Extension News

Something Different for Your Fall Containers

Note to media editors: This is the Garden Column for use during the week beginning Oct. 17.


By Ann Marie VanDerZanden
Department of Horticulture
Iowa State University

The changing colors that happen throughout the landscape in autumn make now a great time to make changes to container gardens. If Mother Nature cooperates, we can have a lovely, long fall and you will be able to enjoy your new creations for a few more months. Last year around this time, I wrote about using plants other than mums for fall containers. Its not that I don’t like mums in containers, it is just that there are so many other choices to consider. From that article, I received a number of requests for more suggestions of mum alternatives. I have decided to expand last year’s list with a few more suggestions.

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. Another option is to do a little research on the Internet. Some growers, Proven Winners for example, have websites 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 containers. Experiment with new color combinations, as well as new textures and plant forms.

My list this year includes a few herbaceous perennial, groundcovers and woody plants that have attractive stems or fall fruit. The perennials and groundcovers 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 with a whole new look that will be beautiful all summer long.

Herbaceous Perennials

When selecting perennials, choose plants with different leaf sizes, shapes and textures in order to create a lot of visual interest. Over the past few years a number of coral bells (Heuchera spp.), have come on the market, and as a group they provide an array of color and texture for containers. 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; and ‘Amethyst Mist’ with deep purple leaves and a hint of green.

Other perennials that provide fall interest in containers include the Blue Stars including Amsonia tabernamontana (Blue Star), Amsonia ciliata (Downy Blue Star), and Amsonia hubrechtii (Arkansas Blue Star). All have clear yellow fall color, and the narrow foliage of the Downy and Arkansas Blue Stars gives these species the added bonus of creating an interesting textural contrast with other plants in the containers.

Bloody Cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum) has a nice mounding shape and brilliant red fall color that develops after the plant experiences a hard frost. Purple Sage (Salvia officinalis 'Purpurascens') has a loose and open growth habit which works well as a filler in containers. The purple green leaves also have a pebbled texture that adds even more interest.


Groundcovers are a great addition to containers because their growth habit allows them to cascade down the sides of containers. Three cultivars of Bugleweed (Ajuga reptans) to consider are Burgundy Glow, Mahogany and Chocolate Chip. Burgundy Glow has pretty white and green variegated leaves with a hint of pink. The younger leaves are an intense pink, especially in cool temperatures. Mahogany has deep, rich mahogany leaves while the leaves of Chocolate Chip are dark green splashed with chocolate and burgundy highlights. The leaves of Chocolate Chip are also thinner and longer than other Bugleweeds.

Woody Plants with Attractive Stems and or Fruit

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, but this year consider using freshly cut stems from woody plants that have brightly colored stems or those with fruit. The striking stems of Redtwig Dogwood (Cornus stolonifera) and Yellow Twig Dogwood (Cornus sericea 'Budd's Yellow') create a strong color and form contrast with other plants in the container.

This time of year crabapple trees are loaded with red, yellow and almost purple colored fruit. Select a few stems that have lots of dangling fruit to add an interesting twist to your containers. Shrubs that often have beautiful fruit this time of year include beautyberry (Callicarpa) with many small vibrant purple fruits, and common snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus) and coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) with miniature-marshmallow sized white and reddish fruit, respectively. 

I hope the list of plants I have described provides inspiration for you to try something new and different with your containers this fall.


Contacts :

Ann Marie VanDerZanden, Horticulture, (515) 294-5075, vanderza@iastate.edu

Del Marks, Extension Communications and External Relations, (515) 294-9807, delmarks@iastate.edu