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Container Gardening in Fall

There are some special considerations when it comes to containers for fall color.

Contributors: Kerry Meyer

As summer slides into the dog days and heads towards fall, we may find ourselves thinking about freshening our container plantings.  Maybe the heat or vacations have left your planters looking less than stellar.  Maybe you're simply tired of what you have and looking for a change or want to get rid of the pinks and purples you loved in spring in favor of the more Autumn-like yellows, reds and bronzes.  While the basics of design and care don't really change for fall, there are a few things to consider.

Choosing Plants

In spring, you are likely choosing plants, at least partly, for their ability to withstand summer conditions - in other words, bright sun and hot temps.  When choosing plants for fall, their ability to withstand cool temperatures, including frost or even hard frost, is key to keeping your containers looking great for months.

Another trait to consider is the ability of the plant to bloom under shorter day-lengths.  Some plants need longer days to bloom.  The shorter days of fall and early winter can cause these plants to go out of bloom. There are plants that will bloom under shorter day lengths and do not mind, at all, if the temps get a bit frosty.  And, no you are NOT limited to mums, ornamental kale and pansies - although they are great plants for fall.  When looking at plants in our on-line database, plants that work for Fall are marked as having Fall Interest.

Fall is a great time to look to foliage for color.  There are many plants with foliage that is most colorful when the temps are cool. Heuchera, such as our Dolce® series is one example, as are most, but not all, ornamental grasses.  Foliage also adds color without the need for flowers.  However, not all foliage plants are good for Fall color - even some whose color palettes are perfect for Fall.  The two categories that immediately spring to mind are Coleus and Sweet Potato Vines.  The colors are pitch perfect and they seem to make perfect sense.  However, neither of them is at all frost tolerant - the first hint of frost is going to be damaging.

Hopefully your local garden centers are stocking plants that work for Fall, but it pays to ask questions of employees if you are uncertain about your potential purchases.

Planting

When potting up planters in spring, there are advantages to using fewer plants per container and leaving those plants plenty of room to grow.  But, Fall has a different set of circumstances.  While you are likely planting your containers while the temperatures are still quite warm, those temps are going to quickly begin cooling off.  As temperatures cool, plant growth slows or stops completely.  This means that plants potted up in the fall aren't going to show the amazing growth you get from those planted in spring, despite potentially providing color for months.  Fresh container plantings for Fall is when stuffing your pot full of plant material, with little room for growth, makes sense.  How full the container looks when you plant it is pretty close to how full it will look all fall.

Watering and Fertilizing

As mentioned before, the cooler temperatures of fall will lead to less plant growth.  Well, cool temperatures and smaller plants also lead to plants using less water.  Less water used means you don't need to water nearly as often as you've become accustomed to during the heat of summer.  As always it is best to check if a planter needs water before irrigating.  The deeper into fall you go, the less often you will need to water.  Water Your Way to Happy Plants is a great refresher on best practices for watering containers.  Don't be surprised if you need to water only once or twice a week.

Fertilizing is also different in Fall and is likely unnecessary.  In spring, we suggest applying a controlled release fertilizer at the time of planting and then potentially supplementing with water-soluble fertilizer after a couple of months of growth.  However, many of the controlled release fertilizers release fertilizers partially dependent on temperature.  Colder temperatures means little to no fertilizer is released for plant use.  However, unless you are in the deep south or sun-belt areas where fall is very extended and temperatures remain warm, your plants will not be growing vigorously enough to need fertilizer applications.  If you do feel as if fertilizer would be helpful for your plants, an application of water-soluble fertilizer will be more effective than controlled or slow-release fertilizers.

Frost Protection

While choosing frost tolerant plants is necessary, you might also want to add an extra level of protection for your plants when night temps get get close to 32 degrees.  If temperatures are expected to get unusually chilly for a few nights, before rebounding back to average for that time of year, it might make sense to use an old sheet or other light-weight fabric to cover your plants.  While doing this every night as temperatures decrease will be quite labor intensive and unnecessary, a bit of effort for a few unusually cool nights might be well-worth the effort.

