You know the thought has crossed your mind. It does each fall when the limp summer blooms look forlornly down at their roots. You think, “It’s time to empty those planters and pots.”
Wait a minute, let’s rethink this. Gardening doesn’t have to end in the fall. In fact, that’s just when the bugs and humidity go way. Fall is actually the season when you can truly dig in the soil, create movable gardens and enjoy what you’ve designed. So instead of turning those pots over, fill them with fertilized soil and fall flowers, and enjoy them without mosquito bites and the bug zapper. Sure you can pick up some marigolds—it’s almost tradition during the Halloween season—and some impatiens too. But if you stop there, you’ve missed the point. Plant some shrubs in large containers and use them to line your front steps. Then when the skies are gray and you need to brighten your home, bring them inside and add color to your living space. Plant colorful grasses, plant variegated leaves. Plant the herbs you’ll need for your winter stew and Grandma’s chicken soup.
And don’t forget to fill a few containers with bulbs. Choose daffodils, daylilies and tulips, and come March or April they will be ready to burst forth and fill your home and garden with color.
It doesn’t matter where you start, whether you find the plants or the containers first. Just mix and match correctly and you and your foliage can thrive. If your plants will be joining you in the house, choose a spot that gets lots of light or find a windowsill that can hold your plants. Make sure it is a spot where you will be able to water them regularly. If you plan to keep them outside be sure you get plants able to withstand lower temperatures.
Chrysanthemums, herbs like sage and lemon balm, Swiss chard, red coleus and purple verbena will add color to your winters. Pansies, violas, flowering cabbage and kale, the Christmas or Lenten Rose, and some hollies will also do well in winter container gardens. This fall you can get fancy by creating topiaries with succulents—try sedum, hens and chicks or echeveria—and decorating them seasonally (don’t forget that they too will require liquid refreshment). Vegetable gardeners can celebrate because cauliflower, certain lettuces and cabbage can also grow in containers.
The key to keeping your container garden intriguing is choosing interesting containers of varying size, shape, color and even era. Terra cotta pots will never let you down, but why not try something different, like an old watering can overflowing with marigolds? Don’t use that fire pit? Fill it with plants that will put it to good use every day. (Remember that soil and nutrients can wash away through the holes, so you may need to place a small screen over the holes.) Don’t hesitate to mix up the container materials either. There are woven, fiberglass, teak, copper, ceramic, limestone, cast stone and faux pots that all serve as wonderful homes for small gardens.
When selecting your containers, consider where you might use them. If they will line the steps leading to the formal entryway, then you may choose something like a classic urn. A more modern house of will look better with geometric shapes or pottery with clean lines. If you are setting a cluster of plants together, remember that odd numbers of items are more attractive. If you know what you will plant, then consider your container colors. A neutral pot will put the focus on the plant, while a more vivid color will draw attention to the container itself. Be careful when matching containers to plants: if the pot is too small the roots will be squished, but if the pot is too big, the roots could drown.
Regardless of shape, color or size, your container must have some kind of drainage in the bottom; otherwise your plant’s roots will rot.
Add visual interest by varying the heights and sizes of the containers and varying the heights of the plants you combine within a container. Take your time filling your container gardens. While it is tempting, when you find your favorite color impatiens, to snag every last one of them and fill all of your terra cottas, try to resist. Nurseries are always restocking and when you go back in two weeks, they may have something even more irresistible. Leave a few pots empty so that you can see what new plants are out and what will complement your display. And always keep planting.