get instant impact by using just one type of plant. It will give a strong block of colour and be easy to care for. Fill a pot with purple winter-flowering violas and slip in a few golden crocuses for a burst of spring sunshine. Or try ornamental kale, with its fantastic shapes and mix of deep green with rich pinks, purples and ice white.
Mixed winter schemes work best if kept simple. Concentrate on foliage colour for continuity, and spice it up with flowers or berries. A good basic recipe has just four components - a variegated or berried shrub as a focal point, bushy dwarf shrubs, hardy herbaceous or winter-bedding plants around it, a few trailers, plus some spring bulbs. So, for example, you could have a golden pot containing yellow-variegated euonymus or elaeagnus, surrounded by yellow grasses or sedges (for example, Deschampsia flexuosa Tatra Gold or Carex hachijoensis Evergold) interspersed with yellow-edged ivy (such as Hedera helix Goldchild) and chionodoxa bulbs to add blue and white stars in early spring. For a silver theme try aromatic curry plant (Helichrysum italicum) or lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparissus), a silver-leaved heather such as Calluna vulgaris Silver Queen, delicate white violas and snowdrop bulbs for spring.
More good plants
Shrubs: Skimmias, for example, Rubella with long-lived, deep pink flower buds, and Reevesiana with bright red berries; variegated holly; dwarf hebes, both blue-green such as Red Edge and Quicksilver or variegated; gaultheria, which has red berries and red-flushed foliage.
Bedding and herbaceous: primroses, primulas and polyanthus; bergenias with huge round leaves, flushed red; succulent sedums (for example, Sedum spathulifolium Cape Blanco, and house leeks such as Sempervivum tectorum. New winter-flowering violas such as Panola and Penny have smaller flowers but perform much better than winter-flowering pansies - Universal and Ultima, for example - which don't put on much of a show until spring.
Bulbs: dwarf daffodils for cream and yellow; tulips for red, yellow, pink and white; hardy cyclamen for pink and white with attractive marbled leaves; scillas and grape hyacinths for blue.
Trailers: ivies (green and variegated); variegated periwinkles (Vinca minor).
When the show is over
When you're ready to replant your pots, discard the bedding plants such as pansies, but most of the rest can be planted out in the garden or potted up individually, tidied, trimmed and grown on for next year. Clean your bulbs of soil and store them in a cool, dry place. The slugs will get them if you leave them in pots.