Garden & Landscape Tips

Decorative peppers
Decorative peppers add fall interest either by themselves or when paired with small pumpkins or squash.
© George Weigel

Just because the summer annual flowers are running out of steam doesn’t mean it’s the end of the line for your beautiful container plantings. These can be “refreshed” for fall by taking advantage of plants that thrive in cooler temperatures. Some choices are even durable and hardy enough to stay attractive all through the winter.

Fall pot with pansies, ornamental kale and coralbells
A blend of pansies, ornamental kale and coralbells dug from the garden make up this fall pot.
© George Weigel

Before changing out the display, make sure your pot is as tough as the plants you’re considering. Ceramic and terracotta containers are prone to cracking and flaking in cold winter regions where prolonged freezing weather is the norm. For fall and winter, consider vessels made of plastic, fiberglass, foam, wood, concrete, or metal. These can accommodate expanding soil caused by freezing nights.

Sprigs of juniper with berries
Sprigs of juniper with their blue fruits make a nice addition to a fall pot.
© George Weigel

With your pot and soil (free-draining container soil, not garden soil) in place, try one of these refreshing game plans for fall:

Ornamental kale
Ornamental kale is one of the most colorful plants, and it’s able to withstand several frosts. This variety is called ‘Glamour Red.’
© George Weigel

The Late-Season Salvage. Not everything in your summer pots might be beyond rescue. Some annuals, including fan flower (Scaevola), snapdragons (Antirrhinum), and verbenas (Verbena) can be revived by snipping them back, fertilizing the soil, and keeping the pots watered routinely. These cutbacks – along with less punishing daytime temperatures in September and October – often rejuvenate flowers that have gone downhill from heat stress, rather than life span. Some may even make it beyond a first light frost or two. Save money by yanking just those plants that are dead, diseased, or too bug-ridden for a second chance. Replace those with fresh, cold-tolerant, preferably color-coordinated annuals or perennials instead of replacing the whole display.

Ornamental cabbages and kales
Ornamental cabbages and kales are interplanted in this garden-center display to mark the arrival of fall.
© George Weigel

The Total Re-Do. If you think everything is looking bad – or if you just like new looks in each season – replace all summer plants with those that peak in fall. You’ll find plenty of choices at the garden center.

Mums are the top seller for fall because of their bright and varied colors. Also, they can be planted in the ground after flowering in fall. However, although they can become perennial garden flowers, the plants seldom return the following year. It is probably best to treat them as annuals.

You’ll also find a variety of annuals that prefer cooler temperatures and that can survive light fall frosts. This group includes pansies and violas, dusty miller (Senecio cineraria), nemesias, twinspurs (Diascia) and osteospermums.  Ornamental cabbage and kale are widely available for fall decoration too.  Their wide, colorful leaves – usually in shades of purple, green, cream and rose-- offer weeks of autumnal interest. Unless winter temperatures are severe, they may shine on until early spring.

Don’t overlook the Herb Section.  Look for perennial herbs with colorful foliage such as purple sage (Salvia officinalis’Purpurea’), silver thyme (Thymus x citriodorus ’Argenteus’), and golden oregano (Origanum vulgare ‘Aureum’).  Browse the edibles benches too, where you might find red-leaf lettuces, purple-leaf kale, and hot peppers bearing small red, gold, or orange fruits.

The Garden Raid. Have you scoured your garden for appropriate plants that can be “borrowed” for fall color in a container? There might already be ample choices growing in your own yard. Instead of digging and dividing perennials for replanting, commandeer a few small clumps for a pot. Perennials with colorful foliage make the most sense, especially hostas, coralbells (Heuchera), foam flowers (Tiarella), foamy bells (x Heucherella), silver-leafed false forget-me-not (Brunnera macrophylla variety), spurge (Euphorbia), and golden creeping sedum (Sedum kamtschaticum). If you color-coordinate these with a few of the fall annuals mentioned, you’ll be able to create a beautiful and long-lasting show. You might be tempted to dig fall-blooming perennials for their instant flower color (asters, goldenrod (Solidago), or Montauk daisies (Nipponanthemum nipponicum), for example). Be aware, however, that plants dug while in full bloom typically wilt soon after they’re dug and are not reliably successful.  The benefit of “borrowed perennials” is that you can return them to the ground before the soil freezes. They’ll usually break dormancy the following spring.

The Scavenger Hunt. Does anything else in your garden or in the landscape catch your eye? Anything that is visually appealing is also fair game for fall pots.  Look to your trees and shrubs for sprigs of berries to cut and stick into the potting mix. The fruits usually stay fresh for weeks.

Some popular berry-bearing shrubs include heavenly bamboo (Nandina), junipers (Juniperus), beautyberry (Callicarpa), viburnums (Viburnum), dogwoods (Cornus), bayberry (Myrica pensylvanica), and winterberry (Ilex verticillata), as well as evergreen hollies (Ilex opaca or

I. aquifolium). Likewise, stems of evergreen trees and shrubs with colorful foliage can be cut and stuck in pots. Among the best are blue spruce (Picea pungens), golden Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa, golden variety) junipers (Juniperus), fragrant olive (Osmanthus fragrans) variegated boxwood (Buxus sempervirens ‘Variegata’), and hollies (Ilex). Some woody plants especially red twig dogwood (Cornus sericea ‘Cardinal’), golden or yellow twig dogwood (C. sericea’Flaviramea), and coral bark maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’) for example have colorful winter bark.     

Ornamental grasses provide textural interest even after they’ve become brown or russet for the season. Bundle a clump of cut stems, and stick those into the soil, too. And don’t overlook harvested corn stalks from the vegetable garden. Those too can be bundled to give a distinct fall flavor to a big container – as well as serve as a tall centerpiece or “thriller” for the fall annuals at their feet around the pot perimeter. Finish off the look with scavenged natural accessories such as pinecones, dried hydrangea blooms, and fallen osage orange fruits (Maclura pomifera).

Trees in a Pot. Flower pots aren’t just for flowers. Young trees and shrubs – especially dwarf evergreens – can replace summer annuals in large containers or tubs. One popular trick is to flank the front door or front porch with a pair of pots planted with upright evergreens – the same choice on each side. Reliable needle-leaved choices include young arborvitae (Thuja), young upright or pyramidal junipers (Juniperus scopularum’Skyrocket’ is excellent), dwarf spruces (Picea glauca or P.pungens varieties), Japanese umbrella pine (Sciadopitys verticillata), pyramidal yew (Taxus cuspidata ‘Fastigiata’ or ‘Capitata’), and dwarf Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana’). Upright boxwood, nandina, variegated osmanthus, young pyramidal holly, and young camellias (Camellia species and varieties) are good choices for broadleaf evergreens.  Upright evergreens can be adorned with fall accessories such as gourds, baby pumpkins, and berry sprigs, then switched out with lights and ornaments for the winter holidays.  To maximize winter-pot survivability, pick evergreens that are listed as hardy to one zone colder than yours. If you’re in USDA Hardiness Zone 6 for exampe, stick with potted evergreens that are rated for Zone 5 winters or lower.

Keep container soil well watered before the ground freezes.  Later take advantage of thaws to water, to keep the soil damp throughout the winter months. Most potted evergreens will survive all winter, and can be planted in the landscape next spring.

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