Planting containers in the shoulder season

September and October can be tricky times of the year when it comes to our container plantings.

Depending on our level of care, some of our pots may have pooped out by now while others are still looking lush and luxuriant.

In my case, I have close to 3 dozen containers in my garden, most of which get changed out twice a year. I decided to keep it simple this year and filled them with 96 geraniums (106 if you include my two window boxes), which I admit was a bit on the immoderate side, but in my defense, the nursery was long on them so I was just trying to help them out (isn’t it wonderful how we can rationalize our purchases). These pots of geraniums have been lovely with their vibrant blooms of red, salmon, orange, and pink (sorry, no white).

They are paired with 3 larger containers, each have a solo red leaf banana that is currently 4 feet tall and 4 feet wide, they just shout out SUMMER. And that is exactly the problem!

You see, as much as I love the before-mentioned containers, they just don’t feel right this time of year. With the lower angle of the sun, the longer shadows and shorter days, my brain has left summer and moved into fall. And while I am not ready to leap directly into winter hardy

perennials and dwarf shrubs for my containers, I can create new container plantings that contain both hardy plants and colorful “transition” plants. These will carry me through the fall season until the first killing frost, at which time I will rip out the faded fillers and replace them with pansies, under which I will poke a few spring blooming bulbs.

Fortunately, garden centers have just what we need to help us move from summer into winter in the form of what I like to call “transitional plants”. These are the fall blooming Mums, Asters and foliage plants like deciduous Ornamental Grasses, the non-hardy (but dramatic) large-leafed

Dusty Miller called ‘Angel Wings’, dark foliaged ‘Purple Majesty’ Millet or the golden form called ‘Jade Princess — both of which have incredible flower spikes that look like cat tails on steroids. There are, of course, the many forms of Ornamental Peppers available too, with their multi-colored fruit that remind me of a bowl of candy that mom used to put out this time of year.

There are oodles of other options as well.

At this point, I think it is important to remind ourselves that container plantings are really just bouquets of flowers with roots. Like any arrangement you might purchase from the store, not all the flowers will fade away at the same time. Alstroemeria seems to last forever while Irises are just a flash in the pan. And fillers like Asparagus Fern and Salal act as foundation plants, around which we can add or subtract other highlights. It is the same with “shoulder season” containers — the period between peak and off-peak seasons. You are creating a temporary arrangement, some of which will need to be replaced further down the road, and some of which will last much longer.

I know it can be hard to let go of summer, but now that it is officially fall, it is time to put away the summer wardrobe and haul out our fall and winter apparel. The same is true in the garden. If it will help, think of “shoulder season containers” as sweaters, not parkas. They will help us acclimate to this new season and prepare us for what is surely to come. Stay safe and keep on gardening!

Steve Smith represents Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville, WA and can be reached at

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