Winter ideas for boat gardeners

Make a statement with bright white and emerald green foliage, dried seed heads and hardy ferns.

An illustration of a women dressed in warm clothing holding a potted plant with a couple more plants resting on the top of her boat

Illustration by Malin Rosenqvist

Words by Lucy Anna Scott

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Now may be the time to look and ahead and plan your garden for 2020, but don’t wait until the summer to get planting it. There are many ways for the boat gardener to create colourful and uplifting winter displays.

First, consider where best place to situate your new plants. “A collection of pots can obscure sight lines and swallow up valuable deck space,” says Debbi Figueiredo, the Trust’s Licence Support Advisor, who has maintained a garden on her boat for 20 years.

It’s also best to use plants that will cope with a canal’s temperature extremes. “In summer you can fry eggs on the boat roof. Drought-tolerant species won’t use up your water tank,” says Debbi. “And remember, a river will freeze hard and for a long time, so you’ll need hardy plants that can weather that.”

Once you’ve considered the practicalities, simply fill your container with peat-free compost and start experimenting. Containers are wonderfully flexible; entire planting schemes can easily be changed. Or you can have one permanent focus plant that weathers all seasons with ever-changing displays around it. Here are some other ideas to get you started:

Less is more
One large container or trough hosting a selection of plants will better weather winter conditions. Small, or tall and slim pots are easily knocked over by the wind, as well as movement from the boat. They also dry out faster. A few pots around the entrance won’t affect navigation – but use rubber mats placed under pots to keep them in place and prevent scratches to paint.

Quality materials
Source a trough or container made from solid materials and ideally one that is frost-hardy – remember that frost-proof isn’t the same as frost resistant. Troughs can be custom built to fit the available deck space. Construct your own with timber (decking planks work well) fitted with polythene lining to retain the moisture and protect the wood. Paint them or leave for a natural look. Their weight means they don’t need fixing down.

Make a statement
Decide what statement you’d like to make. For inspiration cut out pictures from gardening magazines and create a scrapbook of styles you like. One variety of plant en masse has impact; a limited choice of two to three complementary varieties looks harmonious; while a mixture will allow freedom to play with textures, foliage and colour. Choose plants that are in proportion to the space you have: planting should be more than 1.5 – 2 times the height or width of the pot. Edges can be softened with ivy, Ajuga – an evergreen perennial with rounded purple leaves or creeping sedums.

Winter colour
From December to April heathers like Erica x darleyensis ‘Furzey’ produce clusters of lilac-pink flowers and contrast beautifully with their fresh green foliage. Dwarf bulbous perennial Galanthus ‘Ivy Cottage Corporal’ bloom pure white in mid- to late winter and have emerald green foliage in spring. Container plants such as Skimmia japonica ‘Obsession’ produce glossy berries in winter.

Decorative stems
Brightly coloured stems can be an exciting addition to a container. Cornus alba ‘Sibirica’ possess fiery scarlet stems that will look beautiful reflected in water; while the purplish-black stems of Cornus alba ‘.Kesselringii’ are equally striking. Combine Cornus with vibrant green winter fronds of hardy ferns like polystichum and polypodium. Another benefit of Cornus is as they thrive in damp soil they are happy growing waterside.

Choose hardy plants
Hardy plants vary in their ability to withstand the cold, some still need protection at very low temperatures. Plants with an RHS hardiness rating of ‘5’ could withstand a severe UK winter but may need some protection in very cold weather – so wrap them in horticultural fleece when frosty, wind and hail are forecast. Plants with a ‘7’ rating, however, cope fine with temperatures of minus 20 degrees centigrade, even on a canal boat.

Dried seed heads
When choosing summer plants incorporate plants that will have decorative dried heads in winter. Exploring the delicate complexity of a seed head is a great way to get close to nature at the latter end of the year. Hungry winter birds seeking protein-rich seeds will appreciate it too. Agastache has spiky and dramatic stems during the colder months; while the bronzed bauble of an Allium will add height, and look stunning in the February sun.

Keep watering
Check the containers water levels. Winter winds speed up moisture loss from the soil. Evergreens may need to be watered in dry weather or, if they are under a cover, check them weekly and water if necessary. Meanwhile, overwatering is a common cause of death in container plants. So soil should be moist, never soggy. In wet weather raise the container with saucers. It will keep the bottom of the pot out of water and catch excess water for re-use.

Start indoors
Small-scale succulents or cacti, if placed near a light source, will enliven shelves, desktops and tables and require little water. Make a bottle garden, which gives plants a stable microclimate, something that’s hard to offer boat plants otherwise. Ferns and mosses will flourish in glass, or try African violets, which love the delicate and warm, damp atmosphere. Cryptanthus bivittatus roseo-pictus or Ficus pumila also like close conditions. The bottle will establish its own atmosphere and can be left for months without attention; it will not even need watering.

Posted on 17/01/2020