Fine Gardening Project Guides

Container Gardening

Guide Home

Fall in Love With Unexpected Autumn Color

These container combinations gracefully close out the season

Fine Gardening - Issue 183
Fall in Love With Unexpected Autumn Color

Autumn is a glorious yet often overlooked season for container creativity. As summer annuals wane, garden centers lure us with rows and rows of ornamental cabbage and stiffly budded mums for a final burst of color before winter. So it’s no surprise that our fall containers tend to look dispiritingly similar year after year.

This year I set myself a challenge: to completely forgo those fall staples in pursuit of a wider, richer palette that would capture the unique beauty of the season. It turns out that we are spoiled for choices, even in the fall. Orna­mental peppers, richly colored sedums, delicate bud-blooming heathers, and long-lasting winter pansies offer far greater interest and variety than the ubiquitous mums and cabbage. An increasing number of blooming peren­nials now include shorter, more compact varieties suitable for container culture. And whether or not you embrace a traditional warm fall palette, there’s a pansy or viola that can enhance any color scheme and outbloom any mum it goes up against.

The inclusion of an ornamental grass brings form and movement that embodies the spirit of autumn. A tall, compact grass such as ‘Morning Light’ miscanthus makes a wonderful backbone plant and ages gracefully into the winter browns. ‘Frosty Curls’ New Zealand hair sedge, the palest of green fountains, is short enough to tuck into the hole left by summer annuals. ‘Standing Ovation’ little bluestem was my favorite this year. Its blue foliage with burgundy tips paired so beautifully with the new ‘Touchdown Teak’ sedum and Sombrero® Hot Coral coneflower that I may never give another thought to mums and cabbage.

Deep purple and gold are a dynamic duo (photo above)

‘Little Goldstar’ is a compact selection of the roadside favorite black-eyed Susan, and it blooms cheerfully from late summer until frost. Its star power is enhanced by dusky, purple-leaved companions and bright sprays of yew, sedge, heather, and vinca.

  1. ‘Bright Gold’ Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata ‘Bright Gold’, Zones 4–7)
  2. ‘Little Goldstar’ black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Little Goldstar’, Zones 4–8)
  3. Forever® Purple heuchera (Heuchera ‘TNHEUFP’, Zones 4–9)
  4. ‘Black Pearl’ ornamental pepper (Capsicum annuum ‘Black Pearl’, annual)
  5. ‘Renate’ heather (Calluna vulgaris ‘Renate’, Zones 4–8)
  6. ‘Frosty Curls’ New Zealand hair sedge (Carex albula ‘Frosty Curls’, Zones 7–10)
  7. ‘Asscot Rainbow’ spurge (Euphorbia × martinii ‘Ascot Rainbow’, Zones 5–9)
  8. ‘Tiger Eye’ violet (Viola ‘Tiger Eye’, Zones 4–9)
  9. ‘Wojo’s Gem’ vinca (Vinca major ‘Wojo’s Gem’, Zones 7–9)


Gold looks great with a hint of blush

green plant container

During the summer months, ‘Reini’ heather has golden tips that echo ‘Gold Brian’ escallonia’s bright new growth and the sulphur-yellow blooms of St. John’s wort. As cold weather approaches, the St. John’s wort berries ripen to a subtle salmon color that ties in well with the blooms of ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum and the red-tinged stems of the escallonia.

  1. ‘Gold Brian’ escallonia (Escallonia laevis ‘Gold Brian’, Zones 7–8)
  2. Silver Swan spurge (Euphorbia characias ‘Wilcott’, Zones 8–10)
  3. ‘Reini’ heather (Calluna vulgaris ‘Reini’, Zones 4–7)
  4. Hypearls™ Olivia St. John’s wort (Hypericum Olivia, Zones 6–9)
  5. ‘Cirrus’ dusty miller (Senecio cineraria ‘Cirrus’, Zones 8–10)
  6. ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum (Hylotelephium ‘Autumn Joy’, Zones 3–9)
  7. ‘Black Scallop’ ajuga (Ajuga reptans ‘Black Scallop’, Zones 3–9)
  8. Golden creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’, Zones 4–8)


Burgundy sets a sophisticated tone

burgundy plant container

Ember-colored flowers and foliage anchor this smoldering combination. The textures of ‘Morning Light’ miscanthus and ‘Tasmanian Tiger’ euphorbia have an energizing effect, like brilliant rays of light, that keep the arrangement from feeling too monochromatic.

