With a little imagination and flair, autumn’s container displays can be as glorious as the great summer show. Instead of dragging pelargoniums through winter, take cuttings for next year or throw them on the compost heap, and enjoy the fresh wave of container plants coming into garden centres and nurseries.
If you want them to last from autumn right through to spring, choose your container plants with care. Button chrysanthemums and asters put on a terrific show for a month or so and look very harvest festival, then it’s all over.
Paintbox polyanthus are relentlessly cheerful but aren’t guaranteed to stand up to prolonged winter rains, so save those for more sheltered spots such as window boxes against the house wall, or give them a solo spot on the patio table, and replace when needed.
Select berries as well as blooms: Gaultheria mucronata, the red-tinged evergreens with their fat vanilla or milky-pink berries, are picture-box pretty teamed with ornamental cabbages shaded cream, pink and grey-green. Scarlet-berried skimmia looks smart in terracotta town window boxes, but stoke the fire, and add height, with stems of vibrant scarlet dogwood.
Light, bright colours are the way to go. The deep blues, purples and burgundies of pansies are tempting, and they look sumptuous when the low sun lights them up, but on grey days you barely notice them. Be wary, too, of pansies with super-large heads because they tend to flop, especially in wet weather. Smaller pansies, and violas, will keep producing more flowers that will stay perkier.
Just as you would in a garden, create a strong evergreen backbone, and think of blooms and berries as fillers. Rosemary makes a great container choice and if you use creeping rosemary to tumble over the edges of a window box, you can use the trimmings for the cooking pot and enjoy a mass of pink or lilac blossom from late winter onwards.
Raid the herbs section of the garden centre for more great scented evergreens: purple sage, great with pale blue pansies; gold-tipped thymes to team with lemon violas; silvery santolina with pure white or rose pink cyclamen.
Heucheras, those terrific foliage perennials with large, ruffly leaves, are now available in autumnal ochres, russets, ginger, nut brown, as well as the perennially popular deep wine strain, Palace Purple. Colour block them in an oblong planter or window box for a contemporary look with no flowers needed.
Be sure to back up a group of containers with a few high-impact foliage plants in their own pots, so you can shift them around: fans of plum cordyline leaves or silvery, steel-like blades of astelia; a fountain of phormium’s sword-like leaves streaked russet, bronze and apple green.
Consider the container itself, too, and plant accordingly. A square black planter cries out for a patch of shocking pink cyclamen blooms, their marbled, rounded leaves creating a frill around the edges; a warm-toned, terracotta bowl is just made for butter-yellow or burnt orange pansies, perhaps centred with a dwarf golden conifer or baby box cone.
Often it’s the simplest formulas that work best: a white — or black — window box filled with white cyclamen and trails of white-and-green birds’ foot ivy; a frill of pale blue violas around a small common-or-garden variegated euonymus, the glossy green leaves splashed with gold.
The point is to keep an open mind. You might not want to see heather in the border, but in a planter, a froth of pale pink or white heather, perhaps inset with an ornamental cabbage or three, looks positively magical.