Creative Fall Containers Start With Foliage Plants

Three creative fall containers by Marion of Mullan Nursery Company
Three creative fall containers by Marion of Mullan Nursery Company
Creative Fall Containers photogrpahed by Marion of Mullan Nursery
Creative Fall Display photographed by Marion of Mullan Nursery


Fall is probably my favorite season for creating great container combos. I love the colors, richer and more textural than spring containers, and enjoy pulling in some fun accessories such as gourds, pumpkins, grasses, and curly willow. Go to the garden center in October and November, and shrubs are there for the taking at give away prices. Shrubs are a great starting point for an all season container.

Fall container with pumpkin and grass
Fall container with pumpkin and grass

When I put a fall combination together, I tend to work with “blocks” of solid colors, like the mum, or green autumn fern above. Using perennials such as ferns, ivy, grasses, mums, coral bells, bergenia, violas, lamium, etc., means that I can have a long-lasting container or all season arrangement that will have a new life in the spring. When the weather warms up after a long winter, I simply pull out the dead annual plants,  groom the perennials that are left, and add a blooming annual to spruce the entire container up with little fuss or cost.

Bergenia with its large leaves has burgundy highlights in the Winter. Lamium is hanging down the side and 'Southern Comfort' Heuchera is on the right.
Bergenia with its large leaves has burgundy highlights in the Winter. Lamium is hanging down the side and ‘Southern Comfort’ Heuchera is on the right.

The all season container above looked like this in January.  The Heuchera was a little wilted, but it remarkably stands up to all weather as well as the Bergenia and Lamium. The bonus is that the Bergenia turns a wonderful russet color in the cold weather.

The graceful lines of the evergreen Carex 'Evergold' looks good all the time
The graceful lines of the evergreen Carex ‘Evergold’ looks good all the time

Carex is also one of my go-to plants for winter. In the spring, I plant Caladiums to give a punch of color in this container with the Carex, and it sits in full shade with little care.


Fall containers depend on some work horses – namely grasses, cabbages, evergreens, heucheras, euphorbias, ferns, pansies, dusty miller, and mums. I feel that by designing and planting a good all season container in the fall, I am setting the stage for next year’s plantings, which saves me a lot of work and cost in the busy spring season.

Most of the plants I have mentioned are foliage plants. The selling point for me when choosing a plant, is the beauty and lasting power of the foliage. Budget conscious consumers are picking up on this and investing in beautiful foliage plants, and not concentrating on just the flowers. Flowers are fleeting, foliage is long-lasting.

These Zinnias are showcased by the foliage
These Zinnias are showcased by the foliage
Fall container with kale, cabbage, mums, ivy, and dusty miller- courtesy of Leigh Barnes of Companion Plantings
Fall container with kale, cabbage, mums, ivy, and dusty miller- courtesy of Leigh Barnes of Companion Plantings
Fall container at Ladew Topiary Gardens
Fall container at Ladew Topiary Garden


Labyrinth Plantings

Peaceful vantage point
Peaceful vantage point

Last year, I posted about installing a stone labyrinth for a client.  We started in the fall, worked through the winter, and just finished up the spring plantings. Go to Healing Labyrinth-Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3, to see how I created and implemented the design and installation.

The theme for the plantings was pollinator friendly shrubs and perennials to surround and embrace the labyrinth to soften the harshness of stone and to bring nature in. When it came time to plant, I had to consider that the site is shady to part sun, with some parts in full sun, so I had to use an entire spectrum of plants that would attract pollinators.

Hillside above labyrinth planted with many native plants

Where the wall surrounds the labyrinth pathway, I left a small space of 6″ to plant something simple but beautiful to soften the stone edge in the shade.  Hakenochloa ‘All Gold’ was chosen for its bright color in the shade and its graceful form. It has no attribute as a pollinator friendly plant, but was perfect for the spot. A slow grower that stays under 12″ high, the grass will not outgrow its space and is very low maintenance.

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Hakenochloa All Gold
Hakenochloa All Gold

The only plantings that were original were extremely fragrant pink climbing roses on the fence. I kept them as a backdrop for the new plantings.

Clethra ‘Ruby Spice’

The garden surrounding the labyrinth is in partial to full sun and I went wild with the pollinator friendly plants.  The main shrub that I used was Clethra ‘Ruby Spice’ –  seven of them spotted around the space. Clethra is a highly fragrant deciduous shrub that blooms in July and August in shade and partial shade and is frequently visited by an array of pollinators.  The racemes of dark pink flowers last for weeks and the foliage turns a bright yellow in the fall.

