Once the weather starts to cool and trees begin their glorious transformation from green to orange, red, purple, and yellow, it’s all too easy to lament the passing of the gardening season and the eventual absence of these vibrant leaves. Think, instead, about using the colors of fall foliage as a palette for autumn containers. Easy to put together and maintain, container plantings offer an ideal opportunity to extend the season by providing color and interest in an otherwise-subdued landscape. Many suitable flowers, shrubs, and small trees hold their foliage and form, even when temperatures plummet and the plants stop growing.
Designing a container that shines in fall can require different considerations than in other seasons. First, think about where you will place your container because the surroundings play into the overall picture. During autumn, hardscape elements like walkways and railings will stand out more prominently in the landscape because many plants will have lost their leaves. The plants and the container, therefore, should closely match or complement the hardscape and home. If your house is red brick, for instance, be careful when using plants with intense pink tones because the container grouping might clash with the house.
Plant selection becomes a little more difficult for containers at the end of the growing season. I choose plants for fall containers just as I choose them for winter containers. The standard rule for growing plants in containers through winter is that the plants should be hardy two zones colder than your garden. If they don’t meet that standard, they could be planted in your beds before the ground freezes or brought inside to ride out the winter. A third option is to consider some of your container choices as annuals and relegate them to the compost pile at the end of their tenure. Fortunately, some plants hold their shapes throughout fall, despite being dead or dormant.
To give your container designs their best shot at a long life, choose plants that can survive several light frosts. New Zealand flaxes (Phormium spp. and cvs., Zones 8–11), for example can withstand temperatures to 27°F.
The change of season also affects your maintenance routine. When fall starts, you can stop applying liquid fertilizer; continued feeding might encourage new growth that can’t withstand plummeting temperatures. But keep watering your containers until the soil freezes; roots need a drink until cold temperatures make them go dormant.
Make sure your containers can stand up to the elements, too. Fiberglass, iron, thick plastic, or stone works well. Terra-cotta may be sprayed with a sealant for clay and stone statuary. Glazed pottery may last a few years outdoors.
Great plants lead to great combinations
Many plants are highly suitable for cool-season containers. I like to start with a true fall performer—although it may not be the most notable plant in the container—and build around it for a rich, overflowing combination.
Bergenias (Bergenia spp. and cvs., Zones 3–9) are great in fall containers, when their glossy green leaves become a bronzy red. For a design that epitomizes the season, I partner bergenia with red pansies and redtwig dogwood. The deep red pansies echo the color the bergenia will become, while the dogwood adds height, contrasting form, and complementary color. And its leafless branches are in keeping with the season. I round out the container by adding dark ‘Palace Purple’ heuchera and brightening things with a gold-thread sawara cypress.
New Zealand flax is eye-catching in any season. Its striking, swordlike leaves add strength and excitement to a design, making it perfect to plan a container around. I combine the cream, pink, and green leaves of ‘Sundowner’ New Zealand flax with some similarly colored ‘Imperial Antique Shades’ pansies. The two-toned foliage of ‘Amber Waves’ heuchera makes it seem seasonally appropriate, as though it were fading to autumn colors. Another heuchera, ‘Plum Pudding’, provides dark, heavy-looking leaves with a wonderfully ruffled texture.
Tips for those in colder climates
• Plants hardy to two zones colder than yours can be left in the container through winter.
• Tender plants in pots worth keeping should be brought into a basement or garage.
• Inexpensive or poor-performing plants can be treated as annuals and tossed into the compost pile.
It can be refreshing occasionally to design a container that carries you into the next season’s colors, rather than echoing the hues of fall. I use the evergreen ‘Green Giant’ arborvitae to remind me what is best about winter. At its feet, I plant ‘Angelina’ sedum, whose tight, needlelike foliage looks like it came off of a Christmas tree and is a good contrast to the flat sprays of the arborvitae. In fall, ‘Angelina’ picks up copper and orange tones typical of the season. The fragrant, soft yellow blooms of ‘Delta Pure Primrose’ pansies complement the rest of the foliage in the pot and hint at the snow soon to arrive. To keep the container connected to its current season, I add a trusty bergenia, whose broad, shiny leaves offer contrast and eventually turn an autumnal red. The dark-veined leaves of ‘Frosted Violet’ heuchera have a deep violet–purple color that fall foliage often hints at but rarely ever completely attains.
For another combination that relies on the same forward-looking principle, I combine the creamy colors of ‘Glacier’ English ivy, ‘Snow Angel’ heuchera, and some white pansies. The foliage of a spiky ‘Bright Edge’ yucca and a sedum offer textural contrast. This abundant display shines throughout fall and looks even better when dusted with the first snows of winter.
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