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.



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