In a large garden, containers are usually used for splashes of summer colour. The voids left in winter when the plants have died are not so noticeable among the many other garden features. In a small garden, and especially on a patio, bare containers in winter look positively off-putting, and only emphasise the lack of year-'round plants. The choice for summer is limitless, so the emphasis here is on autumn and winter -- the seasons for which most effort has to be made.
Plant evergreens in troughs and boxes. The first step to creating a year-'round container display is to establish an evergreen shrubbery base. Dwarf evergreen shrubs and dwarf conifers, in their many shapes and colours, will provide year-'round interest and serve as a backdrop for seasonal planting.
Leave space in front of the evergreens to plant a few bulbs or small bedding plants. Allow for a space the size of a small pot for these seasonal plantings, so you can easily replace the small flowers as they finish.
Grow one or two autumn-glory shrubs in tubs that you can bring out of their place of hiding when you need a final burst of colour.
Plant Ceratostigma willmottianum or berry trees. Ceratostigma willmottianum has compact growth and lovely autumn-foliage tints, while still producing colourful blue flowers. Berry-producing shrubs can also be used as a feature, and you can usually buy compact pernettyas that are already bearing berries in your garden centre.
Select winter-loving plants. Some winter-flowering shrubs can be used in tubs, such as Viburnum tinus and Mahonia ("'Charity") -- but try being bold with short-term pot plants like Cape heathers, similar winter-flowering species and hybrids. You will have to throw them away afterward, but they will look respectable for a few weeks, even in cold and frosty winter weather.
Add winter berry shrubs to the evergreen boxes. Solanum capsicastrum is widely sold as a houseplant in the winter months, but you can use it as a short-term plant to add a touch of colour to permanent plantings of evergreens in outdoor containers. Those pictured were still happy in late winter. Discard once the berries shrivel.
Most winter berries are inedible, so keep children and pets safely away from them.