Butterfly bushes were also used to give late summer color as well as perennials such as stachys hummelo, salvias, sedum, vernonia, hibiscus, coral bells, and nepeta. A few annuals were selected for color and pollinator appeal –  petunias and pentas.

Just planted bed with stepping stones planted with grass seed
Just planted bed with stepping stones planted with grass seed
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Planted area 6 weeks later

The upper slope over-looking the labyrinth was in full shade and was planted with colorful foliage plants-coral bells, hostas, carex, toad lily, Lenten Rose, tiarella, brunnera, lamium, heucherellas, and woodland phlox to give texture and brighten the shady area.

Toad Lily- bees love this in the fall
Toad Lily- bees love this in the fall
Hillside of foliage plants for shade
Hillside of foliage plants for shade

Under the teak bench, I planted Mazus, a steppable creeping plant with tiny purple flowers.

Mazus is a purple flowered creeper


In and among the rocks of the water feature, I planted several Deutzias for spring bloom, and variegated Iris, sedums, annuals, coral bells, and balloon flower. The water feature looked very stark without any plantings, so I was careful to plant things next to and within the rocks surrounding it so that plants would cascade over it.

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Water feature 3 years later in the spring

To frame the picture, and provide some privacy, a screen of Skip Cherry Laurels was planted behind the fence to anchor the new space. These will eventually grow up to over 8 feet and knit together for a nice hedge.

Planting the Cherry Laurels for a screen
Planting the Cherry Laurels for a screen
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Downward view of labyrinth with Helleborus in the foreground
A Helleborus or Lenten Rose opening up in the winter
Clethras turn a wonderful yellow color in the fall

Little Cuties Are A Rainbow Of Colors

Sugar Berry Little Cutie Heuchera series- This one is my favorite
Sugar Berry Little Cutie Heuchera series- This one is my favorite

I post a lot about miniature gardens and accessories and am always looking for different plants to set these gardens off. I found a series of miniature plants that sport stunning color combos for 2013! They are called ‘Little Cutie’ Coral Bells. The colors are phenomenal, and they are spicing up containers for the spring. I got most of these pictures from Terra Nova Nursery in Oregon.

Little Cutie
Peppermint Little Cutie Heuchera

I was plodding down the aisles of a local wholesale nursery laden precariously with flats of plants on each arm, and did an about-face when I came upon these beauties. The nursery was trialing them in small quantities before plunging into planting greater numbers, and I begged to take a few of them home. I knew exactly what to do with them. My favorite was one called ‘Sugar Berry’ which had a beautiful rose garnet coloring with venation that I am going to use in containers and miniature gardens.

Sweet Tart Little Cutie
Sweet Tart Little Cutie

According to the information that I can gather, they have:

  • An ever blooming habit
  • Long season of interest
  • Vigorous with multiple crowns to fill a pot
  • A great size for mixed containers
  • Perfect for rock, train, and fairy gardens
  • Attractive to butterflies and bees
  • Suitable as house plants!!

From Terra Nova Nurseries, they have been hybridized by Dan Heims in Oregon.

Flat of Llittle Cutie Heucheras
Flat of Llittle Cutie Heucheras

There are 6 varieties of this series with a rainbow of names – Sugar Berry, Ginger Snap, Sweet Tart, Coco, Peppermint, and Frost. The flowers are actually very pretty also, which is unusual for a Heuchera (Coral Bells), and they claim to remain small in stature and evergreen. Playing well with others and not overtaking a container is another of their notable characteristics. Good drainage is the secret of success with Coral Bells and one reason that they do well in containers. Morning sun and afternoon shade is their preferred light requirement. As with any other Heuchera, as the plant grows, the crown elongates and rises up out of the soil. To remedy this, you can lift and divide the plant every few years, and make sure you don’t bury the crown.

Coco Little Cutie Heuchera
Coco Little Cutie Heuchera
Little cuties in pots
Little cuties in pots

I am trying a few of these in my containers and miniature gardens and hope that they perform as good as the reviews say. Sometimes plant introductions are too good to be true, and I am disappointed when they don’t pan out.  I will keep you posted!

50 Shades of Black

‘Black Coffee’ Begonia

Black is Beautiful

For my updated post on black flowers, check out Black Goes With Everything.

There has been an explosion of black flowers and foliage in the past couple of years in the gardening world.  It started out as a trickle and now is a tsunami of everything black! When I go to the nursery and look at new cultivars of annuals, perennials, and shrubs, all shades of black predominates.