Switch-Outs

If you use heavy decorative containers for your plants, such as ceramic or concrete, removing old soil and putting in new soil can be, literally and figuratively, painful.  One way to make planting easier is to find lightweight plastic containers that are the right size and shape so you can plant the plastic container and then just drop it inside of your decorative container.  When you want to replant, simply pull out the plastic container, compost or discard the plants, refill and replant the plastic container and drop it back into the decorative planter. 

You can take it one step further and buy two or more plastic containers for each decorative container.  A few weeks before you want to replace the current plant material, plant the extra liner.  This will get the new plants time to settle in, and then when you are ready you can remove and "replant" your decorative planter in no time at all.  This is also a great way to keep prominent containers looking fresh all summer, especially if you have an important event planned and want everything to look perfect.

Perennials in Pots

If you have perennials, or shrubs, in containers the article Pretty Potted Perennials covers the ins and outs specific to growing these types of plants in containers.

 

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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 06/27/2015 - 8:56am

I HAVE A GOOD SIZE GARDEN ,THE SOIL IS NO GOOD ,I PLANTED IN LARGE POTS ,EACH POTS HAVE 9 LARGE HOLES .WHEN I WATER I FEEL ALL THE WATER IS RUNNING OUT .IS IT ADVISABLE TH BLOCK THE HOLES ,IF SO WITH WHAT ,AND HOW MANY HOLES SHOULD BE ENOUGH TO KEEP THE PLANT HYDRATED FOR I DAY.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Thu, 08/10/2017 - 4:45pm

Greetings,
I have 14 cast stone pots around my property. I lined the bottom of them with stones to help direct the flow of the water. I find that this keeps the pot from cracking during temperature fluctuations, and tends to keep more of the water in the pot. I use a good potting soil along with a slow release fertilizer and have had good results.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Wed, 11/02/2016 - 9:34pm

Pieces of clay broken clay

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sun, 08/14/2016 - 3:50pm

I also plant in a lot of pots. What I find works well for me is using a coffee filter over the holes before adding the dirt. This allows water to drain but not too quickly and plants also do not sit in water too long. Hope this tip works for you too!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Fri, 08/14/2015 - 6:53pm

Here is something that people who sell containers forget to mention, and it is critical: Before adding your potting soil to your chosen container, place a square of poly screening material over the holes!! What you want is the type of screen you use for re-covering your screens for sliding doors, etc. A roll of it (well worth the cost) is about $10-$16 at Home Depot. Cut the square to cover all the holes, then add your soil and plants, watering well AFTER, not DURING your planting.
The screen prevents slugs and pillbugs from snacking on the roots of your plants, slows water drainage, keeps the soil in the pot, and helps your plant get plenty of water without having the 'runout' effect = the waterfall of liquid that happens if you allow the soil to become too dry, compacted and hard before watering.
Please remember that DARK colored plastic pots are heat magnets. This is fine during the winter, when you want your plant to have a bit of warmth, but in the hot hot southern California climate, it can be deadly. If you MUST use that kind of container, try to locate it so the base is in the shade, maybe where a wall or cachepot will shelter it from direct sunlight.. Avoid cooking the roots of your tender plants in the sun.
Another tip:
To help your potted plants obtain enough water throughout the root system, take a bamboo stick and push it through the soil, stirring and poking so you mix it up, breaking the clods compacted or hard dirt. Push all the way to the bottom of the pot, but be careful not to stab the main (larger) roots of your plant. NOW you're ready to water! Allow the plant to absorb one good drenching of water, allow to drain, and then do this again twice. Unless you are experiencing really hot weather, and the planter is unfinished ceramic --- once a week is usually ENOUGH. If the soil an inch or two under is damp, wait another day to water again. Remember, hot weather and soggy soil = root fungus, and you don't want that. Please use cool water -- let the hot water drain from the hose, into a bucket so you can use it later.
I hope this is helpful, and gives you an idea of what will keep your plants healthy and happy!
Your loving care and attention to little details like these will repay you with lots of flowers and healthy, lush foliage.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Fri, 08/14/2015 - 11:51am

When I find a pot has become too dry and water doesn't get absorbed into the soil, I add a squirt of dishwashing soap (no lemon!) to my watering can after it's been filled. The soap acts as a wetting agent and the water seems to penetrate into the soil and doesn't run out as quickly. Then I make sure to water more often. That solves the problem.

