WICHE: Cool plants for fall containers

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With a little planning, you can keep things intersting in your planters.

By Jeneen Wiche

This time of the year we usually start to think about cleaning off the front porch, emptying containers of declining summer annuals and replacing them with something a little showy for the fall.

 We hope that the old standby of mums will persist through the onset of winter, but that depends on the weather and the shape the mums were in when we purchased them. I have seen some that still look largely intact and others that are ready to be pulled.

I love the warm tones of mums and there is some nostalgia to consider. Mums are the visual trigger that reminds us of the cool, bright days that makes autumn so comforting. But there are bolder and longer-lasting blooms to consider for fall and early winter containers that prove more long-lasting.

Pansies, of course, are one of the hardiest of annuals when it comes to frost and freezing temperatures. The word pansy actually comes from the French word meaning “to think.”

Penser, to think, became pansy because the face of the bloom looks as though it is in deep thought. Take a look.

Pansy does not suggest faint of heart, as some might think. Alas, this dainty bloom is equipped with the fortitude to make it through a frost, freeze and a couple inches of snow. In fact, the snow is a blessing because it insulates the plant from the ambient air temperature.

Flowering or ornamental kale will withstand the worst weather fall can throw at it. The waxy texture of the leaves of flowering kale protects it from frost.

Last year I received a mixed container of kale, grasses and pansies just before Christmas, and it lasted on the front porch all winter long and rebounded in great glory come spring.

The ruffled leaves of flowering kale come in just about every color combination now.

Ornamental grasses are great in a container for fall interest. We enjoy the waving brown blades in the garden, so why not in a container? Most will be root hardy in a container with a little extra mulch during an average Kentuckiana winter. Wild oats, feather reed and carex are a few I have tried in the past with success.

Hardy sedums also lend a great deal of color and texture for fall containers. If you pot up a container of sedum “Autumn Joy” earlier in the season, you can cycle the container for display as other annuals begin to fade.

The plant will look good even after the flower heads have faded to brown. Before a hard freeze sink the container in the ground or set it aside and mulch it well to protect the roots from freezing temperatures.

Quite a few perennial herbs can withstand some cold while filling a container for fall interest. Santolina, oregano, rosemary, sage, lavender and thyme will do well in a container culture until freezing temperatures demand some root protection. This is the key, really.

Plants that are tolerant to frost and freeze above the soil line are relatively tolerant to freezing temperatures below the soil line, but once temperatures consistently dip below freezing, roots in a container do not have the same protection as roots in the ground.

One way to protect container plants is to double-pot them. Sink the plant and soil-filled pot into a pot that is a couple of sizes larger, and fill the empty space with mulch.

This is a good approach for containers filled with perennials that maintain some “dried” interest after they have been zapped for the winter. You can continue to enjoy the dried effects of ornamental grasses or sedum while protecting the root system so they can remain viable the following season as a container plant or be planted out in the garden next spring.

For perennial plants that have no lasting effects, just plant them out in the garden or mulch them into your compost pile in order to protect their roots over winter.

 And, for your favorite cold tolerant annuals, just enjoy them as long as the season will allow and be glad that you had the foresight to plan a container that will last beyond geraniums and petunias.


Check out gardening columnist Jeneen Wiche’s work at www.SwallowRailFarm.com. You can find her columns also at www.SentinelNews.com/agriculture. She answers questions once a month in SentinelNewsPlus. To submit a question, send an E-mail to jwiche@shelbybb.netand type “Sentinel-News” in the subject field.