The Secret To Creating Fabulous Fall Containers

Cool-season flowering plants

Listen up! Now is the perfect time to replace faded summer blooms with cool season annuals in your fall containers. With the sun lower in the sky, a whole new spectrum of colors suddenly looks fresh and appealing. And fall containers don’t have to be all about ornamental kale or mums. With a little ingenuity, you can dream up planters every bit as beautiful as their lush summer cousins.

Fall’s Warm Color Palette

Fall container colors take their cue from nature; think deep plums, fiery crimsons, golden yellows and rich burgundies. These tones look great in almost any combination, just as they do in their natural environments.

Fall’s warm hues

Interestingly, most fall colors are found adjacent to each other on the color wheel. But, autumn can serve up some surprises as well. Have you ever noticed how red, yellow or orange leaves really stand out against a green backdrop? These colors, found opposite each other on the wheel, make for some dynamic contrasts.

The color wheel is the perfect jumping-off point for designing a great fall container.

Design Idea #1:  Use adjacent colors to add richness to a composition and play with perspective.

Colors located next to each other on the color wheel make for rich combinations and help play with perspective. When used in combination, ‘active’ colors such as orange, yellow and red, appear to advance towards the viewer. Use adjacent colors in fall containers to call attention to an area or make a space seem larger.

Hot-colored zinnias

Cool colors such as violets, blues and greens, also found adjacent to each other on the color wheel, do just the opposite. These ‘passive’ colors quiet things down and make plantings appear to recede. Use passive colors in fall containers as a backdrop to active colors or to add a sense of depth to your patio or garden.

Cool-colored asters

Design Idea #2:  Use complementary colors to create dramatic and eye-catching compositions.

Using colors that lie directly opposite each other on the color wheel, like red and green or yellow and purple, add drama to fall containers. That’s because when used in combination, these complementary colors intensify each other. Red, for instance, looks more vibrant when silhouetted against a green background. And purple and yellow pansies, a staple of many fall landscapes, make for a bold statement.

Red and green set up a dynamic contrast

Design Idea #3: Go monochromatic 

Of course you can always choose to highlight just one color or use a single species in your fall containers. Design-wise, this provides an unbroken space by allowing the eye to sweep across it. There’s no right answer. It’s entirely up to you.

Single species fall container

Planning your container:  Thrillers, Fillers and Spillers

When designing my fall containers, I use a technique first introduced by Steve Silk for Fine Gardening Magazine; it’s called Thrillers, Fillers and Spillers. Grouping plants into these three distinct categories as you make your purchases helps organize them according to height, impact and the role they will play in the overall look of your container. Here’s how it works:

Thrillers. Thrillers are the “wow” factor plant that goes in the middle of the container (or back of the container if it’s against a wall.) The largest plant by height, this plant is usually architectural and bold and sets the tone for the overall composition. Examples are grasses, tall perennials and upright plants with stiff blades in dramatic colors. Great examples of fall thrillers include:

Purple fountain grass


Yellow sweet flag

Fillers: these are rounded or mounding plants that “fill” the mid sections of the planter, disguising leggy thrillers and adding mass to the container while providing color and/or textural contrast. Think of them as the glue that holds the container together, providing a backdrop for other plantings. Foliage plants and medium-sized flowering plants both make great fillers.

Of course, you can always use asters or mums for fillers, but consider trying some of these more unexpected species below.

Heuchera ‘Obsidian’

Ornamental kale

Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’

Marigolds (Tagetes)


Red salvia


Orange viola

To spice things up, you can also add silver.

Dusty Miller

Spillers: these are the cascading plants that finish off the edges of the container and add drama. Spillers continue the theme begun by the thriller, either in color, texture or contrasting form. Interesting fall spillers include:


Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia)

Sweet potato vine

English ivy

REMEMBER: Before making your purchases, first determine if your fall containers will be in sun or shade. Then read the plant tags to make sure your selections are appropriate for that environment.

Putting it all together

So once you’ve organized your design, it’s time to create your fall container. Start by filling your pots 3/4 way full with good, organic potting mix. Then, plant your thriller, twisting it into the soil. Continue with your fillers, installing them around the base of the thriller. Add your spillers at the end.

Back fill with the remaining soil to cover roots (remembering to disturb them slightly before planting.) It’s OK to pack the plants in; there won’t be much growth in the fall.

IMPORTANT:  Fall container plants need food and water. Just because it’s cool, doesn’t mean they can survive on their own. Feeding new plants with a timed-release fertilizer at the beginning of the fall should keep them looking their best until the first frost. They will also need occasional deadheading. Once established, plants should require only minimal care.



