The Secret To Creating Fabulous Fall Containers

Cool-season flowering plants

In my view, autumn doesn’t have to spell the end of the show in the garden. Fall containers offer countless ways to still enjoy seasonal splashes of color. Moreover, these mini gardens no longer have to be all about flowering kale or mums. With a little ingenuity, you can create autumn planters every bit as beautiful as their lush summer cousins.

FALL’S WARM COLOR PALETTE 

Fall container colors take their cue from nature; think deep plums, fiery crimsons, golden yellows and rich burgundies. These rich, warm tones look great in almost any combination, just as they do in their natural environment.

Fall’s warm hues

Interestingly, most fall colors are also found adjacent to each other on the color wheel. But autumn can serve up some surprises as well. Have you ever noticed how red, yellow or orange leaves really stand out against a green backdrop? These colors, which are found opposite each other on the wheel, make for some dynamic contrasts.

Indeed, the color wheel is the perfect jumping-off point for designing a great fall container.

DESIGNING WITH THE COLOR WHEEL

DESIGN IDEA #1:  Use adjacent colors to play with perspective

Colors located next to each other on the color wheel make for rich combinations and help play with perspective. When used in combination, ‘active’ colors such as orange, yellow and red, appear to advance towards the viewer.

Use ‘active’ colors in fall containers to call attention to an area.

Hot-colored zinnias

Cool colors such as violets, blues and greens on the other hand (also found adjacent to each other on the color wheel) do just the opposite. These ‘passive’ colors quiet things down and make plantings appear to recede.

Use ‘passive’ colors in fall containers as a backdrop. When combined with ‘active’ colors, they will add a sense of depth to your composition.

Cool-colored asters

DESIGN IDEA #2:  Use complementary colors to create drama 

Complementary colors are those colors that lie directly opposite each other on the color wheel. When used in combination, they intensify each other. The three traditional sets of complementary colors are red and green, purple and yellow and orange and blue.

Notice how the red leaves in this photo look more vibrant when juxtaposed with the green fern. 

Red and green set up a dynamic contrast

Whereas these yellow and purple pansies make for high drama, especially under fall’s lower solar angle. 

yellow and purple pansies

Purple and yellow are rich and eye-catching

DESIGN IDEA #3: Go monochromatic to create an unbroken space

Of course you can always choose to highlight just one color or use a single species in your fall containers. Design-wise, this creates an unbroken space by allowing the eye to sweep across it. There’s no right answer. It’s entirely up to you.

Single species fall container

PLANNING YOUR FALL CONTAINER

When designing my fall containers, I use a technique first introduced by Steve Silk for Fine Gardening Magazine; it’s called Thrillers, Fillers and Spillers. Grouping plants into these three distinct categories helps organize them according to height, impact and the role they will play in the overall look of the container. Here’s how it works:

THRILLERS

Thrillers are the “wow” factor plant that goes in the middle of the container (or back of the container if it’s against a wall.) The largest plant by height, this plant is usually architectural and bold and sets the tone for the overall composition. Examples are grasses, tall perennials and upright plants with stiff blades in dramatic colors. Great examples of fall thrillers include:

Purple fountain grass

Phormium

FILLERS

These are rounded or mounding plants that “fill” the mid sections of the fall container. Their job is to disguise leggy thrillers and add mass to the composition while providing color and/or textural contrast. Think of them as the glue that holds the container together, providing a backdrop for other plantings. Foliage plants and medium-sized flowering plants both make great fillers.

Of course, you can always use asters or mums for fillers, but consider trying some of these more unexpected species below.

Heuchera 

Ornamental kale

Autumn Joy Sedum 

Pansies

Angelonia

Orange viola

To spice things up, you can also add silver. Silver is considered a cool color. It looks best with jewel tones like blue, green, red and purple. A little bit goes a long way, though, so use it only as an accent.

