A Case For Planting Containers For Fall



Our summer season has not been so friendly to those of us who garden in containers.  All of the tropical plants in the containers despised the cold, and the relentless rain.  Why do I even plant tropical plants in my containers?  Annual plants bloom, set seed, and die, over the course of one season.  If I remove the dead flower from an annual plant, I am thwarting its natural instinct to reproduce itself via the act of setting seed. This annual plant will bloom again, hoping to set seed, the next time.  This means there are flowers coming on all season long.  Some hybrid annual plants are sterile-they do not set seed.  They will continue to bloom over the warm months in spite of this.


Warm months is the operative phrase here.  Many of our common annual plants are native to climates much warmer than the midwest.  They dislike being planted in cold soil in our spring, and they faint dead away with the first frost.  Why do I put up with this?  I like that group of annual flowers that grow larger and bloom with abandon all summer long.  Those plants with oversized tropical leaves-as in alocasias, calocasias, cannas, tree ferns and the like-are equally as pleasing.  They represent lush in a way that few plants hardy in my zone can match.  Container plantings help make my landscape feel like summer.


I admire those gardeners that plant hostas in pots-bravo.  However, I like my hostas best, in ground. I have tried lots of perennial and shrubby plants in containers-by this I mean lavender, hydrangeas, hyssop, buddleia, gloriosa daisies, boxwood-I could go on, but won’t.  The only perennial plant I really value in containers is strawberries.  The leaves are large and beautifully serrated.  The unripe fruit is a beautiful color.  The ripe fruit is irresistible.  Some gardeners are attracted to the idea that their containers full of hostas could be brought out of the garage in the spring, and put in place-as usual.  Other gardeners are determined to keep boxwood, boxwood topiaries, junipers and their topiary variants alive in containers, season after season, year after year.  One of the things I value the most about the planting seasonal containers is how a fresh start energetically engages the imagination.  Last year’s containers-more about history than the moment.  I am not enchanted by my containers being over and done with.  Done-I dread both the adjective, and the noun.  So does nature, by the way.


The prospect of my containers being filled with the same plants year after year would bore me beyond all belief. I would not care if the boxwood sphere put on another six inches in height and girth.  I value the change up pitch better than a fast ball down the middle.  My landscape has taken many years to bring to a level that pleases me.  Any major change would be a major upheaval.  Not that I adverse to some upheaval.  A landscape is a big fluid situation that evolves over a period of years.  There is no fast forward.  No matter how loud you are able to snap your fingers, the landscape will take years to really respond.  But my summer containers reward my efforts relatively quickly.


The second reason I so value tropical plants in my containers?  I can plant something different next year, and the year after that.  I can ditch my failures, and move on.  I can entertain a color scheme on a whim.  A cold and rainy season will not stalk me beyond the frost.  Next year will be different.


As for planting fall pots-let’s agree that this summer was not the best for container plantings.  I have appreciated the summer heat we have gotten in September-all of my containers look much better than they did a month ago.  Most of my containers have dark empty spots.  Those holes are from the begonias that rotted.  What coleus didn’t give up has spots-the tell tale sign of cold.


In late September, there are several options for a container that has unnattractive gaps.  Those tropical plants that have faded away can be replaced with cold hardy plants-as in parsley, 4″ cabbage and kale, pansies, bok choy, Napa lettuce, ivy of every description, chrysanthemums, asters-there are no end of fall hardy and fall blooming plants that could fill your gaps.


Or you could replant you containers for fall. I have lots of containers.  I will stand pat with most of them until the frost takes them down.  But the pots I drive up to every day, I replant them for fall.  I have lots of choices for material.  Broom corn, fresh and preserved eucalyptus, twigs, preserved leptospermum, asters, gourds, dried grasses, cabbage, kale, lettuce, pansies, rosemary, thistles, pumpkins, bittersweet, dried hydrangeas from my yard, twigs from the field, chrysanthemums-you get my drift.  It is entirely possible that my fall containers will be the best of the year.  I have no regrets about the annuals going down.  I have the fall season coming on.


All my driveway pots need is for me to assemble a group of fall materials, and soldier on.  Soldiering on?  This means plant.  Stick.  Arrange.

fall-planting.jpgEnjoy the season.



Fall Pots

fall container planting

Yesterday’s post was much about construction details.  Any arrangement that is not solidly put together, or any planting that is not planted properly, will always have that hasty look.  I am a fan of any big and serious effort.  Lucio and Angie put these centerpieces together.  They have a gift for proportion.  Their construction is stellar.  The centerpieces are individual-as in made by hand.  But they closely match in height and width.     

fall planting

The centerpiece was just the beginning of these fall pots.  I like using cabbages and kales, as they represent the harvest season with great enthusiasm.  But the placement to create a harmonious overall look takes some doing.  Be advised that ornamental cabbages and kales can be set below or above soil level.  They don’t mind a rootball that is tilted out, such that the backside of their rootball  is out of the ground.  They are amiable and forgiving of your design.

These containers have their tallest element-the redbor kales-planted in the corners of the boxes.  This may be a counter intuitive placement, but a tall centerpiece asks for width at the bottom.  This plant placement is about balance, and proportion.  Our fall season may be short.  This means I like the fall pots to have a sumptuous look from the start.  The black eucalyptus and black plastic grasses at the corners-a dramatic detail.

Not all fall pots need to be so involved.  This ornamental kale set in a pot full of thyme celebrates color, texture, and form.  Both of these plants shrug off the fall cold.  I plant seasonal pots for my own pleasure.  Every season shines in its own way.  I like the idea of gardening all year round, in spite of the weather.    

