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

Talk to us

More in Life

Brian Geppert holds a birdhouse made of skis at his home in Lynnwood, Washington on Saturday, March 11, 2023. Geppert started a recycling program for the greater Seattle area, which has saved hundreds of skis from their demise. He turns the skis into functional art for the home, such as coat racks, bottle openers, bookends, shelves, candle sconces, toilet plungers, beer flights, and more. (Annie Barker / The Herald)
Boeing engineer turns old ski gear into household essentials

If Lynnwood’s Brian Geppert isn’t on the slopes, then he’s turning skis into coat racks and bottle openers.

Give your home some extra love with a deep clean this spring. (Jennifer Bardsley)
Roll up your sleeves and tackle these 15 spring cleaning steps

A lot of work? Sure. But it beats paying $800 for a cleaning service to do all this stuff.

What to do when a co-worker makes you miserable

It’s counterintuitive, but you need to get to know that person better. You don’t need to be friends — just understand them better.

Positano, the jewel of Italy's Amalfi Coast, hugs the rugged shoreline.
Rick Steves’ Europe: Glitzy Positano: Not just a pretty facade

It’s one of the most romantic and chic stops on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, a place of beaches, sunshine and picturesque towns.

Lyft charged her $150 for mud stains in a car. But she didn’t do it!

Debbie Kim is shocked to find a $150 charge from Lyft on her credit card. What did she do — and is there a way to undo it?

Hurtado works in a tattoo style called “fine line.” (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Tattoo artist draws a fine line

Ernesto ‘Nesto’ Hurtado of Wicked Boy Tattoo in Lynnwood specializes in a minimalist style that draws praise and criticism.

Caption: Three years after the pandemic began, simple items like masks, disinfecting wipes and toilet paper stir up deep memories.
Psychological impact of pandemic lingers three years later

When the words “two-item limit” in supermarkets still strike fear, it’s hard to toss pandemic relics like cloth masks.

Is every day Groundhog Day — and the same old bad habits?

How can we embrace change without waking up every morning to the same day?

Christian pilgrims and tourists are drawn to the dramatically situated Mont St-Michel, a soaring island abbey in Normandy that is completely surrounded by the sea at high tide.
Rick Steves on Mont St-Michel, Normandy’s magnificent island abbey

Solitude drew monks to this rock outpost long, long ago. Today, it’s crowded with tourists.

Most Read