As summer annuals begin to wane and container plantings start to lose their luster, it’s time for a change! Planting fall containers is best done by mid-October (at least 6 weeks before our first frost) so they have some time to root in and fill out before winter sets in and growth slows down.
In addition to the traditional components of the fall container—mums, asters, pansies/violas, grasses, cabbage, and kale—there are also hardy, perennial, and evergreen plants to try for beautiful autumnal combinations that will also extend into winter.
Plants used in your fall and winter container plantings may or may not be the plants you want to remain there next summer. If you prefer to use your containers for annual plantings with seasonal color, then the hardy shrubs and perennials can be transplanted into your garden or landscape next spring. If your intent is to plant a container that has year-round interest and is to be more permanent, the following elements should be considered when choosing plants.
The 3 basic elements for large container plantings are:
For smaller containers, a combination of two of the three elements works well, too.
Use quality potting soil at planting time. This is a great time to change out your soil from the summer, as soil becomes “tired” over time and loses its ability to hold and release moisture, in addition to becoming devoid of nutrients. At the bare minimum, refresh the top third of the container with fresh soil or remove all and mix compost or worm castings into old soil before replacing into container; we recommend G&B Potting Soil (or Malibu Compost and WormGro for “recharging” old soil).
Soil breaks down slowly in cool temperatures, therefore nutrient availability is less reliable. It is important to add fertilizer to the soil at planting time and supplement during the growing season as needed or directed. We like Osmocote or G&B Organic Rose & Flower Food as slow-release nutrition and G&B liquids for more rapid uptake. Planting before it becomes too cold (by mid-October) also allows plants time to grow and root out a bit before slowing down for winter. Later plantings may grow less and/or be less successful.
Rain will provide the majority of your container planting’s water needs (once it begins to rain regularly) unless it is under eave or porch cover. If rain does not water your container, it will need to be done at least weekly (more frequently at the beginning when plants are young), but depends on the plants used, sun exposure, and size of container. In general, container plants need about half as much water in the winter as they do during summer months (remove drainage saucer so it doesn’t fill up with rainwater and waterlog plants).
If we receive a winter storm warning or if temperatures are predicted to drop below freezing, it is helpful to be sure that all container plantings are well watered before it freezes. Some may also benefit from extra protection during extreme weather; cover with frost cloth, burlap, sheets, or blankets. You can wrap pots with bubble-wrap for insulation, then cover with a sheet or blanket.
*If container planting sits against the house with sun exposure from only one direction, it is best to rotate the container monthly to prevent the plants from growing towards the sun.
Thrillers: Specimen Shrubs for Containers
- Full Sun/Partial Sun: Buxus sempervirens ‘Graham Blandy’, Ilex ‘Dwarf Pagoda’, ‘Sky Pencil’, Beanpole Yew, Japanese Plum Yew, Euonymus ‘Green Spire’, upright Rosemary, Equisetum (containers only, can become invasive), Camellia sasanqua ‘Yuletide’ or other variety, Lemon Cypress
- Shade: Japanese Plum Yew, Mahonia ‘Charity’, ‘Soft Caress’ or ‘Narihira’, Camellia varieties, Dwarf Hinoki Cypress, Dwarf Canadian Hemlock, Acanthus/Bear’s Breech, Fatsia japonica or Fatshedera, Sarcococca
Fillers: Perennial, Evergreen, or Semi-Evergreen Mid-Level Plants
- Full Sun/Partial Sun: Euphorbia/Spurge varieties, Heaths and Heathers, Heuchera/Coral Bell varieties, Bergenia, Liriope, Black Mondo Grass, Carex varieties, Blue Fescue, Dusty Miller
- Shade: Hellebore varieties, Bergenia, Wintergreen, Holly Fern or other evergreen ferns, Heuchera/Coral Bell varieties, Korean rock fern, Alaskan or Autumn Fern, Liriope, Black Mondo Grass
More Fillers: Low-Growing Shrubs for Containers
- Full Sun/Partial Sun: Lonicera ‘Lemon Beauty’, ‘Baggeson’s Gold’, ‘Twiggy’; Nandina ‘Moyer’s Red’, ‘Wood’s Dwarf’ (et al.), Pieris ‘Little Heath’; Osmanthus ‘Goshiki’; low-growing Euonymus varieties; Juniper ‘Pancake’, Abelia
- Shade: Sarcococca, Salal, Dwarf Vaccinium, Pachysandra, Leucothoe
Spillers: Perennial, Evergreen, or Semi-Evergreen Trailing Plants
- Full Sun/Partial Sun: Creeping Jenny (regular, golden, chocolate), Vinca Minor, Vinca Major ‘Expoflora’ or ‘Maculata’, Sedum ‘Angelina’, Kinnikinnick, Wire Vine, Ajuga, Lemon Variegated Thyme, Silver Posey Thyme
- Shade: Vinca varieties, Creeping Jenny varieties, Lamium
These plants may or may not last through winter.
- Pansies/Violas (best in full to part sun) are the hardiest winter flower and can survive snow and ice! Flowering may slow as winter progresses, but they quickly perk up in spring and can continue blooming until April or May. Pansies do not like hot, dry weather.
- Garden Chrysanthemums or “Mums” prefer the cool weather of fall and may bloom quickly and fade in too warm of conditions. Great on covered porch or patio with full sun or at least a half day of sun, flowers last longest if protected from rain (4–6 weeks or more). Although treated as annuals, if planted in the ground and properly cared for, mums often return and can become perennial late-season color in your garden.
- Hybrid Rudbeckia (Annual Black-Eyed Susan), Ornamental Peppers, and other fall floral items may bloom for several weeks, then need to be replaced with the next seasonal plant (Florist Cyclamen, Primrose, etc.). Sometimes you don’t even need to plant them—you can just bury the plastic pot in the soil so it is easy to remove and replace as needed (no excuses).
- Ornamental Cabbage & Kale may be planted in fall and enjoyed through most of winter. It is tolerant of mild frosts which also enhances the foliage colors. Some kale varieties, such as ‘Redbor’ are upright and may even be used as a “thriller,” while other cabbage and kale varieties grow as low rosettes that resemble their edible cousins, but have bright white, pink, or purple leaves. As spring temperatures begin to warm, cabbage/kale plants will grow tall and form a pale-yellow flower spike before they set seed and die; this can be removed anytime in spring to prepare for the next planting season.
Don’t forget to add bulbs for early spring color!