Fall container gardening

Start a new seasonal theme with colorful plants, pumpkins and gourds.

Story by Karen Krug

October is still a great time to plant up a container garden. You probably have some old, tired annuals that could use replacing with some new fresh material or are looking to start a whole new seasonal theme. There’s lots available in local garden centers right now (colorful plants, pumpkins, gourds, etc.) to make a beautiful fall display. Our temps are still warm but not too hot, days are shorter and nights are cooler — all of which make plants a lot happier.

Planting basics
Planting in containers is a great way to avoid having to deal with our sandy, nutrient-deficient, root-ridden soil. Good potting soil can be purchased at any garden center in different quantities and is ready to go without having to add other amendments. Containers can be moved around to create different looks or to take advantage of sun and shade exposures. They can serve as a focal point on a patio, deck, door entry, porch or even be placed on the ground that is a problem to dig in. A well-placed pot can add interest to a mundane landscape.

Think big
A small container with small plants will look dinky next to a large-scaled house. Actually, a smaller home or space will benefit from larger containers by creating more impact. Groups of containers also can help screen out a neighbor by layering different sizes and heights for more privacy.

Plan ahead
Containers can be made of many different materials — terracotta, ceramic, stone, metal or man-made composite materials that are lighter in weight. Make sure your container, whatever it’s made of, has drainage holes if it is to be outside in the elements. Think about placement— sun, shade, some hours of each? Choose plants that can handle and do well in your exposure. You will be more successful if you don’t try to make a sun-loving plant live in the shade or vice versa. Not sure about how much water? An inexpensive water meter can be helpful. Plan on watering frequently as containers will dry out faster than the ground, especially in the hot sun. You also will need to fertilize regularly, as watering will wash out nutrients from the soil. A water soluble or granular fertilizer once a month, or more often if you think of it, will keep plants blooming and looking good. Care for your contained plants in October will probably be less as the weather cools, and watering won’t need to be as frequent. Our mild autumn temps will allow plants to last quite a while, unless they are tropical, but many “annual” plants will hang in pretty reliably.

A group of coordinated containers of the same material at different heights fill a good sized space much like a harmonious planted garden would.

Choosing plants
Go for some big-leafed plants for impact. You don’t need to follow the “thriller, filler, spiller” dictate, although it works in some places, but do think in terms of what will stand out in the surroundings. Don’t place small plants in an area where there is a lot of busy foliage. Go for something that will be visible against the background with some large leaves, such as elephant ears, canna, Ti plants or cordyline varieties, to name a few, then add the more delicate plants. Limit the variety of plants to three to five different varieties, perhaps a taller Ti plant with great color and leaves with a coleus in red and sweet potato vine in chartreuse green for contrast. I almost always add chartreuse green to my container arrangements — I like the brightness it creates even in the shade. One starring plant in a pot has great impact also. You could combine a banana tree, for instance, with other potted plants in an arrangement of different sizes and textures. Not all containers need to be planted up either. I have a large Mexican terracotta pot placed in a garden bed with some perennials planted around it, which is very effective.

Seasonal fun
Going into fall, there are lots of great plant varieties that are available now that the weather has cooled a bit. Grasses, cabbage and kale plants, ornamental pepper plants, pansies and more will give that autumn look. I love to add pumpkins, gourds, Indian corn, willowy branches, dried tall leaves and other fall elements. Use your imagination!

Container gardening 101

1. Fill approximately one quarter of your container with pine bark chips (available at garden centers). This helps to limit the amount of soil needed and
the overall weight.

2. Add soil specifically made for use in containers.

3. Remove the plastic plant pots and place the plants in a pleasing arrangement. Lay in the soil around the plants, keeping the top of the plants at an even depth and the soil approximately two inches below the top of the container when finished.

4. Water thoroughly.

5. Add some kind of top dressing around the plants (mulch, moss, gravel, etc.). This will give it a finished look and keep the plants from getting mud-splashed in a rainstorm, plus hold in more moisture.

Planting notes: Remember to plant pretty close together. Don’t cram the container so that there’s no room for growth, but do make it full. Plants will not grow as large in a container as they would in the ground. Place pumpkins and gourds into the arrangement — I use green wooden sticks to push into them and then anchor them into the soil between plants. There are some good “fake” branches to add an autumn look or even some dried palm leaves. After fall starts edging toward winter and holiday time, you can change out the look by replacing fall-looking stuff with evergreen and berry branches, large pine cones, ornaments, wide outdoor ribbon, lights, etc. Experiment and have fun with your versatile containers.

Plants for fall
Tall grasses
Chartreuse green carex grass
Cordyline plant varieties
Black-eyed Susan
Ornamental pepper plants

Supplies list
Water source
Potting soil
Pine bark chips
Plants in different heights, textures and leaf shapes
Pumpkins, gourds, branches, Indian corn, feathers, etc.
Sticks for attaching pumpkins and gourds, wire for attaching Indian corn stalks to wooden sticks to place into soil
Shredded brown mulch, green sheet moss, Spanish moss, gravel or other top dressing

Karen Krug is the floral designer at The Green Thumb on Hilton Head. You’ll find her there from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, and she is available for house calls.

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