Planting containers for fall colour: flower arranging with plants

By Andy McIndoe

Autumn is such a fantastic season in the garden: wonderful colours and amazing light. Suddenly it’s hard to imagine how parched and drained my garden looked a few weeks ago. Now the fall foliage colours are spreading through the leaves of trees and shrubs and fruits and berries are ripening the garden picture has a new lease of life. My summer bedding plants are looking rather sad; having just done a whole run of autumn container planting demonstrations I feel inspired to practice what I preach.

9 Pot in position

We have quite a big garden, around 2 acres, so most weekends involve fairly focused gardening: mowing, weeding, pruning. I do feel rather guilty having an afternoon pottering round the pots on the terrace, but the results are always so worthwhile because this is the part of the garden we look at most. When we sit in the conservatory for breakfast or lunch it’s those pots and containers outside that grab the attention.

The range of autumn seasonal bedding plants available to the gardener today is truly amazing: pansies, violas, cyclamen, heathers, chrysanthemums, dianthus and a host of small perennials and shrubs to enable you to create attractive, lasting displays. However I know many gardeners find it quite bewildering so I thought I would talk you through planting a container to hopefully make your pots more successful. In want you to think of it along the lines of flower arranging. You are creating a floral display with roots. It does not need to last in the pot forever; but it does need to stay in good condition for the next few months.

The main mistakes people make when they plant a pot are:

Choosing a container that is too small: bigger pots make more impact.

Choosing too few, small plants

Selecting plants that don’t work together

Selecting plants that don’t work with the pot.

So here’s how I went about planting this container:

I chose this pot at the garden centre for its mellow colour and broad, bowl shape; it’s also deep enough to take plenty of compost to support the plants. Although this is an inexpensive pot but has a nice hand-made feel, texture and pleasing variation in colour. I love blue and orange together; so my planting is a variation on that theme. My leading plant is the lovely Heucherella ‘Sweet Tea’ with its rich copper, orange and sand foliage. I then chose the Carex testaea to contrast with it in leaf shape and texture. These are standard garden centre size plants so they make an impact without anything else. Next I chose the lovely little Viola Penny Marlies. This has the copper face of Viola Irish Molly with vibrant sapphire blue wing petals. It also has black features so these inspired my choice of Ophiopogon planiscarpus ‘Nigrescens’. Its black strap shaped leaves never fail to make an impact.

1. Firstly I got it all together to make sure I had enough plants and everything was to hand: bowl, crocks, compost, and plants. I then watered all plants thoroughly. This is really important, especially as I probably don’t water my planted containers as often at this time of the year.

1 Assemble ingredients

2. Next I put a few crocks over the drainage holes. This is to keep the drainage holes open. I don’t use too many because they take up too much compost space. Also I make sure that when my container is in position I raise it on a few pieces of broken tile to keep the base of the container off the ground. This keeps the drainage hole open.

2. Use crocks for drainage

3. I then put a layer of compost in the bowl. I use a mixture of multi-purpose compost with loam based compost. This mix does not dry out as easily as multi-purpose compost on its own. Some gardeners add controlled release fertiliser at this stage. I often leave this out in autumn and add it in early spring to keep those plants going.

3 Add compost

4. I knock the carex out of its pot and position towards the back of the bowl. Its sparking olive, orange-tinged leaves want to rise over the rest of the planting.

4 First plant carex

5. Next I position the Heucherella ‘Sweet Tea’ so that its leaves spread under the carex and over the side of the bowl. Even with just these two plants the planting has impact.

5 Add Heucherella

6. Next I position the ophiopogon in the centre at the front of the bowl. This leaves two planting pockets for the pansies. Before I attempt to plant those delicate little pansies I fill in between the other plants with compost, making sure there are no real gaps.

6. Add ophiopogon

7. I then plant the pansies in the gaps, they pick up on the colours of the other subjects and add that magical contrasting blue. They are positively jewel-like against the terracotta bowl.

7 Add Violas

Then it’s just a matter of positioning the bowl and watering it thoroughly to settle the compost around the roots of the plants. I will try and remember to deadhead those pansies regularly. This stops seeds developing which can slow flower production. I could of course add a few dwarf bulbs for early spring flowers. It is also really important to keep a eye on watering throughout winter. Outdoor pots are often neglected in colder weather and this may be their downfall.

8 Container detail

This is a really simple container which could keep going through next year if you just change the pansies for a summer flowering subject next spring. Alternatively you could use the other plants in the ground or pot them individually. So before you just reach for your usual autumn bedding plants have a go at flower arranging with plants for some real fall colour.

9 Pot in position

Andy McIndoe

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