Sunday, September 25, 2011

Container gardens – a new look for a new season

A few easy changes in fall has transformed this
container into a stunning spring showcase with
pansies, 'Princess Irene' tulips and colorful
My design
It’s time to take out the summer annuals, tidy up what’s left and add a fresh splash of color for the fall and winter.  It’s always hard to rip out the abundant growth and see things relatively bare. Sweet potato vines have spilled over the containers, my favorite ‘Bonfire’ begonias still have a good display of fiery flowers and many geraniums are still providing a strong blast of color. Yet the reality is that as the temperatures drop these plants will go from marvelous to messy overnight. The trick is to replant the containers while the soil is still warm so that they can get established before cold weather. Here in the Pacific Northwest our ‘window’ is usually late September through the end of October.

Did you realize that our winter containers typically have to perform for 7-8 months? Think what an opportunity you are missing if you don’t plant up for this season. Even if you don’t intend to refresh all your containers at least do one or two by the front door and perhaps one you can see out of your kitchen window every day.

A simple and feminine combination in pink, silver and white.
In spring fragrant pink hyacinths and dwarf white
daffodils will add to the color story.
My design

I plant hundreds of containers for clients every season and I can’t afford any failures! Here are my tips for success.

Soil– you don’t need to replace the soil unless it is totally congested with roots. Just scratch up the surface, remove an inch or so and top dress with fresh compost or a rich potting soil with a high organic content such as Gardner and Bloome 'Blue Potting Mix’.

Fertilizer – at this time of year we want to promote root development rather than new soft growth which will be damaged by the first frosts. Bulb fertilizer is ideal for this - balanced fertilizers such as MiracleGro and Osmocote are not suitable for fall/winter designs.
Heavenly bamboo 'Moyers red' is
underplanted with assorted
evergreens for full sun
My design

Sun (6 hours+ of direct ‘sunlight’) – evergreen dwarf conifers are ideal candidates for container gardens with many varieties available. From golden Hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa) to the conical ‘Jean’s Dilly’ Alberta spruce (Picea glauca albertiana) or the silvery grey ‘Curly tops’ false cypress (Chamaecyparis pisifera)there’s one for every color scheme. Broadleaf evergreen options include the brightly variegated varieties of holly or soft foliage of heavenly bamboo (Nandina var.) whose feathery leaves add highlights of green, copper and chartreuse.

To replace the middle tier of annuals such as upright geraniums and zinnias my favorite is the ‘Peach flambé’ Heuchera which changes from mahogany to bright coppery tones as winter transitions to spring. Since a single plant fills 10-12” it a good choice for a budget conscious design. Evergreen grasses provide color and texture from the tough green and white variegated sedges ( Carex varieties) and the wispy Mexican feather grass (Stipa tenuissima) to the stiff fans of Japanese sweet flag ( Acorus var.)  in both gold or white variegation, the latter also taking shade. There are many colors of spurge (Euphorbia sp.) available– just be sure to select one of an appropriate size. The dark foliage of ‘Blackbird’ looks striking against chartreuse Monterey cypress ‘Goldcrest’, (Cupressus macrocarpa) and its bright green bracts echo the conifer color in spring. The ‘Glacier blue’ variety is an option for a cooler palette with its cream and blue-green variegated leaves.

Replace million bells, petunias, sweet potato vines and other edging plants with color spots such as pansies which will bloom now, sporadically through the winter and then burst with color in March. Or you might consider the perennial rockery pinks (Dianthus sp.) The variety ‘Firewitch’ stays nice and compact offering tufts of silvery grey leaves topped with bright pink, intensely fragrant flowers in spring, although mine are still blooming now! Don’t be nervous about adding short term color with asters or chrysanthemums either. By placing larger leaved plants next to them the gap will quickly be filled when these finish blooming – at which time I pull them out and add fresh soil/compost to fill the hole. Underplant these (and pansies) with spring bulbs (e.g. dwarf daffodils and tulips, crocus and hyacinths) and you’ll provide layers of color for many months.

Berried twigs add height and fall
highlights to this simple design
My design

Shade or part shade (less than 6 hours of direct light) – evergreen foliage is key here. Daphne (D. odora Aureo-marginata) may not bloom until spring buts its evergreen foliage with soft creamy white margins makes it worthy of a place year round, which is also the case with andromeda ‘Little heath’ (Pieris japonica) . Leucothoe ‘Rainbow’ is inexpensive and takes up plenty of space making it an economical choice. With elliptical leathery leaves splashed with shades of green, yellow and red, as well as fragrant spring flowers it has plenty of interest.  Autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosa) is a mainstay of my fall shade designs – I love the coppery new growth.

Blue cape plumbago flowers mingle with
lingonberries, autumn fern, heuchera and Vinca
'Illumination' in this shady combination.
My design

Color spots using flowers are trickier for shade but cape plumbago (Ceratostigma plumboides) is a pretty perennial trailer with cobalt blue flowers and red foliage in fall before going dormant in winter. In semi shaded areas this can be underplanted with snowdrops for spring interest.

Other evergreen ideas for sun;  Mexican orange blossom (Choisya ternata var. including the golden ‘Sundance’),  sedum ‘Angelina’ (also for part shade), variegated ivy, variegated thyme, dusty miller (Senecio ) - also for shade.

Other evergreen ideas for shade; bugle weed (Ajuga reptens ), elephant ears (Bergenia), sweet box (Sarcococca), camellia, yew, coral bells (Heuchera var.), Euonymus var. (also for sun), dwarf Rhododendrons, periwinkle (Vinca var. including the bright yellow and green 'Illumination')

For more inspiration look at the portfolio of fall and winter designs on my website.

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