  1. ‘Morning Light’ miscanthus (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Morning Light’, Zones 5–9)
  2. ‘Cherry Brandy’ gloriosa daisy (Rudbeckia hirta ‘Cherry Brandy’, Zones 5–8)
  3. ‘Tasmanian Tiger’ euphorbia (Euphorbia characias ‘Tasmanian Tiger’, Zones 7–10)
  4. Orange Carpet® hummingbird trumpet (Zauschneria garrettii ‘PWWG01S’, Zones 5–9)
  5. ‘Fire Alarm’ heuchera (Heuchera ‘Fire Alarm’, Zones 4–9)
  6. Inspire® Scarlet winter pansy (Viola × wittrockiana Inspire® Scarlet, annual)
  7. Irish moss (Sagina subulata, Zones 4–8)

container illustrated and labeled with season extenders

Extend the season

  1. ‘Morning Light’ miscanthus ages to a handsome taupe in winter. Embrace the look by allowing it to remain in place.
  2. Replace ‘Cherry Brandy’ gloriosa daisy with an evergreen such as fernspray hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Filicoides’, Zones 4–8).
  3. Swap in hardy, evergreen Himalayan maidenhair fern (Adiantum venustum, Zones 5–8) for the hummingbird trumpet.


Turn up the heat with coral and bronze

container with pink flowers nad varied foliage

In autumn, the blue-green blades of ‘Standing Ovation’ little bluestem take on sizzling, long-lasting hues of red, burgundy, and orange. This is an excellent backdrop for a coral-tinted coneflower and a subtle, bronze-purple sedum. The variegated ajuga and ornamental pepper are fresh, playful additions to this warm-colored combination.

  1. ‘Standing Ovation’ little bluestem (Schizachryrium scoparium ‘Standing Ovation’, Zones 3–9)
  2. Sombrero® Hot Coral coneflower (Echinacea ‘Balsomcor’, Zones 4–9)
  3. ‘Touchdown Teak’ sedum (Sedum ‘Touchdown Teak’, Zones 4–9)
  4. ‘Medusa’ ornamental pepper (Capsicum annuum ‘Medusa’, annual)
  5. Inspire® Terracotta winter pansy (Viola × wittrockiana Inspire® Terracotta, annual)
  6. ‘Pink Lightning’ ajuga (Ajuga reptans ‘Pink Lightning’, Zones 3–9)
  7. Green carpet rupturewort (Herniaria glabra, Zones 5–9)

container illustrated and labeled with season extenders

Extend the season

  1. The coneflower, which replaced summer-blooming zinnias, can be moved to the garden when winter arrives. Replace it with a Gold Collection® Marlon hellebore (Helleborus × ericsmithii ‘COSEH 980’, Zones 5–8).
  2. In place of the pepper, try shore juniper (Juniperus conferta, Zones 6–9).



Frosty whites are refreshing

frosty white and green plant container

‘Starshine’ Japanese aster is an excellent container plant, combining the virtues of exuberant flower production with a tidy, polite growth habit. ‘Silver Stone’ cushion bush offers a preview of the frosty season to come, along with the white-edged euonymus and silver-veined wintercreeper.

  1. Variegated boxleaf euonymus (Euonymus microphyllus ‘Variegatus’, Zones 6–9)
  2. ‘Starshine’ Japanese aster (Aster ageratoides ‘Starshine’, Zones 4–8)
  3. Black mondo grass (Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’, Zones 6–9)
  4. ‘Silver Stone’ cushion bush (Calocephalus brownii ‘Silver Stone’, Zones 9–10)
  5. ‘Wolong Ghost’ wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei ‘Wolong Ghost’, Zones 4–9)
  6. Winter pansy (Viola × wittrockiana cv., annual)
  7. Irish moss (Sagina subulata, Zones 4–8)

container illustrated and labeled with season extenders

Extend the season

  1. This is truly a year-round planting; only the aster will die down for winter. When that happens, leave the roots in place and poke evergreen boughs into the soil around the crown as a placeholder. In spring just replace the pansies; the aster will return for another crescendo next fall.
  2. Where the cushion bush is not hardy, try ‘Silver Brocade’ artemisia (Artemisia stelleriana ‘Silver Brocade’, Zones 4–8), or nestle in a woven twig ball for winter interest.


