By Ann Marie VanDerZanden
Iowa State University
Fall is by far my favorite time of year. I love the way the landscape is transformed from basic green to striking hues of crimson, deep yellow and rich violet. Just as the woody and herbaceous landscape plants begin to take on new colors, so can container plantings. Consider removing your tired annuals and replacing them with plants to complement the changing color scheme in your garden. Now is a great time to experiment with new color combinations, as well as new textures and plant forms.
It's not that I don’t like mums in containers, it is just that there are so many other choices to consider. If you are interested in trying something new and different, but aren’t sure where to start, I suggest visiting a local nursery or garden center to see their container plantings first hand, or do a little research on the Internet. Some growers, Proven Winners for example, have Web sites that showcase beautiful container combinations. The pictures are gorgeous and the "container recipe" that accompanies the image provides all of the information you need in order to recreate the same planting for your own garden.
To help get you started, I’ve put together a list of mum alternatives to consider. My list includes a few woody shrubs and herbaceous perennials. These types of plants can be left in a container year round if they are protected during winter. In the spring you can add summer blooming annuals to create a container that will look great for the whole growing season.
Container size will influence the size of shrub to use. My recommendations are for smaller shrubs that will work in most large containers. Itea virginica 'Sprich,' Little Henry Dwarf Sweetspire has a low, mounded growth habit that is about 2 feet wide by 2 feet tall. It has outstanding red fall color. A bonus is the 2-3” long racemes of fragrant, white, spring flowers. Goldmound spirea, Spiraea 'Goldmound,' has a similar size and shape as the Little Henry Dwarf Sweetspire. The yellow-green leaf color makes it a bright addition to a fall container planting. The evergreen foliage, and trailing growth habit of Emerald ‘n Gold euonymus and Emerald Gaiety euonymus make these two plants a useful addition to a container. Emerald ‘n Gold has dark glossy green leaves with a bright yellow leaf margin. Emerald Gaiety, on the other hand, has a white leaf margin that turns a pinkish color in colder weather.
In the past few years a number of new coral bells (Heuchera spp.) have been released. The last two summers I have planted coral bells in containers and have been very pleased with how well they have looked all season, including into the fall. Although the flowers are nice, I suggest selecting cultivars based on the foliage color and texture. A few cultivars to consider include: 'Licorice,' a dark purple almost black leaf; ‘Mocha Mint,’ a grayish-green leaf with purple veins; ‘Peach Melba,’ an apricot-colored leaf; ‘Key Lime Pie,’ a bright chartreuse green; ‘Creme Brulee’ and ‘Amber Waves,’ both with light orangish-green leaves; and ‘Amethyst Mist,’ has deep purple leaves with a hint of green. All of these coral bells look great in combination with each other because there is enough variation in leaf size, shape and texture to provide a lot of visual interest.
Upright and Fine Texture Focal Points
Container recipes often call for a focal point, which can be accomplished by using a plant that has a different form and or texture than other plants in the container. Ornamental grasses are often used as focal points because of their distinctive growth habit. Grasses that provide outstanding fall color include cultivars of common switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) such as ‘Hänse Herms’ (burgundy), ‘Shenandoah’ (dark burgundy) and ‘Campfire’ (mix of orange and red). Dwarf purple fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum ‘Red Riding Hood’) has beautiful purple-red leaves and creamy pink flower stalks in the fall. Another group of plants with fine texture and upright growth habit is the sedges (Carex spp.) In our climate these are grown as annuals. Cultivars I suggest include ‘Toffee Twist,’ ‘Carmen Bronze,’ ‘Frosted Curls’ and ‘Jenneke.’
I hope the list of plants I have described provides inspiration for you to seek out some new and different species for your containers this fall. If mums really are a favorite plant of yours, then just mix in a few of these new plants to give your containers a new twist. Once your containers are planted, be sure to step back and enjoy the delightful colors of fall.