Dusty Miller

SPILLERS

Long and rambling, these plants soften the edges of your container while adding cascading drama. Spillers generally continue the theme begun by the thriller, either in color, texture or contrasting form. Interesting fall spillers include:

Nasturtiums

Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia)

Sweet potato vine

English ivy

REMEMBER: Before making your purchases, first determine if your fall containers will be in sun or shade. Then read the plant tags to make sure your selections are appropriate for that environment.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

So once you’ve organized your design, it’s time to create your fall container. Start by filling your pots 3/4 way full with good, organic potting mix. Then, plant your thriller, twisting it into the soil. Continue with your fillers, installing them around the base of the thriller. Add your spillers at the end.

Back fill with the remaining soil to cover roots (remembering to disturb them slightly before planting.) It’s OK to pack the plants in; there won’t be much growth in the fall.

Fall container with stock, pansies, heuchera, nasturtiums and creeping jenny

IMPORTANT:  Fall container plants need food and water. Just because it’s cool, doesn’t mean they can survive on their own. Feeding new plants with a timed-release fertilizer at the beginning of the fall should keep them looking their best until the first frost. They will also need occasional deadheading. Once established, plants should require only minimal care.

 

 

How To Design With Naturalistic Plantings: An Expert Speaks Out

Naturalistic plantings at the Denver Botanic Gardens

If you’re used to order in the garden, naturalistic plantings can seem a bit out of control. But installations such as New York City’s High Line are bringing this new, plant-driven approach more and more into the mainstream. That’s according to award-winning designer Carrie Preston of the Netherland’s Studio TOOP. She spoke recently in Maryland on how to incorporate naturalistic plantings into all types of landscapes. Continue reading

10 Great Christmas Tree Ideas From Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens

OK, so maybe you won’t be copying the tropical tree above. But in December, Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens is teeming with Christmas tree ideas.  And the displays are nothing short of astonishing. Continue reading

Ten Great Ideas For Decorating With Gourds

If you’re like me, every October, when those big boxes of gourds land at the grocery, your mind whirls with possibilities. The cute little shapes seem to embody the essence of fall. The problem is, once you get them home, the gourds seem somehow lacking. Sure, you can toss them in a bowl. But, if you really want to get creative, decorating with gourds requires a few added ingredients. Continue reading

The Secret To Creating Fabulous Fall Containers

Cool-season flowering plants

Autumn doesn’t have to spell the end of the show in the garden. Fall containers offer countless ways to enjoy seasonal splashes of color. Moreover, these mini gardens no longer have to be all about flowering kale or mums. With a little ingenuity, you can dream up autumn planters every bit as beautiful as their lush summer cousins. Continue reading

The Best Late-Summer Flowers For A Beautiful Garden

Come August your garden may look like it’s winding down, making it tempting to throw in the trowel. But that would be a shame with so many late-summer flowers just coming into bloom. All it takes is a little advance planning (and some careful pruning) and you can keep the show going all the way until fall. Continue reading

The Best Red, White and Blue Flowers For The Summer Garden

For many Americans, the 4th of July is a time to fly the flag and dress in patriotic colors. But for gardeners, the fireworks start early as red, white and blue flowers begin taking shape in summer gardens. As nature’s palette turns from pastels to brights, white never looked crisper, nor red so fiery-hot. Blue, well, that’s a different story, so please see below. Continue reading

10 Great Plants For A Care-Free Spring Garden

A spring garden brings renewed hope in all things growing

There’s nothing quite like the look of spring flowers. Bursting to life on the heels of winter, the delicate forms are so fresh as to almost seem edible. And spring gardens bring hope this time of year, renewing our faith in life and everything growing. With that in mind, following are 10 great plants that can get you started.

 

The great news is that there’s plenty of time to plant a garden that will bloom from May until summer. Moreover, the nurseries are full of stock that have put on some additional growth in the pot. It’s the perfect time to pick up some plants and get a jump on the flowering season.

