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Marin IJ Articles


  • Joan Irwin
  • In the fall months many gardeners’ thoughts turn to putting their garden “to sleep” for the season. However in our temperate Bay Area climate with warm fall days, outdoor living continues well into November. It is possible to reduce the size of the garden and still continue to enjoy the pleasures of gardening and outdoor living by developing small gardens in containers, featuring plants with fall interest (color, texture and fragrance). Following are suggestions for planting containers now that bring the joys of a fall garden until December.

    Successful container gardening consists of putting the right plant in the right place and paying attention to the soil. The one additional item is to select a good container.
    The best containers should have good drainage (at least one drainage hole near the bottom), be pleasing to the eye and BIG enough to hold many wonderful fall plants. After selecting the container prepare it for planting. New containers should be rinsed, or submerged in water if they are made of terra cotta. Scrub used containers with a diluted bleach solution to remove unwanted disease. Next cover the drainage hole with fine mesh screening (door screening) to prevent the soil from washing out.
    Soil is important because it must supply most of what the plants need in a confined space. A good potting soil can be purchased or soil can be mixed at home using a formula based on ground bark or sphagnum moss and sand with additives of fertilizer (time released works best) and limestone. Compost is one of the best additives to any soil because it contains the fertilizer and trace minerals that plants need. The container should be filled 2/3 full of soil and then watered until water is flowing from the drainage holes. Now you are ready for plants. Once plants are added, fill in the empty spaces with more soil to 2” below the lip.
    Pay attention to the watering and sun/shade needs of the plants selected, these should be approximately the same for all the plants in one container. Once the container is planted check frequently for water because containers dry out faster than gardens, and the plants must compete for available moisture in a small space. Although days are shorter, the San Francisco Bay Area receives some of its warmest days in fall.   Whenever the top inch of soil dries out, hand water the entire surface of the container until water flows out of the drainage holes. Drip systems are an effective way to water containers.
    Sun tolerant plants should be grouped together in one container. Plants that prefer some shade, especially in the afternoon should have their own container. Sun plants require 6 to 8 hours of full sun. The afternoon sun is most intense and most sun tolerant plants are able to withstand some afternoon sun. Shade tolerant plants prefer morning sun, filtered sun, and indirect light. In the fall the sun is less intense and there are fewer hours of daylight, therefore shade tolerant plants are able to withstand more direct sun than in summer months. While it may be tempting, containers should not be moved into and out of sunlight because abrupt changes in sun conditions often cause sunburn.
    A combination of plants should be used for the most pleasing container garden. Develop a design for the container that incorporates tall plants to bring the eyes up, medium height plants for interest and fullness and trailing plants to anchor the plant materials to the container and soften the edges. Colors, textures and shapes of the plants should compliment each other. Following are examples of container gardens (sun and shade) that feature plants with fall interest.
    Select plants for the sun tolerant container that display the traditional colors of fall—reds, yellows, burgundy, orange, as well as green. The following plants all have similar cultural requirements—full sun and low to moderate water.
    Tall Plant - Phormium cookianum ‘Elfin’and Phormium tenax ‘Toney Tiger’—A native of New Zealand that is a tall spiky broad-leafed plant. Cultivar ‘Elfin’ reaches 3 feet tall in green and red colors. Cultivar ‘Toney Tiger’ is 2 feet tall with variegated gray-green leaves and creamy yellow stripes along the sides that flush pink as the weather cools in the fall.
    Medium Height Plant - Gaillardia x grandifolia ‘Goblin’ (Blanket Flower)
    This has aster-like flowers on 1 foot green stems with gray-green foliage. The multiple blooms are deep red, bordered in yellow.
    Trailing Plant - Aptenia cordifolia ‘Red Apple’
    This is a succulent groundcover with small but plentiful reddish flowers and trailing stems to 2 feet long. The fleshy, bright green, small leaves are heart shaped or oval.
    The shade tolerant plants feature softer colors in spring-like pastel shades. These plants are shade tolerant and need regular water.
    Tall Plant - Loropetalem ‘Razzleberry’or “Sizzlin’ Pink’
    The foliage and the flowers are colorful on this plant. The roundish, soft textured leaves are green with a strong purple tinge. The flowers are a pink-purple color.
    Medium Height Plant - Hebe ‘Autumn Glory’
    This is a compact shrub that blooms with stalks of small flowers above the foliage. This dark green variety has lavender-blue flowers.
    Trailing Plant - Houttuynia cordota ‘Chameleon’
    The heart shaped leaves on this trailing plant are green with shades of pink, yellow, cream and red. The colors will intensify with a bit more sun. This plant is best grown in a container because it is invasive.