Plants for Creative Fall Container Gardens

Combine Intenz™ Dark Purple spike celosia, variegated sedge, and a dusty purple ornamental cabbage for a fun fall container trio.

Tired of planting the same old door-side potted chrysanthemums year after year?  Then upgrade this year’s containers! Lots of cool new fall plants have bold good looks and bright colors to make container design a lot more exciting.

What makes a container plant great for fall? Its must flaunt its best color through the season and shine up until the first frost or beyond. Those that tough it out after frost include ornamental cabbages, kales, and Swiss chard. Some of these fall beauties will even survive through winter as evergreen biennials or perennials. Here are some of our favorites for creative late-season container gardening.

Super Celosias and Amaranths

The plume Celosia ‘Fresh Look Red’ will ignite your fall containers.

Celosias and amaranths (two closely related plants) of all shapes, sizes, and colors have become available for fall gardening. These include spike celosia (Celosia spicata), classic cockscomb, plume celosias (Celosia cristata), and purple-leaved amaranths (Amaranthus spp.). The annuals are rugged and tolerant of heat as well as the cooling temperatures of fall, so they can be planted in summer and continue to look bright through fall. Just remember to remove any old blooms that start to lose color. This will encourage new flowers to appear.

Pretty Peppers

Jolly pots of mixed ornamental peppers make great additions to mixed fall container gardens.

Ornamental peppers start to look great by late summer, and their pretty fruits of orange, yellow, red, or purple will retain their color up until frost. Some even boast deep purple foliage as well as pretty fruits. The hot ornamentals mix well with any seasonal garden flower or plant, and you can even save seeds for spring sowing. The peppers are also edible and spicy, with varying degrees of flavor. (See the video below for more designs using ornamental peppers.)

Happy Heirloom Squash

A slate-blue hubbard squash, white ‘Cotton Candy’ pumpkin, and bumpy ‘Galeux d’Eysines’ pumpkin are nestled in a pot of Proven Winners’ Diamond Frost® Euphorbia.

Unusual pumpkins and winter squash are all the rage and look lovely when nestled in pots alongside complementary fall flowers. Most are very tasty, so it’s nice to bring them indoors before a hard freeze, so you can enjoy them in Thanksgiving pies, soups, or cakes. (Click here to learn how to process squash for pie.) Look for collections of squash that look good together or with your favorite fall flowers.

Sumptuous Evergreen Sedges

A single mop of evergreen ‘Toffee Twist’ sedge will fill a pot, adding interest to other colorful potted plants.

Many grassy sedges are tough evergreen perennials that add an airy appeal to fall containers and mix well with practically any fall flower. Some lovely evergreen sedges to try include the gold-edged Japanese sedge (Carex morrowii ‘Gold Band’, 12 inches, USDA Hardiness Zones 5-9) or white-edged Silver Sceptre sedge (Carex ‘Silver Sceptre’, 12-18 inches, Zones 5-9); both have tidy bunches of colorful, curvaceous, strappy leaves that flow over container edges. Another star for containers is the finer, hair-like Toffee Twist sedge (Carex flagellifera ‘Toffee Twist’, 12-16 inches, Zones 7-9), a Proven Winners® plant with fine, caramel-colored foliage that looks great all winter.

Sturdy Succulents

A nest of evergreen hens & chicks is brightened by a single ‘Sweet Lightning’ mini winter squash.

Hardy succulents of all shapes and sizes look great in fall containers and will even survive the winter, where hardy. Go simple by nestling a few hens & chicks (Sempervivum spp.) within a small planter embellished with a few decorative additions. Or, go bold by planting a big, blooming sedum along with other fall flowers. Tall sedums are showy in fall, and there are many fabulous varieties to discover. (Click here to read more about tall sedums.)

Miniature Plants

Tiny hens & chicks, mosses, cabbages, thyme, heather, and sweet alyssum bring this mini fall garden to life.

Creating seasonal containers in miniature is a popular trend. Tiny hens & chicks, mosses, heathers, ornamental cabbages, and flowers give broad pots or troughs an alpine or rock garden look. Place plantings like these on an outdoor dinner or side table where they can be enjoyed up close. You can even try making your own hypertufa trough or centerpiece for attractive little fall plantings. (Click here to learn how to make your own hypertufa centerpiece.)

Planting Fall Containers

Give mums a lift with additions like purple heuchera, Sedum Rock ‘N Grow® Popstar, and arching willow branches.

Choose festive containers and arrangements of plants, and pair them according to color, size, height, and texture. For best results, choose good-fit containers that will accommodate the plants you have chosen, and fill them with Black Gold All Purpose Mix, which has excellent porosity and water-holding ability for great results. Keep pots watered through fall and feed them with quality plant food, such as Proven Winners® Premium Water Soluble Plant Food for Flowering Plants. Once hard cold hits, remove any unsightly dead annuals and leave any perennials in the pots for spring.

