Autumn plants for pots: ideas and varieties

Val Bourne / 23 September 2019

A well-planted autumn container can really make the shorter days feel brighter. Gardening expert Val Bourne shares her suggestions for colourful flowers and striking foliage.



Garden centres are always full of tempting plants and when you're planting up in autumn container you want to choose plants that can carry you towards winter. It might be ferns, grasses, evergreen shrubs, or fleshy leaved plants. You'll need a rugged container, probably terracotta or wood, to keep out the autumn chill and you'll need to find John Innes compost rather than a peat-based or wood-based one. This heavier compost is less likely to blow away in an autumn gale and it also holds nutrients and moisture far better than a lighter compost. You should also stand the plant on pot feet because at this time of year you can get very heavy rainfall.

Choose enduring foliage

When it comes to the plants it's far better to keep an open mind until you get to the garden centre. Take a trolley and then select one cracking plant. This might be a colourful phormium like the stripy orange ‘Flamingo’ or ‘Jester’, or a handsome, finely cut grass such as Carex Testacea, or a good evergreen such as Euonymus fortune ‘Emerald Gaiety’. Your key plant must be at the peak of perfection because as soon as you put a plant in a container it demands attention so it mustn't be at all shabby.

When you've chosen your key plant you need to choose your support cast and they must make a contrast with your key plant. If you've chosen a fine-tined grass or sedge you'll need some rounder foliage to set it off. With this in mind try to stick to your colour theme. If you've chosen colourful linear leaves in oranges and pinks seek out something that matches them slightly. Sedum ‘Matrona’, for instance, has plant leaves in pigeon-breast grey and pink. If you think you got a colour match place it in the trolley, next to your key plant, and carry on looking. Opt for foliage plants as much as possible because they'll carry on for much longer.

Gather seven plants together, ones that flatter each other, for a reasonable sized container because you're going to pack them in quite tightly. The good thing about doing this sort of foliage-based container is that, after a couple of years, plants can go in the garden. Make sure one of your plants is a trailer so it hangs over the edge and softens the arrangement. This could be an ivy, a sprawling fern or prostrate perennial.


Filling the container

When you get back fill your container about three quarters full of compost and place your key plant off centre, not in the middle. Place the other plants, arranging them as you go. Make sure your trailing plant is at the front and try to place your flowering plant (still in its pot) behind it and then backfill. As the flowering plant fades you can replace it with another one. It might be flowering heather, or violas, or an autumn flowering cyclamen. Once spring comes you can add potfuls of spring bulbs instead.

10 plants for colourful autumn foliage

Heuchera 'Cinnabar Silver'
Heuchera 'Cinnabar Silver'

Heucheras

Heucheras are foliage plants that come in all sorts of colours and the foliage persist through winter. Pinks and browns include ‘Apricot’ and ‘Berrie Smoothie’ and these could be used with a toning phormium. There are near-blacks and this colour is excellent with bright-green ferns or pale-green Carex ‘Frosted Curls’. Frosted silvery foliage, as found on ‘Cinnabar Silver’ is good with pink flowers. Brighter greens, heading towards a lime-green, include ‘Electric Green’ and ‘Lime Rickey’. Always look at the leaves because some have red veins and you can match this up to a red flower, or read leaf. Visit Plantagogo, a specialist heuchera nursery.

Euphorbia 'Blackbird'
Euphorbia 'Blackbird'

Evergreen euphorbias

Some euphorbias have excellent foliage in autumn and winter this and many have been bred to be compact enough for a container. ‘Blackbird’ has almost black foliage. ‘Silver Swan’ and ‘Tasmanian Tiger’ are variegated creams and greens. E. x martini has downy, grey-green foliage and lime-green flowers studded with a starry tomato eye. Euphorbia sap is an irritant so do take care when cutting back or planting.

Find out how to grow euphorbias

Ivy in container with winter-flowering heather
Ivy in container with winter-flowering heather

Ivies

A visit to Fibrex Nurseries website will show you how versatile ivy can be. Most garden centres will only have one or two but this specialist nursery but have a full range of glossy greens and variegated ivies. Go for non-climbing varieties of Hedera helix such as the all-green ‘Ivalace’, or the bushy bright-yellow “Jake’, or the all-green ‘Anita’. Garden centres also banned have a basic range of trailers and they're good at spilling down a pot.

Find out how to grow ivy

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Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescen'

Evergreen sedges, grasses and grass-like plants

These add texture and colour to any container. The black strappy Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’ can be used in so many ways. Chauffeur silver-leafed cyclamen or two, or surround an evergreen shrub. Upright carexes move in the slightest breeze and, when winter descends, the ones with very fine fibre-optic foliage catch the frost. There are also spidery looking ones with variegated foliage these can be very useful in a container relying on all-green foliage, such as ‘Evergold’.

Skimmia x confusa 'Kew Green'
Skimmia x confusa 'Kew Green'

Evergreen Shrubs

Think small when it comes to containers an opt for skimmias, sarcococca, evergreen euonymus, hebes and slow-growing hedgehog holly. Hebes have very attractive foliage that is often red-edged, so skin meal with red berries could be a perfect partner. The lovely skimmia ‘Kew Green’ has all green foliage and pointed panicles of scented cream flowers. The buds form early in a real feature later in the year.

