Fall Container Change-outs

Are your summer or early fall container gardens looking tired? Change out your container gardens to extend your displays well into the fall.

PHOTO: Fall container garden with asters, mums, cabbages, and kale.
A fall container garden with asters, mums, cabbages, and kale. Photo by Tim Pollak

Gardening in containers can offer us year-round seasonal interest, and we can extend the garden seasons to create vibrant container gardens. I’m a huge fan of fall container gardens with a rich variety of color, texture, and hardiness that carry their beauty well beyond the first frost. 

A container garden that changes its appearance from one season to another is the definition of a seasonal “change-out” concept. Change-outs can be done by simply removing or adding one or more plants, objects, or other material to the container to add seasonal interest. Color alone can offer more impact on the container garden than any other design element. (However, nothing has more negative impact on the container garden than a poorly maintained appearance or bloomed-out flowers.)

PHOTO: Tall grasses at the back of this basin garden offset blooming fall annuals.
Tall grasses at the back of this basin garden offset blooming fall annuals. Photo by Tim Pollak

Change-outs should take advantage of seasonal blooming plants and colorful foliage and textures in prime condition. The change-out can add instant color or texture to the display and create a “wow” from one season to another. Color schemes can change through the seasons as well, such as pastels and soft tones in the spring, bright and colorful combinations in the summer, warm and autumn-like colors in the fall, to greens and interesting textures in the winter. Your container gardens can change and develop through the year much like a garden bed or border do in the landscape.

While chrysanthemums still reign supreme in many gardens and containers every fall, try other interesting plants such as asters, ornamental or flowering kale and cabbage, heuchera, pansies and violas, and ornamental grasses. These plants all are cold hardy, and will tolerate light frosts, lasting well through the autumn season.

PHOTO: A fall container with grass, pansies, and heuchera, which comes in a host of leaf colors.
A fall container with grass, pansies, and heuchera, which comes in a host of leaf colors. Photo by Tim Pollak

I love the combination of using purple or blue asters with ornamental kale—the colors play off each other nicely in a long-lasting display. Using other lesser-known plants—such as some of the fall-blooming salvias—can add height and create interesting combinations in your container gardens. Cold-hardy vegetables and herbs can also be added for interest and texture. I like using swiss chard, broccoli, Asian greens, parsley, and alliums to add interesting and colorful effects to my containers.

Another thing I like to do when creating fall displays in containers is to incorporate pumpkins, gourds, dried corn, branches and leaves of trees or shrubs, and autumn or Halloween decorations. A fun and simple addition to your fall containers may be to simply carve out a large pumpkin and use the pumpkin as a container, placing a combination of fall plants in it to decorate your front door or patio.

PHOTO: Fall container garden with cabbages, asters, and curry plant.
A fall container garden planted with cabbages, asters, and curry plant. Photo by Tim Pollak

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Mumtastic Mums!

obilisque 1206The fall mum display at the Chicago Botanic Garden is an annual tradition that requires careful planning and attention to detail. We wanted to let you know what it takes to grow over 13,000 mums each year and train them into interesting shapes and forms.

The first mums you’ll notice are located at the entrance to the Visitor Center. Four 10-foot tall obelisk-shaped mum towers were planted with gold colored mums, named ‘Golden Spell.’ The obelisks are fitted with an internal watering system that allows for easier and even water distribution to the sides of the towers. About 260 plants go into each one of these towers and it takes about 6-12 hours each week to maintain them through the summer months.

Mum Hayracks 2007_WCB9112

Our fall hayracks cascade over the bridge between the Visitor Center and the Crescent Garden. We grow two sets of these to provide blooms throughout the fall season. Each set lasts from 3-4 weeks. This year we grew a yellow anemone type named ‘Megumi’ and a bronze colored daisy type mum named ‘Vernal Falls’.  Starting in February, we take all the cuttings for the hayracks from our stock of plants. Fifteen plants go into each hayrack frame and it takes 24 hayracks and 6 side planters to cover the bridge. We spend about 16-20 hours per week training the stems to grow down instead of up. We weigh the stems down with hexagon nuts and spend the summer pinching and trimming the plants to maintain the shape.

PHOTO: Mums being trained to a basket shape.

We also plant 108 giant mum containers for the display in the Esplanade and other gardens. Starting in June, with the help of our summer interns, we spend three days planting about 40-70 plants in each container. We use hanging basket frames to train the mums into a rounded shape. We shear the to_RJC3228 Esplanade Mumsps twice during the summer and use growth regulators to keep the growth compact.  The last shearing is done no later than July 22. We are constantly feeding the mums and watering every other day to keep them in good health.


Finally, we planted two varieties of cascading mums this year in the Malott Japanese Garden: a white anemone flowered mum, named ‘Snowfall,’ and a yellow mum, named ‘Megumi.’ These mums are trained to cascade down a mesh screen.Cascade Mums_WCB0293