By Debbie Brown, PC EMG
Summer is still sizzling but thankfully the cool temperatures of fall are just around the corner. With many plants starting to burnout, it’s an ideal time to plan what’s next in our container gardens. Adding some vibrant colors to our tired landscapes will kick up the curb appeal a notch. Whether you go all out with fall décor and plants galore or simply add a pot of mums at your door, this is the season of change.
Mike Hylton, owner of Beautiful Earth Garden Shop in Danbury, N.C., strongly advises us fall enthusiasts to wait until late September to early October to purchase cool season plants.
“We still have too many hot days to come,” Hylton said. “Waiting will ensure a good chance of fall planters that will last through Christmas.”
So, we will be patient and wisely wait until the opportune time to buy fresh mums, pansies and more. However, we can use these last few weeks of summer to dream up, prepare and make a few adjustments where needed.
When planning a container garden in any season first consider the location of the planters.
Do you want one large planter to bring a pop of color to an existing sunny flower bed? Maybe two pots flanking your shady entryway? Or a group of planters gracing a porch or patio? Observe your chosen areas for a few days to determine how much direct sunlight they get. Locations receiving six hours or more fit the bill for plants which need full sun. Four to six hours of direct sunshine will be ideal for part shade plants while less than four hours call for plants labeled full shade. Plants matched appropriately to location perform best.
Always start plants in a clean container.
A 12 inch or larger planter will ensure enough space for growth and keep the plants from drying out too quickly. There are great options available at stores but also consider items you may have around your home or flea market finds. An old enamel dish pan, wheelbarrow, wagon, or bucket can look charming filled and overflowing with foliage, flowers, and even pumpkins and gourds. Poor drainage is the kiss of death to a plant so make sure there are enough drainage holes. A drill or hammer and nail works well with most containers. Often purchased pots don’t have enough drainage holes, so more should be added. Placing stones in the bottom of a pot isn’t sufficient and can sometimes even be detrimental to your plant.
Now for the fun part! Shopping for plants! There are so many wonderful options to consider.
The thriller-filler-spiller formula is a good guiding principle to keep in mind when making choices. A tall focal plant surrounded with medium size bushy plants and following with trailing ones allow all the individual plants to be seen throughout the season. Ornamental grasses make great thriller plants by adding height, texture, and movement. Switchgrass, little bluestem, sedges, muhly grass, and purple fountain grass are great in fall containers. A compact evergreen makes a nice focal point for a large year-round planter.
Mums, asters, violas, and pansies are always favorites of the season and are perfect to fill in the planter. Ornamental cabbage, kale and peppers are colorful and unique. The foliage and texture of coral bells, dusty miller, lamb’s ear, and oxalis bring a nice soft touch. Rosemary also is a nice filler plant that adds a sweet fragrance and can later be moved to another container or planted in the ground.
Vines that softly spill over the side of the planter add a special finishing touch. Some to try are creeping jenny, ivy, dichondra silver falls, vinca vine, and trailing sedum.
Arranging the plants in the planter can give instant gratification.
Begin by partially filling the container with a good quality potting soil. For planters against a structure, taller plants should be placed at the back of the container. For planters with an all-around view, place it in the center. Arrange medium bushy plants next and tuck shorter or trailing plants around the edge of the planter.
Contrasting colors create impact; different shades of the same color are more tranquil.
Experiment and have fun. Perennials, annuals, shrubs, herbs, and vegetables can all be used. Look around your garden and you may find something you haven’t even considered. Play around with the arrangement until you like it. Finally, firm the plants in adding more potting soil as needed and water well.
Although cooler fall temperatures help with drought, it’s important to note that potted plants dry out quicker than those planted in the ground so will require more water. A good rule of thumb is to water when the soil feels dry when sticking your finger in it to the first knuckle. The frequent watering can cause the loss of nutrients so fertilizing regularly is important for a healthy plant.
While waiting for the cool season plants, don’t neglect your summer pots. If they’re looking scraggly, they may need a mini makeover to extend the season. I recently tweaked two sad looking planters beside my porch. I discarded a few annuals that were past their prime and replaced them with perky ones found on a clearance rack. The investment was small but the reward great.
Fall also is an excellent time to plant cold season vegetables in containers.
Beets, radishes, carrots, kale, broccoli, lettuce, arugula, garlic, spinach, and more are great candidates. For further information, see Vegetable Gardening in Containers, Publication 426-336 Virginia Cooperative Extension.
Container gardening is rewarding.
Pots can be easily reworked from season to season, moved to add pops of color in flower beds or on porches and decks. They can also be sheltered if the temperature drops. Individual plants that are especially loved can even be rescued before a freeze and overwintered inside as house plants. Have fun with your planters! The rules are few and there’s really only one goal: To make you smile.
Everyone is invited to come to the next PCMG’s workshops on Planting a Fall Vegetable Garden and Planting Cover Crops to be held at the Learning Garden, 1208 Tudor Orchard Road in Patrick Springs, August 21 from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Master Gardeners also will present a program on the Life Cycles and Value of Bumblebees on WHEO 92.7 at 8:30 a.m. on August 24.