Here are ten of my favorites for a fail-safe spring medley.

PEONY

Pink peony

Known for their enormous flowers, these low-maintenance spring staples will live for generations. Peonies begin blooming in late May and continue flowering well into June. The plants perform best in full sun (where they will produce the best blooms). And many are fragrant, in particular the double white and pink varieties.

After the flowers fade, peonies’ deep green leaves stay looking good most of the summer. I use them to add bulk to my garden and prop up other flowers. I cut them down to the ground in the fall.

Here are some of my favorites: Sarah Bernhardt (pastel pink), Festiva Maxima (highly fragrant, pure white with crimson flecks), Kansas (double, carmine-red) and Bartzella Itoh (a cross between a bush and tree peony with huge yellow blooms.)

SIBERIAN IRIS

Iris siberica

Smaller and less showy than the bearded irises, these delicate plants produce a wealth of spring blooms on tall, elegant stems, usually in shades of blue or purple. The flowers are characterized by three petals on top and three below called falls. There are tiny varieties that grow only to about a foot and larger ones that can reach three feet tall. And their bright green grassy foliage adds a nice vertical dimension to the garden.

Standouts include purple-blue Caesar’s Brother, sky-blue Silver Edge, deep purple Ruffled Velvet, and soft yellow and white Butter and Sugar.

AQUILEGIA (COLUMBINE)

Aquilegia ‘Origami’

The botanical name aquilegia comes from the Latin ‘aquila’ meaning eagle; a reference to the flower’s petals that are said to resemble an eagle’s claw. Aquilegia’s beautiful nodding blooms come in dainty shades of purple, red, yellow, blue and white. A hardy perennial, columbine will grow in sun but prefers partial shade, especially in the afternoon. After a few years, it often dies out. But, it easily self-seeds.

Check out Origami Red and White, sky-blue and white Blue Bird, or spectacular, pure-white Dove.

LADY’S MANTLE (Alchemilla mollis)

Lady’s mantle, Alchemilla mollis

One of the ‘freshest’ perennials around, Lady’s Mantle acts like a cool splash of water amidst all the colors of the spring garden. Easily grown in full sun to part shade, this low-growing perennial forms clumps of circular, lobed leaves crowned by tiny, star-shaped chartreuse flowers held aloft on 12″ to 18″ stems in late spring to early summer.

Tuck it under upright plants at the front of the border to disguise stems and dimension to your border.

BEARDED IRIS

Iris germanica, tall bearded iris

Tall and stately, bearded irises make a grand statement in the May garden. I go all-out and plant the deep purple varieties that provide great contrast with other pastel spring colors. Bearded irises grow from rhizomes, or sideways-growing stems, so they should never be buried completely in the ground. The plants need at least 6 hours of direct sun to flower.

For deep color, almost nothing surpasses almost-black Hello Darkness, or opt for the reverse and check out bright-white, re-blooming Immortality. For outstanding pastel shades, try apricot-peach Champagne Elegance, lavender-pink Celebration Song, or Schreiners Gardens’ pastel blue Into The Blue.

BAPTISIA AUSTRALIS

Baptisia australis, blue false indigo

Commonly known as blue false indigo, this beautiful plant is growing in popularity with new flower colors being introduced. The upright perennial has 10″ to 12″ spikes of violet-blue, pea-shaped flowers that can last up to four weeks. Typically growing 3 to 4 feet tall, baptisia australis forms a large clump of bluish-green, clover like leaves that over time take on a shrub-like appearance. This makes it an excellent addition to the back of the border.

Try out the common form or go yellow with Lemon Meringue or go all-white with Baptisia lactea, white false indigo.

CREEPING PHLOX

Creeping phlox, Phlox sublata

This front-of border perennial forms large mats of brilliantly-colored, star-shaped flowers in blues, pinks and purples. Plants have semi-evergreen, needle-like foliage that produce long, spreading stems.  However, the plant tends to get woody over time, so best to cut out older sections to encourage new blooms.