Kerry Meyer's picture
Kerry Meyer Tue, 08/18/2015 - 10:54am

As long as there are drainage holes in the container, the size and number aren't that important.  I wouldn't block any of the drainage holes.  If you wanted to cover them, you could cut pieces of plastic from the lids of empty butter or sour cream or other plastic containers and then lie them over half of the holes.  However, what is more important is the soil used in the containers.

Good potting soil will basically drain them same no matter the number of drainage holes.  It is formulated to have a certain amount of porosity so the plant roots have access to water, but also plenty of oxygen, which is also necessary for happy plants.

Now there is one quirk to soilless potting mix and that is if it gets really dry, it can become hydrophobic, which just means it more or less repels water.  When this happens, when you pour water into the container most of it will run down the sides of the containers and drain out, without soaking into the soil.  If you had small containers I would suggest puttng water in a large tub and then sitting the containers in the tub and letting them there for an hour or so each to soak up water into the soil.  Doing that with large containers is also possible, it's just harder on your back!

If moving the containers to soak in a tub of water isn't feasible, then the next best thing is to choose a time when you you will be home all morning or afternoon.  Water each planter, then give it a half hour or so to soak in.  Then water again.  Allow another 30 minutes for the water to soak in.  Repeat until the soil is moistened throughout.

Kerry

Proven Winners

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Wed, 02/18/2015 - 7:49pm

Hard to find beautiful containers like the ones I see in magazines.

Cindy Meyers's picture
Cindy Meyers Mon, 02/23/2015 - 12:15pm

Thank you for contacting Proven Winners. We offer a "Find A Retailer" area on our website, that would help you in locating retailers who carry Proven Winners plants and containers. The link to that page is: https://www.provenwinners.com/retailers/
Thank you!
Cindy

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Thu, 10/23/2014 - 2:42pm

We use varieties from your Dolce® series a lot in the fall. Their gorgeous varying foliage is a real treat and mixing the wide array of strong contrasting colors--like Key Lime and Licorice--allow us to bring real drama to dim planting areas. With the weaker sun of fall & winter we can use them virtually anywhere

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Tue, 08/26/2014 - 1:20pm

I just planted this plant and its starting to look a little sick. the leaves are dropping. do I need to water it more I water It once a day. It is in full sun all day. Also I live in New Jersey an I in the right planting zone for the plant Thanks

Stacey Hirvela's picture
Stacey Hirvela Thu, 08/28/2014 - 12:21pm

How much water are you giving it? Depending on your weather and your soil, it may be getting too much water. Though newly planted shrubs do need lots of water to get established, especially if it is hot and sunny, if your soil does not drain well, it may be rotting the roots. You'll need to dig around the root zone of the plant a bit and see what's going on - is it wet and muddy, or is it dry and powdery? If it is wet, back off the watering, and water the plant more thoroughly every 3 days or so. If it is dry, give it more water each time you water, and check it often to see if the soil is getting too dry.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Wed, 08/27/2014 - 4:23pm

Lucky you. I have not seen a blue chiffon and it sounds delicious. Mine are solid white and soft lilac (3plants). It could be
too much water or heat. I am in central Texas near Waco and the temperature is 100 for the last week. I water once a
week deeply. My Rose of Sharon was about 12" about 3 years ago and are now about 7' tall and 5'wide. Good luck for
this is a beautiful showy plant.

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