To get more excellent fall container garden planting and design tips, read Black Gold’s sponsored article on Garden Therapy: Fall Container Care and Maintenance + DIY Container Ideas!

Sweetgum for Fall Sunset Color Out West

“Red oaks are supposed to turn red in the fall, not brown.” People always ask why their eastern tree colors turn dull and crispy by Thanksgiving in California. “Are you sure you planted the same species I requested?”

I’ve repeated this mistake way too many times to newcomers to the state. When grown in regions with warmer, more arid climates, the chemical process that results in fall leaf color isn’t there for red oaks, pin oaks, maples, and other eastern and northern hardwoods. (Click here to read more about the cause of fall leaf color.)

Eastern Trees in Southwestern Autumns

These columnar sweetgums show the tree’s color range, from dark red and purple to pink and yellow. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

Fall color in these trees is incredibly iffy in California, where resources are less bountiful, and autumn temperatures do not drop at night like they do in the north and east. Where native, the leaves of these hardwoods accrue lots of colorful pigments and they die rather than slowly, declining over a long period in fall to show maximum color once their green chlorophyll is gone. That’s why I recommend one reliable eastern hardwood species to my California clients who miss the autumn color change from back east.

Sweetgum For Fall Color

Some varieties, like ‘Moraine’, have the perfect dark red to a burgundy color range.

I can always count on American sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua) for fantastic color. It’s a native of the American east with a potential four-century life span and height reaching up to 130 feet. I’ve seen them deep in the northern Louisiana bayous proving their tolerance for poorly drained clay soils as well as dry ones. The tree bears amber-like resin which led to the genus name Liquidambar, which means liquid amber. The dried resin (or sweetgum) was sweet enough to be popular chewing gum for Native Americans and settlers alike.

Sweetgum is the only tree I know for a guaranteed rainbow of reliable fall colors along the mild southern California coast and further inland where winter has shorter days and is a few degrees cooler than summer. So, no matter where planted, American sweetgum will perform.

Sweetgums product lots of brown prickly fruits.

Fall also brings a wealth of prickly, brown sweetgum fruits, which are easily collected and often self-sow. Sweetgums grown from seed yield a great range of color variability. The hues of its palm-shaped leaves can range from vivid magenta to red, orange, canary yellow, burgundy, and dark purple. Among seed-grown trees, each individual displays its colors irregularly, with some darker, others lighter, and a few simply dull. This is why buying or selecting unlabeled or unnamed sweetgum saplings is best done in the fall to see their color.

Over the years growers selected the very brightest seedlings of their seed-grown trees. These were grown separately to study that individual’s color over time to ensure reliable color. Will that color be stable each year?  If so, propagating that tree by cuttings would yield identical clones with guaranteed color every year.

Sweetgum Varieties

A fall colored driveway is indeed possible in California. (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

When a new variety is vetted and approved, which takes decades, it’s propagated and given a cultivar and/or trade name. One of the most popular is the narrow ‘Festival’ (20 feet x 60 feet), which is an excellent choice for smaller residential landscapes. Its columnar form fits into tight spaces between buildings. Line several up along a driveway for a stunning entry experience in the fall. This clone offers a virtual rainbow of warm colors that are so powerful they create a focal point for any late-season garden. ‘Festival’ turns super bright yellow, orange, and red in the fall with a few smoky tones and purples. Bear in mind that it is slightly less cold hardy than the species, surviving to USDA Hardiness Zone 7.

For those looking for stronger reds specifically, consider the fast-growing ‘Moraine’ (Zones 5-8), which is recorded to take slightly more cold than ‘Festival’. It has the perfect dark red to a burgundy color range that makes it a fine alternative to that red oak. Keep in mind that Moraine’s canopy has a more spreading, pyramidal form, which makes it a better shade tree. Plant it as a single specimen tree or in a grove to intensify your yard’s fall color mass.

One of the best for the Pacific Coast is  ‘Palo Alto’ (Zones 6-9), a good clone renowned for powerful bright reds. It is a well-shaped pyramidal tree that’s ideal for groves and makes a nice companion to coastal redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) and Deodar cedars (Cedrus deodara).

If you do not like the messy fruit of sweetgum, consider the low to no fruiting ‘Rotundiloba’, which has rounded leaves with pretty but highly variable fall color.

Before you take a chance on an unproven tree for fall color, take a good look at sweetgums this fall when they bear their prettiest dresses. Purchase what pleases your eye, then plant with generous amounts of Black Gold Garden Compost Blend to improve water penetration before the winter rains for flawless performance over the next 400 years. (Click here for a complete how-to guide for tree planting.)