Try lavender-blue Emerald Blue, soft-pink Fabulous Rose or for bold color, check out magenta Scarlet Flame,

BRUNNERA

Brunnera macrophylla ‘Sea Heart’

If you’ve got part-shade, nothing says spring like Brunnera macrophylla, also known as false forget-me-not. The low-growing plant produces miniature, sky-blue flowers atop heart-shaped leaves in shades ranging from bright green to green with white or silver. The leaves form clumps that look great all season. For best impact, try silvered-leaved Jack Frost, or even larger-leaved Alexander’s Great.

VERBASCUM (MULLEIN)

Yellow verbascum

A short-lived perennial known for its beautiful, tall flower spikes, verbascum adds an important vertical element to the spring garden. Easily grown in full sun to part shade (although it prefers full sun), the plant produces 2′ to 3′ flowering stems bearing long terminal spikes of 1′ diameter flowers in pastel shades of cream, lavender or rose. It easily self-seeds, but best to plan on replanting each year as an annual for best results.  Tall silvery-gray leaves look great in the back of the border.

Try bright yellow Jackie In Yellow or go soft pink with Southern Charm,

HARDY GERANIUM

Hardy geranium ‘Johnson’s Blue’

Not to be confused with annual geraniums, hardy geraniums (commonly known as Cranesbill) come in different shades of pinks, purples and blues often with deeper colored veins that look like whiskers. Most varieties start flowering in late spring and continue blooming well into the summer. The plant thrives in full sun at the front of the flower border.

My favorite is lavender-blue Rozanne. Other great varieties are crimson-throated, deep pink Patricia, unbelievable mauve-pink Miss Heidi, whose petals look like they were painted with butterfly wings and light pink with bronze tinted Ingwersen’s Variety.

ALLIUMS

Ornamental onion, Allium

A spectacular addition to any spring garden, alliums nonetheless take some advance planning. Their giant, onion-sized bulbs must be planted in late fall.

Come spring, most alliums make their appearance in late April when large florets of tongue-like foliage become visible on the soil surface. The foliage is followed by the emergence of tall, upright stems carrying a single round ‘flower.’ Composed of hundreds of tiny star-shaped blooms, the huge spheres tower over other flowers, injecting a playful note into the spring border. 

My favorite variety is the impossibly large Globemaster, with deep purple Gladiator a close second. But don’t stop there; there are many varieties to choose from including the unusually shaped Drumstick, the fireworks-like Schubertii and the all-white Mount Everest.

LOOKING FOR MORE?

Of course, this is by no means is an exhaustive list of suitable plants for great spring borders. For more information on other spring bloomers that look great in shady areas or on their own in clumps, check out my posts Shady Behavior: 20 Great Plants for Shade Gardens, Spring At Winterthur Gardens, and Why Lily Of The Valley Is The Official May Day Flower.

Happy planting!

 

True-Blue Flowers: A Dozen Of The Best And Brightest

Himalayan Blue Poppy at Pennsylvania’s Longwood Gardens/Kari Wilner

Years ago, in an effort to distract my middle-school aged daughters, I took them to an avant-garde exhibit at Washington, DC’s Hirshhorn Museum. The show was a one-color retrospective on the works of the French artist, Yves Klein (1928-1962) and it focused on the color blue. Specifically, it featured a supersaturated blue created by Klein that made you feel like you had been sucked out to sea and were drowning. Needless to say, it left an indelible impression on us all. Continue reading

USPS Puts Its Stamp On America’s Most Beautiful Blooms

Floral stamp from the USPS Pollinator stamp series

You may think that gardens and the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) have little in common, but The National Postal Museum, located in Washington, DC, is currently challenging that point of view. It recently opened an exhibition featuring the botanical art behind 50 years worth of floral stamps. And it’s delivered the goods just in time for the spring season. Continue reading