Flowering Kale: The Coolest Cool-Season Ornamental

The distinctive rosette of ornamental kale

Long before it became a trending food, flowering kale was a garden star, delivering a pop of color to fall’s graying landscape. The ornamental plant is not only prized for its ruffled foliage and spectacular rosette, it’s one of only a few species that actually thrives in cold weather. In fact, flowering kale likes cool temperatures so much that it often stays attractive well into winter, making it the perfect choice for fall gardens and containers.

What is the difference between cabbage and kale?

A lot of people think cabbage and kale are the same, but technically they are not. Although they are members of the same species, Brassica oleracea (which also includes broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts), the two plants are structurally different. Cabbage is a multi-layered vegetable whose leaves come together to form a head.

Cabbage head growing in the garden

Cabbage heads

By contrast, kale produces a more upright cluster of leaves in the center of the plant called a rosette.

Ornamental kale

Both flowering kale and cabbage (also known as ornamental kale and cabbage) are highly prized for their large, colorful leaves that add interest to the fall/early winter garden. While both are considered kale (due to their inner rosettes), in nurseries you will generally find varieties whose leaves are broad and flat labelled as cabbage and those with ruffled, crinkled or curled leaves labelled as kale.

Both plants are edible, but beware- their bitter taste makes them better suited to garnishes.

Born to beautiful

Selectively bred to produce spectacular leaves and rosettes, flowering kale comes in many shapes and sizes. The outer leaves are typically blue-green and the rosettes, which grow larger as temperatures cool, shift gradually from soft green to bright shades of pink, red, white, yellow and purple.

The distinctive, blue-green outer leaves of flowering kale

This vivid coloring and exotic form make ornamental kale a stunning addition to fall gardens where it complements other cool-season flowers such as chrysanthemums and pansies.

Flowering kale rosette featuring ruffled edges

And best of all, once nighttime temperatures fall below 60 degrees, the rosettes start taking on increasingly vibrant colors. Flowering kale usually reaches a crescendo of color just after the first frost, with some plants maintaining their intensity all the way until spring.

Low maintenance

Ornamental kale and cabbage require very little maintenance and are bothered by few pests. Plants prefer moist, well-drained soil and benefit from lots of feeding. For the best color, plant your specimens in full sun.

Look for larger plants (one gallon size), since there won’t be much top growth after September. Keep spacing tight (10 to 12 inches) to encourage the florets to remain small and watch as daily, the leaves intensify in color. Plants generally attain a width of approximately one foot.

Here are some of the more popular varieties:

Redbor is a tall variety with narrow, upright deep purple, ruffled leaves. It is the tallest kale grown and can reach as high as 3 feet tall. Aside from its interesting texture and stunning burst of color, it looks great in the garden massed behind smaller cool-season annuals like chrysanthemums, pansies and violas.

Purple-leaved Redbor kale

Peacock series ornamental kale are large, open and frilly plants that can grow to 2 feet across. They feature deeply serrated, feather-like leaves that surround cream or red-toned centers. Extremely cold hardy, they can survive even the harshest of winters.

Deeply serrated, feather-like leaves distinguish Peacock kale

Pigeon Series (Pigeon Pink and Pigeon Red Pigeon Purple and Pigeon White) ornamental kale most closely resemble cabbage with their tight rosettes of light pink, dark red or creamy white. The round-shaped plants have wavy outer leaves that remain medium to dark green while the flower-like centers change color.

The tight rosettes of ornamental kale ‘Pigeon Series’

Osaka Pink, Osaka White and Osaka Red are often termed ornamental cabbage due to their smooth, flat leaves and tightly-packed florets. The plants produce layers of wavy edged leaves that remain green while the plants’ center rosettes change to bright purple, pink or cream.

Osaka series ornamental kale has flat green leaves like cabbage

Ideas for designing with flowering kale

Due to its large size, flowering kale looks great when planted alone in single pots. It also works well when massed in the garden, particularly when different varieties are combined to form patterns.  The plants really shine in a parterre garden, where the dense green leaves of surrounding evergreen shrubbery act as a counterpoint to the colorful, broad-leaved ornamentals.

Parterre with two different varieties of ornamental kale/

In larger containers and planter boxes, stunning compositions can be created from the taller, frilly purple and green kale varieties and the rounder, broad-leaf Osaka. Here, the trailing ends of bright green lysimachia soften the mix.

The Impatient Gardener/Pinterest

In this smaller pot, I’ve combined baby kale with soft peach stock flower, apricot diascia and lime green lysimachia to complement the border plantings of heucheras, hostas and ferns.

Fall container with ornamental kale/

Since ornamental kale maintains its color well into winter, it makes a great addition to any cold-weather container. Here, a creamy white variety is paired with weeping evergreen foliage, pinecones and yellow catkins in a stunning winter arrangement.

