Planting Fall Containers

Our summer gardening season begins to wind down in September. Come Labor Day, change in the air. That change is refreshing and energizing. Towards the end of the month, the watering on the summer containers becomes a full time job. All of the soil in the containers is shot through and thoroughly congested with roots. Those abundant roots can absorb water as fast as it can be supplied. They invariably want more. A gardener has to have a big love for their summer containers to keep them thriving throughout September. By the time that fall sees fit to arrive, this gardener is ready.

Last week and the first of this was remarkable for its blistering and record setting heat. All the more effort was required to keep the summer pots going. Added to that, the care of first plants for the fall kept us really busy. Keeping up with the watering on our first shipments of fall cabbages, kales, pansies, lavender, thyme, lemon cypress and other fall friendly plants was not easy.  It was 92 degrees, the first day we planted a collection of containers for fall. Fortunately for me, my crews are utterly professional and focused. They came to work with coolers filled with bottles of water that had spent the previous night in the freezer. They soaked every plant before it was loaded. They were dressed for the occasion. They sweated it out with aplomb. We had set a date to plant containers for fall for this client, and we honored that commitment. All of the pots had been emptied of the summer plants, and the fall centerpieces constructed the day before.

I have a special affection for pots planted for the fall season. Even when my first taste of fall is hot as blazes. The summer is that time when every gardener has the opportunity to enjoy the work they put in place in the spring. The fall brings all of those efforts to fruition, and then to a close. Fall pots stuffed with the moments and memory of the harvest are enchanting. The colors, textures and shapes are specific to the season. The low in the sky slanting light saturates everything it strikes, producing what we know as “fall color”.

Tall elements for fall containers can come from a lot of places. Ornamental grasses come immediately to mind. Rob makes sure we have plenty of natural dried sticks, stems, and seed pods available. I am fortunate to have preserved and dyed eucalyptus in every color imaginable to place in fall pots. The cut stems of eucalyptus are able to absorb preservative and color up through the stems and into the leaves. As the color is absorbed and not applied, the stems are color fast outdoors, and are remarkably resistant to degradation from sun and rain.

But no material is as important as the plants. This year’s crop of custom grown kale and cabbage are the best it has ever been my pleasure to plant. The container above on the left is planted with redbor kale grown to an astonishing size. The companion planter features 3 Purple Queen cabbage, an edible red cabbage. It did not take many plants to create a fall container scene that will last well into November.

Coral Queen ornamental cabbage leaves are a beautiful shade of bluish green.  The centers of the plants will color up a deep magenta purple as the temperatures drop.

Tuscan kale, also known as dinosaur kale, has large, strappy and highly textured leaves. The nutritional value of kale is legendary, but it is also beautiful to look at.  Individual leaves may grow to 3 feet long.

fall container with Tuscan kale

fall container with millet and lavender eucalyptus

containers with Ruby Queen cabbage

kale and cabbage crop

the kale and cabbage from the roof

Let the festivities begin.









Shop Your Own

Once the summer garden wanes, every devoted gardener is looking to extend their expression on into the fall.  Why wouldn’t they?  The alternatives are not pretty- sulking is not a good look.  I understand that the love for the garden is not something that be turned on and off, like water from a spigot.  Fall containers and plantings enable gardeners to take advantage of the fruits of the harvest, the late blooming perennials, and the cold tolerant annuals.  Just today I spoke with a client who told me he hated this time of year-the coming of the end of the garden.  Michigan is a great place to garden, as we do have four seasons-each distinctly different than the others.  Why not take advantage of that?

Farmer’s markets and garden centers feature loads of fall plants, pumpkins, and gourds this time of year. There are mums and asters to be had, and pots of grasses, seeding.  Petunias and salvias are all good with the cold. I will confess I buy lots of them-for my own garden, and my shop.  But as blog reader Alan Fox put so clearly, I am driving with one eye to the road, and my gardener’s eye to what lies on the side of the road, or in my own garden, that might help make my fall containers more interesting.

Anyone who grows a perennial garden has fall material available to them.  The thick stalks of perennial hibiscus, laden with seeds, dries beautifully.  Bunches of ornamental grass, or dry hydrangeas are good looking.   My own Acanthus mollis, or bear’s britches, has stems and seeds that are uncommonly beautiful.  Any perennial or grass whose stems dry can enrich your description of the fall season. 

Bear’s britches from my garden, and butterfly seed pods from the field next door make a great fall centerpiece.  I did spray the acanthus with a clear sealer-this helps to glue the seeds in place.  The brown dyed eucalyptus adds a little warm company.  This pansy mix would be a little lonely all on its own, but it as a member of this group, it shines.

Statice longifolia is easy to grow, provided you have a loty of sun, and soil that drains in an instant.  A mature plant in full bloom is like a cloud of lavender blue.  Though that color is fairly short lived once it is cut, it lasts long enough to enrich a fall pot.  The stems themselves are easy to dry. 

The field next door has plenty of plants which have gone dormant. No end of wild plants have sturdy stems that can grace a fall container or display.  Many are even strong enough to survive the winter intact. The field next door has grasses seeding, weeds going to their skeletal stage. The remains of the summer Queen Anne’s Lace, in a substantial mass-quite beautiful.  The creams and browns may not be as showy as a delphinium in full bloom, but they have their own charm.

The fuzzy bits of these spotted knapweed stems are surprisingly sturdy.  Centaurea stoebe is a short lived but very vigorous perennial one would not invite into a cultivated garden.  But their remains are lovely. 

Rumex crispus, or curly dock, has strikingly robust seed heads.  It is just one of many materials that are readily available.  Foraging the roadsides can be a treasure trove of natural materials for fall.  The only time I would ever welcome a Canada thistle into my life would be the dead and dried version.  In this form, I like it. 


All those roadside weeds freshly matured into their fall forms, and arranged as a centerpeice can be quite handsome in a pot.  This time of year, more than any other, I envy those gardeners with wild places on their property full of popple branches, rosa multiflora, chicory, butterfly weed, centaura, sumac and so on that look so graceful in a fall arrangement.