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 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.


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


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 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



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.


Ornamental kale

Autumn Joy Sedum 



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


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:


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.


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.



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About carole funger

I'm a garden designer and Maryland Master Gardener living in the Washington, DC area. I blog about new trends in horticulture, inspiring gardens to visit and the latest tips and ideas for how to nurture your own beautiful garden. Every garden tells a story. What's yours?

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