Photo: Canadian Gardening/

In the garden, deep purple kales like Redbor pair beautifully with salmon chrysanthemums and ornamental grasses such as Maiden grass that feature creamy white plumes.

Photo: Hoosier Gardener/

When combining flowering kales with other plants, think about varying the foliage. Here, purple fountain grass and lime green potato vine provide color and texture contrast to this frilly purple variety.

Photo: Three Dogs In A Garden/

Ready to get started? Check out your local nursery for the newest varieties and don’t be afraid to combine them with other cool-season annuals in your fall pots and containers. And don’t forget evergreen branches, dried flower heads, catkins and berries, all of which add interest to containers and help pump up the volume.


Giant Corpse Flower Unleashes Its Stinky Scent In Denver

corpse flower

Corpse flower

It was like it was meant to be. Three years ago, I wrote about a rare corpse flower called ‘Stinky’ that was blooming at the Denver Botanic Gardens. This was the first time the 15-year old, putrid-smelling plant had flowered since 2007. The event made national news because up until then Stinky had been in a vegetative state, producing a single leaf, but no flower for almost a decade. Continue reading

The Real Lives Of Yellow Jackets And How To Eliminate Them

Eastern yellow jacket cleaning itself on a leaf

Recently I wrote a blog post about bees, wasps and hornets and how to tell the difference. To add interest to the story, I created a graphic featuring 4 common species and asked my readers to identify them. One reader labeled three of them correctly and labeled the fourth one ‘jerk.’ (Actually he used more colorful language, but this is a family blog). That ‘jerk’ was the yellow jacket. Continue reading

Help Save The Monarchs With These 4 Great Milkweeds

Monarch butterfly on swamp milkweed

Last week, I was manning the booth at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds Demonstration Garden (yes, it’s a mouthful), when someone plopped a tall, spindly plant down onto the table. The plant looked pretty pitiful; the flowers were long gone and the lance-shaped leaves had circular holes in them. But upon closer inspection, I spotted a few lantern-shaped chrysalises and some colorful caterpillars working their way up the stems. The plant was none other than milkweed and the ‘lanterns’ contained baby monarchs in the process of forming. Continue reading

The Best Late-Summer Flowers For Your August/September Garden

In mid August, it’s sometimes hard not to look at your garden and throw in the towel. By that, I mean take out the pruners and cut down all the moldy, dried out stems or simply turn a blind eye to the whole debacle. But that would be a shame with so many late-summer flowers just now coming into their own. It just takes a little advance planning and some careful pruning and you can have a garden that keeps flowering all the way until fall. Continue reading

Step Back In Time On the Trails of Harpers Ferry, WV


“The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature… worth a voyage across the Atlantic.” – Thomas Jefferson, 1783

When the sign points left to Maine and right to Georgia, you know you are smack dab in the middle of the Appalachian Trail. The two states, on either extremity of the eastern seaboard of the United States, are 1,165 and 1,013 miles away, respectively. This is the famous crossroads in the tiny town of Harpers Ferry, one of the few towns the trail passes through. It is also the site of some of the most significant Civil War battles and a national park of incomparable beauty. Continue reading

Garden Style: Going For Baroque In Prague’s Beautiful Vrtba Garden

Prague’s Vrtba Garden

With only one vowel, it can prove hard to pronounce, but beautiful Vrtba Garden easily speaks to all languages. The little architectural gem, reached through a discreet gate in Karmelitská Street, is one of the most important Baroque gardens in Prague. In addition to its exuberant design, the terraced garden has a viewing platform that provides an exceptional vista on the city. And as I discovered recently, it’s a great place to pick up some tips on how to style a small garden. Continue reading

Sanssouci: The No-Worries Garden Just A Stone’s Throw From Berlin

Potsdam’s Sanssouci Palace

Last time I was in Berlin, the city was still stained dark gray by the soot of post-WWII deterioration. But this week I returned to find the metropolis almost unrecognizable. Everywhere there are signs of improvements, scaffolding and construction. There is one place, however, that remains unchanged; that is, Potsdam’s stunning Sanssouci Palace and gardens. I made a return visit yesterday. Continue reading

Managing Hydrangeas: To Prune Or Not To Prune And Other Existential Questions

To prune or not to prune? That is one of the quintessential gardening questions. Recently I asked a top landscaper in Middleburg, Virginia to weigh in on the issue. “When is the best time to prune hydrangeas without destroying next year’s flowers?” I asked. Her reply?

“Never,” she said with a laugh. “But your best shot is after they’ve bloomed.”

It turns out that knowing how and when to prune hydrangeas involves first, knowing what kind of hydrangeas you have growing in your garden. Different varieties require different pruning methods. Prune at the wrong time and you risk trimming off next year’s blooms. It all starts with knowing whether your hydrangeas flower on old or new wood. Continue reading