But you have to know how to use black for the best effect. I like to place black flowers or foliage next to very bright intense colors, such as hot pink or lime green to get the biggest impact. The black color gives the eye a rest when you pair it with bright vibrant colors. If you place black plants next to darker hued plants, it just doesn’t work and the black color fades in the background. So use black carefully and site it with some thought.

Black Pearl Plant

Black plants can also echo other plants that have black stems, black venation or black undertones. I find that if you have a boring or blah border, black instantaneously ramps up the visual interest. It can become a focal point if you have a particularly beautiful black plant. I like this Alternanthera ‘Black Night’ in a container with large glossy leaves that echoes the black spiller which is a trailing Alternanthera.

Unknown black plant with alternanthera spiller and black petunia

There are all different hues and variations on black and sometimes the amount of sunlight a plant receives will affect the coloration. Also, juvenile foliage will generally be a darker, more intense, shade. In the plant trade describing many of the black plants, you hear adjectives such as chocolate, deep burgundy, midnight, or coffee.


Jack in the Pulpits

Arisaema sikokanum with chocolate coloration

The Japanese Cobra Lily, Arisaema sikokanum, is an elegant cousin to our native Jack in the Pulpit. The spadix is a pure marshmallow white which gives the flower such great contrast.  It looks like a flower all decked out in black tie ready for a party! Tres chic! And the scarlet berries make this expensive plant worth the money.

English: Jack-in-the-pulpit seed berries
English: Jack-in-the-pulpit seed berries (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A Jack-in-the-pulpit in the Allegheny National...
A Jack-in-the-pulpit in the Allegheny National Forest, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In feng shui, which is used frequently in landscape design, black is the color of mystery and sophistication. Black is the negation of color but next to any other color, it will make the color black stand out.

Black phantom petunia


I love the new black petunias! The colors are novel and I tried them for the first time last year. The profusion of flowers faded by the end of the summer and I am watching to see if they do any better this year.  Even if they don’t perform as well as other petunias, I will probably continue to grow them because of the wow factor. I think the black petunias are closest to the true black color.

Sweetunia Black Satin


Black Lace Elderberry, Sambucas nigra, is one of those plants that you can grow not only for the feathery graceful foliage, but also the near black coloration.  The foliage is similar to a cut leaf maple but with dark hues for added drama. To complete the picture, umbels of pink-hued flowers appear in the summer followed by berries snatched up by wildlife. Elderberry is a cut-back shrub, like a butterfly bush, and will grow at least 6 feet during the growing season.

Sambucus nigra, Elderberry



Planting a black Canna into a container
Planting a black Canna into a container


For instant drama, in a perennial border, pop in the dark, dark Cannas like Canna ‘Australia’, with a midnight burgundy coloration that holds up all summer long.  Topping off the plant at around 5 to 6 feet high are shocking fire engine red flowers that hummingbirds will visit frequently.

The black foliage of the Canna makes it stand out
The black foliage of the Canna makes it stand out


The same benefits of using black plants in your borders hold true for containers. Use them with contrasting colors to let the other colors pop.

Container with black Agave
Chocolate Ajuga used in a container
The black center of this African Daisy adds drama
The black center of this African Daisy adds drama

Sweet Potato Vine

I am sure everyone who does containers is familiar with the Sweet Potato Vine.  This annual trailing vine up to 15 feet long is becoming ubiquitous in containers.  I like to pop it into the garden to twine around shrubs and perennials.  It is especially effective in newly planted gardens with lots of blank spaces to fill. The vine grows quickly – sometimes too quickly! – and then dies with the first frost. Then you can dig up the huge sweet potato that forms underground and save it to plant for next year. This black Sweet Potato Vine is called ‘Illusion Midnight Lace’. There is   another one called ‘Ace of Spades’.

‘Midnight Illusion’ Lace Sweet Potato Vine
Black Sweet Potato Vine with Pineapple plant, Eucomis


Black has reached the plant world in every plant group and succulents are really big now so why not black succulents? I love them, but they can be quite prickly and hard to work with.

Black Agave
Black Sempervivum ‘Dark Beauty’


No discussion of black plants is complete without mentioning Heucheras or Coral Bells.  There must be thousands of varieties of these by now –  the plant hybridizers are going crazy with them! I like the black one called ‘Frosted Violet’. This one has dark black venation that makes the leaves stand out. ‘Black Out’ is another Heuchera that I am dying to try. There are too many Heucheras and not enough time.

Heuchera ‘Frosted Violet’
Heuchera 'Blackout'
Heuchera ‘Blackout’