Notes From The Back Yard August 2003: Fall Planters

Notes From My Backyard Aug 2003:
Fall Planters

As I enjoy a sip of sun tea on the patio on this beautiful summer evening, it is hard to concentrate on the task at hand…Fall Planters. Just the very notion we will soon be needing more than shorts and sandals and a tee-shirt makes me shudder like a kid walking by the Back-To-School section at Wal-Mart. I gaze out at the Dahlias just coming into their fullest, my Big Mama pole beans that are making my garden fence disappear, and my lovely beige lawn and think to myself Good Grief I am getting eaten alive by mosquitoes!

Back inside gazing at the newest bulb and grass catalogues…I am back on track with a serious case of I-want-itis! Because each year I try to amuse the mailman and papergirl with some truly funky pot-art. A kind of apology for having made them put up with the evil hounds throwing themselves at the window each time they dare to approach with offerings of news and bills.

We will start with some of the fall planter basics:

Drainage…drainage…drainage. Whether you are starting from scratch, or just replanting in your summer planters check the drainage. Later fall and winter usually mean rain, and lots of it. A couple of inches of small rocks, Styrofoam peanut chips, small plastic pots (4 inch size or so), depending on the depth of your planter. For smaller perennials, pansies etc. you need only about 8-12 inches of soil. If you are planting some larger shrubs or trees for a permanent display you want the depth of the root ball, plus 8-12 inches of soil for root development. The rest is drainage. Pot feet help prevent an algae build-up under your pots, as will the roller pot platforms and drainage trays.

Choose your Planter. Have fun with this! You can pick just about anything you can put drainage holes in…myself, I have been eyeing my hubbys old work boots, a picnic basket that has seen better days, and the dog dish with the crack down the side that says FIDO on it. Think I will use the ceramic planter with the ex-petunias in it that someone forgot to water, I will not mention names, but someones old work boots are now sporting drainage holes! If you are choosing ceramic planters, frost resistant versions are your best choice for longevity. The new zinc and galvanized planters are pretty hardy, as well as some of the newer plastic planters and of course the lovely cast iron is just about indestructible. Most of us in the Lower Mainland can be pretty safe with most of the glazed ceramic pots as long as your display is up close to your house, and preferably under the overhang. If there is an excess amount of water in your ceramic planter, and the weather happens to dip below freezing, you risk a chance of cracking your pot. If you choose ceramic, frost resistant or otherwise, closely inspect both the inside and outside for hairline cracks or weaknesses. If you find any, save that pot for the summer, and pick another.

Talking Dirt. If starting fresh, any well draining planter box mixture will do. I use a lot of perennials and shrubs so I boost my soil with some aged compost. You can by it at the nursery if you do not have any. A couple of handfuls of sand is good too (I grab mine from the sandbox when my children are not looking). No fertilizing, unless I layer in some bulbs, and then I add a little bit of bulb food.

Go Big. Plants are not going to grow much over winter so what you see is what you get. I cram in the plants and then divide up and move to my garden in the spring.

Ok now that you have been armed with the basics…Lets have some fun!!

Bright Ideas. Alright, the good stuff and in no particular order.

-Leave a spot for a jar or plastic yogurt container that you can sink into your planter. You can fill it with cut flowers from your garden throughout fall, or some flaming red twig dogwood stems, bright yellow contorted willow or contorted filbert prunings. If you replenish the water in the container now and again, you can easily start roots on the cuttings and have style at the same time.

-Accessorize your planters- fill up your planters with baby pumpkins, dried corn, and straw for fall. Pipe-cleaner spiders, and assorted ghostly objects fill mine at Halloween. Pinecones, holly sprigs, cedar and fir branches for Christmas. I used the copper slug tape to wrap around my pine boughs kind of like tinsel. Pebbles, shells, glass beads and marbles from the dollar store, painted rocks and broken garden tools have all found their way into my planters at one time or another and remember, everything looks good with raffia tied around it…especially work boots belonging to you know who.

-If your pots are less than attractive, wrap burlap around them and tie with…raffia. You can also use ribbon. If you live in a cold area, the burlap will hide the extra insulation such as straw, leaves, bubble wrap, and Styrofoam chips.

-Think spring with bulbs – I love to layer in mixed bulbs such as Snowdrops, Crocus, and Chinodoxa. This year I think I will frolic with some of the smaller Fritillaria, and Allium, as well as some of the fragrant mini Narcissi. You can also layer bulbs underneath one another for an extended display. Try and place the bulbs under a somewhat open spot, perhaps where you have placed the pinecones, that way they will not displace some other plant. Do not panic if you have not planned an open spot. Your bulbs will find their way to the top.

-Remember the lighter colours show up better during those dreary winter days. Try to mix in some yellow, silver or white into your display.

Plant Pics- Time to rip out that Dracaena, yes, that means you too Mom. Now that you have those containers all ready to go, I thought I would share some of my faves with you.

-Grasses, grasses, grasses! I absolutely love them. Especially the Carex family. Carex buchanii is one of my tried and tested. If you have a square planter or crate you can make a checker board pattern with Festuca gautleri Pic Carlit and Festuca glauca Sea Urchin, or any of the contrasting Festucas or Thymes for that matter. The cheery gold Acorus gramineus Minimus Aureus brightens up a gloomy entry.

-Sempervivum hybrids, my kids love em. Check out Sempervivum arachnoideum…vewwwy scawwey.

-Evergreen Perennials – Gaultheria procumbens, Heuchera Plum Pudding and Chocolate Ruffles (I think I have not yet met a Heuchera I did not fall in love with), Euphorbia amygdaloides Purpurea, Martinii and myrsinites (in no particular order), Bergenia cordifolia Baby Doll, and variegated ivy to round out the group .

-Herbs – Lovely and useful too! I use Rosemary, Salvia Icterina(gold leaved Sage), Salvia Purpurascens and of course Tricolour. The mixed Thymus varieties are fun to work with too.

-Evergreen Ferns - Asplenium scolopendrium and Cyrtomium falcatum are my favorites.

-Shrubs – Boxwood gives your pot a lovely formal look and looks especially nice tied with…yes, raffia. The Chamaecyparis family has some great dwarf evergreens, and Abies balsamia Nana looks very smart in a pot.

Enjoy! I am off to read A Fly Went By and another chapters installment of Dinosaur Soup to some weary kids. Please send us your questions or comments by email on our Ask the Experts page.

If you are overworked, overtired, or just do not feel like planting up a fall planter, bring in anything with drainage holes and well plant it up for you. Come on, try us, we dare you!

My Sun Tea Recipe:


  • In a giant glass jar with lid, or plastic ex-cranberry juice jug, place 3 teabags, and fill with water. I used Rooibos tea…apparently very good for you and makes me feel better about all the sugar I add to this recipe.
  • Leave tea out in the sun, or on a windowsill for about 3 hours.
  • Add 1 lemon sliced…skin and all, or you could use lemon balm if you have it in your garden.
  • 3 sprigs of Lavender.
  • 3-4 sprigs Mint…I used Ginger Mint.
  • Sugar or honey to taste. If you have taste buds like me, you use a lot. You can also add Stevia leaves (a natural sugar replacement) if you have the herb in your garden, or extract if you prefer.
  • If you have particularly nasty children like mine, you will find 1 peeled orange crayon, one rock from the garden, and 3 Big Mama pole beans which you had earlier believed one of your children to have eaten at supper time, in the bottom of the jug. Still good though.

    Enjoy, Laurelle

    Send us in some recipes too, and we will add them to our News section!

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