Use blue for a serene accent

container with blue flowers and bright green foliage

Not all fall containers need to rely on traditional fall colors. Here, blue pansies echo the cobalt of the container, surrounded by an energetic mix of pale lemon and chartreuse. Only the ornamental pepper and rosemary will need to be replaced with the arrival of freezing temperatures, or you can simply pull the tender plants and allow the pansies to mature into the space.

  1. ‘Green Spire’ euonymus (Euonymus japonicus ‘Green Spire’, Zones 6–9)
  2. ‘Nana Aurescens’ Japanese yew (Taxus cuspidata ‘Nana Aurescens’, Zones 4–7)
  3. ‘Frosty Curls’ New Zealand hair sedge (Carex albula ‘Frosty Curls’, Zones 7–10)
  4. ‘Medusa’ ornamental pepper (Capsicum annuum ‘Medusa’, annual)
  5. ‘Ascot Rainbow’ euphorbia (Euphorbia × martinii ‘Ascot Rainbow’, Zones 6–9)
  6. ‘Santa Barbara’ rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Santa Barbara’, Zones 8–10)
  7. Winter pansy (Viola × wittrockiana cv., annual)
  8. ‘Ogon’ sedum (Sedum makinoi ‘Ogon’, Zones 6–9)
  9. ‘Pink Lightning’ ajuga (Ajuga reptans ‘Pink Lightning’, Zones 3–9)


Red, orange, and lime green look tasty together

ornamental peppers and foliage plants in container

‘Green Spire’ euonymus is a well-behaved upright shrub with glossy, evergreen foliage. It provides structure and substance that will last through the seasons, accentuating brighter companions such as vibrant ‘Lime Marmalade’ heuchera and tricolored peppers. The pepper shown here, ‘Chilly Chili’, was bred to be mild-tasting instead of intensely spicy; it’s a safer choice if you think children or other curious garden visitors might try to sample the fruit.

  1. ‘Green Spire’ euonymus (Euonymus japonicus ‘Green Spire’, Zones 6–9)
  2. ‘Chilly Chili’ ornamental pepper (Capiscum annuum ‘Chilly Chili’, annual)
  3. ‘Lime Marmalade’ heuchera (Heuchera ‘Lime Marmalade’, Zones 4–8)
  4. ‘Sydney’ heather (Calluna vulgaris ‘Sydney’, Zones 4–9)
  5. Black Scallop ajuga (Ajuga reptans ‘Binblasca’, Zones 4–9)
  6. Winter pansy (Viola × wittrockiana cv., annual)

Barbara Libner designs container plantings for Ravenna Gardens in Seattle.

Photos: Carol Collins

Illustrations: Elara Tanguy

Previous: Containers That Keep Kicking Into Fall Next: Cold-Weather Combinations for Fall Containers
View Comments


  1. user-7673377 08/25/2020

    In autumn, the blue-green blades of 'Standing Ovation' little bluestem take on sizzling, long-lasting hues of red, burgundy, and orange. This is an excellent backdrop for a coral-tinted coneflower and a subtle, bronze-purple sedum McDVOICE

  2. riyana 12/30/2020

    As the days shorten and temperatures drop in the northern hemisphere, leaves begin to turn. We can enjoy glorious autumnal colors while the leaves are still on the trees and, later, kicking through a red, brown and gold carpet when out walking.
    Farmers State Bank (Illinois) login

  3. arivel 01/09/2021

    Super Post .Microix Login

  4. pedritorres 08/13/2021

    Thanks for the post
    applinked android

  5. user-7773309 10/15/2023

    The ‘Extend the Season’ portion of this article maybe be its most valuable part. The original suggestions are great but, once things get chilly, some items don’t look their best and to pinpoint those with a named replacement and still continue using the other bits that will thrive, well, I think that’s just brilliant! For instance, my Green Spire euonymus didn’t care for full shade (east side of the house) and would get powdery mildew. So I gave up and planted it in more sun and went with the grocery store standby of
    Goldcrest Monterey Cypress, Cupressus macrocarpa ‘Goldcrest’ which will probably need more sun next spring but I know doesn’t mold over the winter. For newbies filling pots on their front porches, your advice is really invaluable. Been a gardener since about 1980 and still find inspiration in your magazine. Thanks so much!

Log in or create an account to post a comment.

Container Gardening

Container Gardening

Trustworthy advice on all aspects of gardening in pots

View Project Guide

View All Project Guides »

Become a member and get unlimited site access, including the Container Gardening Project Guide.

Start Free Trial