Read about the best foliage for winter gardens

Nandina domestica
Nandina domestica

Nandina domestica

Nandina domestica bamboo-like plant turns to deep fiery red in autumn and ‘Fire Power’ is selected from with vivid, lipstick-red autumn foliage. It needs a warm position most people find it easier in a container than in the garden. Bamboos generally make good container plants, planted on their own, because they have colourful stems an evergreen foliage that casts magic-lantern pattern of light and shade.

Dead Nettles 'White Nancy'
Dead nettle 'White Nancy'

Lamium maculatum ‘White Nancy’

This ornamental dead nettle has frosted foliage neatly edged in green an early white flowers follow. It's an extremely good filler in containers and it does tend to flow over the edges. Try it with a dark phormium like ‘Purple Tower’ or ‘Purple Sensation’.

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Ajuga reptans 'Black Scallop'
Ajuga reptans 'Black Scallop'

Ajuga reptans (Bugle)

In the garden this is a ground cover plant, but there are some handsome forms very suited to containers. ‘Atropurpurea’ as bronzed oval leaves leaves. ‘Black Scallop’ has spoon-shaped darker foliage. ‘Burgundy Glow’ is a mixture of pink and silver variegation and the larger leaved ‘Caitlin’s Giant’ has almost bergenia-like foliage. They all produce blue flowers in late spring.

Asplenium scolopendrium 'Crispum'
Asplenium scolopendrium 'Crispum'

Ferns

Hardy ferns are extremely budding containers, whether you grow them singly or mixing with other foliage plants. The ones with good winter foliage include hart’s tongue ferns and one of the best is the wavy-edged Asplenium scolopendrium Crispum Group. Polypodies are also excellent in winter. The specialist fern nursery Fibrex can advise.

Find out about the best ferns for winter interest

Good flowering plants for autumn sparkle

Erica carnea
Erica carnea

Winter-flowering heather (Erica carnea)

These are mass produced in Holland and always available and there are pink and white forms. There are upright stance and needle-like foliage make some very useful in containers because they add a vertical presence. They’re both good with silvered foliage or create a contrast with plummy heucheras or larger leaves.

Find out how to grow winter-flowering heather

Cyclamen hederifolium
Cyclamen hederifolium

Cyclamen

There are lots of cyclamen is around in autumn and their swept-back flowers shine in low sun and they are often flattered by silvered heart-shaped leaves. The truly hardy autumn-flowering cyclamen is C. hederifolium and this can have completely silvered foliage all veined foliage, with white or pink flowers. This makes a large corm in time, so keep it in a pot for just a year and then release it into the garden giving it a bright spot. There are also lots of red-flowered bedding cyclamen and these are not hardy. Frost affects them very badly, but if you've got a sheltered spot these will give you weeks of flower.

Viola
Viola

Violas

There are so many different violas on offer, but generally it's the smaller flowered violas that look best in a container. Go for one shade or colour and the oranges our extremely good with dark foliage. The blue-toned pansies come the yellows seem to go with everything. If you like the larger flowered ones put them in dedicated pots. Choose a sturdy terracotta and enjoy them up until the first frosts. They need shade and shelter but they can be spectacular in autumn light. If you find small pots in a garden centre you can dot them in to a large container.

Find out about different winter bedding plant options

Chrysanthemums in a container
Chrysanthemums

Chrysanthemums

Chrysanthemums are making a comeback but it's the miniature or shorter varieties that look better in containers. They come in all sorts of colours including pink and gold. They’re autumnal so best planted on their own once September arrives.

Find out how to grow chrysanthemums

Dahlia 'Happy Single Flame'
Dahlia 'Happy Single Flame'

Dahlias

At this time of year you may well find shorter dahlias in the bedding section. Look out the Happy Series because the single dahlias have been bred for container use. The look best on their own and if you find a taller variety at this time of year it's quite possible to grow it in a larger pot. Simply drop the plastic pot into your terracotta pot or similar. Keep an eye out for snails in the gap.

Find out how to grow dahlias

Sedum causticola (Stonecrop)
Sedum causticola (Stonecrop)

Sedums

Sedums come into their own in August because they have dome -shaped flowers and really good fleshy foliage. They’re very variable and some smaller forms, such as Sedum cauticola ‘Coca Cola’ and ‘Vera Jameson’, provide dusky, trailing foliage. You could also use ‘Purple Emperor’ in larger pots because the neat, dark foliage lingers well and this ruby-red flowered form makes good chocolate-coloured seed heads.

Find out how to grow succulents

Alstroemeria 'Indian Summer'
Alstroemeria 'Indian Summer'

Alstroemeria ‘Indian Summer’

This dusky leaved orange and red alstroemeria flowers late and it's very hardy. It would go well in a terracotta pot and it should still be flowering in early November. Keep it somewhere dry and sheltered and then plant it outside next spring.

Find out how to grow alstroemerias

Salvia 'Amistad'
Salvia 'Amistad'

Salvia

So many salvias speak at this time of year, because these South American firecrackers thrive on short days. You should find the rich-blue ‘Amistad’ in garden centres now and a selection shorter salvias such as ‘Love and Wishes’. Although not hardy enough to come through British winters, they will flower until November in sheltered positions - although you might have to fleece them if there's a frosty night. They come in vivid colours like bright-red because in the wild many our hummingbird pollinated. They had a touch the exotic at this time of year.

Find out how to grow salvias

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