Nothing looks more forlorn than pots or boxes at the front door, full of summer annuals that are fading.  Even worse, empty pots at the door.  Containers at the front door should always welcome family and friends.  Containers at the front door is a gift to the community that is a neighborhood. Plant these pots, year round.

Every fall Rob orders up fresh cut bittersweet stems from one of our suppliers.  Though I would not want to grow this plant in my own yard, those cut stems add graceful element to fall pots.  The cabbages and kales are rather stodgy-they benefit from the sparkly color and naturally curving forms of these cut vines.

Simple fall pots-charming.  Bleached stick stacks, white pansies, and variegated ivy go well together.  The addition of a bunch of lavender preserved eucalyptus adds an element of color that is welcome, and visually striking.

Big doorways ask for big pots.  Big pots ask for an equally big planting.  The street is fully 45 feet away from this front door.  A big planting makes an adequate statement from that distance.  The doorway has company from this generous fall planting that creates a frame.  Truly, a beautiful landscape frames a home, a property, a point of view. The landscape includes the pots.

The fall may be long.  Into December.  The fall may be short-I have seen the ground freeze solid in mid November.  I am not so good at predicting.  But I do know that I treasure every moment a season has to offer.  Should you plant some pots in celebration of the fall season-oh yes.

Garden Designer’s Roundtable: The Details

When I first met Buck, he was head of technical design at Rossetti Architects.  Though his usual gig involved sports stadiums and office buildings, he had designed, and was project managing a very large and involved residential project-some 5 years in the building.  I had occasion to meet him, as I was responsible for the design and installation of the landscape.   

I was also involved in the design of the conservatory, which was built by Tanglewood. There were a number of garden elements and ornament that got built over the course of three years.  What I learned from Buck is that careful attention to the details makes the difference between an acceptable project, and a project that turns heads.

Most every day I would get an email from him-do you have a drawing for this detail?  I did more drawing for him those three years than I have done before or since.  But what I really learned from him-the devil is in the details.    In designing this fall arrangement, I began with a great plant.  Kale “Glamour Red” is the first All America plant selection in 78 years- the first new kale introduction since 1932.  This is a detail that suggests this is a plant worth planting.  Sometimes construction details can tell whether an idea will work, or not.  I like my fall pots to look lush and sumptuous-after all, this is the season we associate with the harvest.  The construction of a strong and sturdy fall container involves much more than the planting.     

We may assemble a centerpiece of twigs and dried seed pods. That centerpiece gets zip tied together over a stout bamboo stake.  A fall container centerpiece listing out of vertical detracts from the overall effect.  Our bamboo stakes go way down into a container.  The soil around that centerpiece gets compacted-with a mallet.  Straight up and down-a detail that makes for a good result. We spotted a clump of green milkweed pods on the side of the road-they would make a great addition to this container arrangement. 

A centerpiece may need lots of elements-especially if you are going for that sumptuous look.  I like fall pots with loads of visual detail.   Dried or preserved materials surrounding that centerpiece need a construction detail that enables you to place them wherever they look good.  And most of all, a detail that helps them to stay put throughout the season.  

The eucalyptus and butterfly weed seed pods-we attached each stem to a bamboo stake with a pair of zip ties.  Natural materials are beautiful, but their stems do not have near the strength of a stake.  Attaching natural stems to bamboo stakes is time consuming-but this construction detail makes the end result look more natural, and last longer.  The frilly cabbage leaves cover the working part of the arrangement.

Preserved eucalyptus does have very strong stems.  Should I strip off the lower leaves, I have a stem that I can stick into the the soil, at the angle that seems best.  A detail worth noting here- preserved eucalyptus will keep its shape and color a very long time-even outdoors.  The variety of colors and textures available can add so much to a fall arrangement.

Faux fall grasses-I will confess that I buy them and have them available.  The palette of plants that thrive in cool fall temperatures is somewhat limited.  Adding roadside weeds, pumpkins and gourds, preserved materials, dried sticks and seed pods, and even plastic grass stems in a fall pot is much like adding a little jewelry to a black dress.     

I looked over this fall planting a number of times.  I kept coming back to it.  Is this the best I could do?  The best always involves attention to the details.  Finally, I decided the faux grass seemed a little to heavy.  A container planting should never drag the eye down. It did give a sense of warmth and drama to the arrangement, but would something else be better? 

Individual stems of ting with capiz shell circles-not a choice that would instantly come to mind.  But why not try it?  The stems have the grace and texture of grass.  The whole arrangement looks looser, more airy.  The green of the capiz shell discs brings out that luscious green in the kale. 

Any move made by a gardener is all about the details.  Personal details.  This gesture, or that-very personal.  The little details can transform an idea into a party.  From a distance, the overall impression is generous in scale and harmonious in color.

At this point in the making of a fall arrangement, a single detail added or subtracted can dramatically change the visual effect of the whole.  A detailed construction means the pot will look good throught the fall.  A visual detail says much about what you personally think is good looking.


I am sure that the other member of the Garden Designers Roundtable have interesting and individual ideas about the role that detail plays in good design-check them out! 


Susan Cohan : Miss Rumphius’ Rules : Chatham, NJ

Lesley Hegarty & Robert Webber : Hegarty Webber Partnership : Bristol, UK

Debbie Roberts : A Garden of Possibilities : Stamford, CT

Christina Salwitz : Personal Garden Coach : Renton, WA

Scott Hokunson : Blue Heron Landscapes : Granby, CT

Rebecca Sweet : Gossip In The Garden : Los Altos, CA






At A Glance: First Signs

last rose of summer

pumpkin “Long Island Cheese”

ornamental kale 

pumpkin in the gourd patch 

fall container planting


gourds and pumpkins

ornamental kale


fall container materials

carving pumpkins

broom corn

twig pumpkins


fall pots