Autumn Makeover



This is a good time to refresh our pots for the coming seasons.  In our climate, we have a good six months to enjoy cool-season arrangements.  I like to construct pots which will remain attractive from autumn through until early spring.  Sometimes, these same pots will make it through the following summer with minor adjustments.  This saves time, money, and makes decorating the patio or garden simple.

My favorite formula for a multi-season pot flows from the well know “thriller, filler, spiller” rule.  To construct a pot with staying power, combine evergreen woodies and perennials with cold-weather annuals, bulbs, evergreen vines and ‘accessories.’  Since this is a long-lived arrangement, plan for the inevitable growth and change these plants will experience over the months coming.


January 25, 2016 snow 008


Begin with a generous sized pot.  Remember the growing roots of all those plants you include!  Bulbs, especially, produce huge root systems.  You also want the plants to remain in scale with the pot as they grow.  A large pot allows you to leave the arrangement in place for a longer time before you need to re-pot or plant out the shrub.


February 23, 2014 spring bulbs 007


Glazed pots work well in our climate.  But if your winters grow very cold, you might consider a pot made of materials which won’t crack when  the potting soil freezes and thaws repeatedly.

Choose a good ‘thriller’ plant first.  Most garden centers offer great little evergreen shrubs this time of year.  I chose a dwarf Alberta Spruce in a quart pot.  Whatever shrub you choose, try to fill no more than half your pot’s volume with the shrub’s roots.  Osmanthus , Ilex, Camellia,  Thuja, Mahonia, Arborvitae, Buxus  and Leyland Cypress make beautiful pots, too.

If you are satisfied with woody structure during the winter, you might consider planting a deciduous shrub or small tree that blooms in early spring.  Cercis, Witch-hazel, red twig Dogwood, or fruit trees all work well.


Miniature daffodils grow to only 6"-8" tall and work well in spring pots. Plant the entire bulb and foliage out into a permanent spot in the garden when switching out plantings for summer.


For a smaller composition, choose a good evergreen perennial instead of a shrub or tree.  I often begin with a Hellebore, which gives great structure and may grow to nearly 2′ high when in bloom.  Arum itallicum is another good choice for a shady location.  Evergreen ferns, Iris, and Heuchera also work well in our Zone 7 winters.

I always plant in a good quality potting soil, amended with fertilizer.  Whether you use slow release Osmocote, Epsoma, or some combination, remember to feed these plants for the best show.  Some gardeners recommend adding good compost or worm castings to the pot when planting shrubs and trees.


Potted Mahonia blooming on the patio.


Once you’ve chosen your ‘thriller’ plant, consider adding the surprise element of spring blooming bulbs.  Although the flowers may last for only a few weeks, they pack a punch when little else is blooming.  And, their foliage lasts much longer and helps fill in the pot.

You might choose one type of bulb or several, depending on how much space is left.  And bulbs can be ‘stacked’ according to their required planting depth.  Begin by nestling some Daffodil or tulip bulbs around the bottom of the shrub’s roots.  They should be planted at a depth about 3x their size.  Most large bulbs will go about 6-8″ below the soil level.  You might also choose big showy Fritillarias or Alliums, which will bloom a little later.  Cover the large bulbs with a few inches of potting soil, and then lay a layer of Muscari, Crocus, or even Galanthus for earlier flowers.


Violas jnder a potted redbud tree grow here with Heuchera and daffodils.


Next, fill in around the shrub with cold weather annuals like Violas or Snapdragons, or possibly plant a few seeds for cool weather annuals. These are ‘fillers’ to add interest to your arrangment, and are the plants most likely to get switched out frequently.  Perennial Heuchera, Dianthus, or even herbs like Thyme or Rosemary work well as fillers.

If you like grasses, try an evergreen Carex, Mondo grass, or  Liriope.  These tough evergreens will look great no matter the weather and grow more dense as time goes on.  I’ve transplanted Ajuga ‘Black Scallop’ from elsewhere in the garden for this pot.  Ajuga blooms in the spring.



Finally add some plugs of trailing Ivy or Vinca as ‘spillers’ for your pot.  While I like Ivy, many gardeners avoid it as it can become invasive.  There are many attractive Vincas which will also bloom in the spring, as well as Creeping Jenny and some evergreen varieties of Sedum, like ‘Angelina’ which will continue growing all winter.  I like to finish pots like this with sheets of moss lifted from the garden.




You might use moss, pebbles, aquarium gravel, or even cones or mulch to finish the pot.  This layer looks neat, adds interest, and can help insulate the soil during a freeze.


January 15, 2015 ice garden 028


The beauty of a potted arrangement like this only increases with time.  When you first plant, water in well with compost tea or a product like Neptune’s Harvest to get everything off to a good start.  You might give a liquid feed again in early spring as the perennials begin to grow again.




This is a dynamic arrangement which will continually change as the plants grow and fade.  You might enjoy placing it where you can watch it through the winter from a window, or where you will pass it daily as you come and go.  This pot now crowns our ‘stump garden,’ beside the driveway, where we will see it daily.  But it will also remain visible from the street during the winter.


February 11 2014 snowdrop 001


In early summer you can switch out the annuals and let the pot keep going, or, you can dig a hole large enough to simply set the whole thing into the garden like a plug.   This is a good way to start out small, affordable shrubs or trees and grow them on until they are  large enough to move into the garden.

The first frost doesn’t need to end our gardening adventures.  With a little planning, most of us can enjoy beautiful pots year round.




Woodland Gnome 2016

About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

10 responses to “Autumn Makeover

  1. I’m always a bit envious that you get to have winter flowers. Too cold here. 😦

    • Eliza, I understand 😉 How would I make it through a long New England winter? You are surely made of tougher stuff than this soft Virginia girl! I go a little stir crazy as it is, by February, wanting to push the season. How you make it through to late April or early May is hard to imagine. I would be happy to live in Zone 8 again where the living is even easier! Our downside comes with the truly hot hot muggy weather we endure for a few months each summer. I know your summers are far more pleasant! Now, about that trip to South Carolina- will you be coming this winter?

  2. Have you gown freesias at all? I would like to try growing them

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