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Mum's not the only word for fall planting

September 22, 2014

Fall isnít just for mums anymore.

Those round mounds of yellow, rust or purple are inadequate to celebrate luxurious falls ó and ease a gardenerís itch to plant something.

Now is the time to refresh decorative garden pots with a rich variety of color and hardiness that can carry their beauty beyond the first frost.

"Fall is a missed opportunity," said Kerry Michaels, who writes about container gardening at about.com. "The plants are on sale; it lasts so much longer than a flower arrangement. And there is the sheer pleasure of being able to plant again."

While mums still reign supreme in many gardens, other plants are gaining notice for their fall-like hues and texture.

"Gardeners still want mums because they offer that blast of color people want," said Carrie Engel of Valley View Farms in Cockeysville, Md., which has more than 10,000 of the popular fall plants for sale this year.

But she has noticed a stronger demand for other varieties, too, especially heuchera, or coral bells, with foliage that ranges in color from peachy brown to burgundy red.

"I have only one person I plant mums for," said Leigh Barnes of Companion Plantings of Towson, Md., who specializes in container gardens. "She was my first customer 20 years ago, and thatís what she wants."

But Barnes said she otherwise never uses mums in her containers. "And I donít like asters, either."

She likes to do pots with perennials and create pockets for seasonal color. Barnes saves time and her customersí money by simply swapping out annuals that have the right colors and hardiness.

"The average person doesnít realize that they can plant for the fall and have beautiful color for a couple of months," said Muffin Evander, owner of Cultivated Designs and a Baltimore County resident.

Think outside the box, the designers said.

Michaels likes to use edibles, like sage, parsley or miniature peppers in her pots. She also likes to use succulents, which can morph into richer colors with the cold. And she uses oddball containers, too. Why just carve a pumpkin when you can use it as a fall plant container?

Barnes said to look for variety in leaf shape and color. She likes to break the mold with colors, too. She might create a fall container with burgundy, pink, silver and green.

Not orange and red? "Thatís what we have the trees for," she said.

Engel says her staff creates lots of "skeleton" pots that customers can uses as a starting point, adding their own touches. Or they can bring their pots to Valley View and talk with staff members about how to create fall interest..

But every pot doesnít need to be filled with a dozen different varieties. A small pot filled with colorful lettuces can be lovely and simple. A trio of pots, each with a different variety of the colorful heucheras, can look elegant.

The "thriller, filler and spiller" design technique still has its place when creating a fall container garden, Barnes said.

A "thriller" plant has height and adds a vertical element. Consider an ornamental grass, for example. If the container is going to be viewed from all sides, plant it in the center. If it is up against the house and only seen from three sides, plant it in the back.

"Filler" plants generally have a mounding shape and are planted all around the "thriller." Think about using a plant with colorful foliage instead of blooms, such as heuchera or sage.

"Spillers" are plants to drape over the edge of the planter, such as Creeping Jenny.

"It's a great idea," said Barnes. "But I break that rule all the time."

"The great thing about fall is that everything is still available," said Michaels. "And it is a great time of year to have fun with colors.

Here are some fall container garden tips:

Fall is long and luxurious in many parts of the country, and there is plenty of time to entertain outdoors, so why not invite seasonal container gardens to your party? Think about where the pot will sit ó you don't want to clash with your house color or your deck cushions. *When changing your summer pots to fall arrangements, you can take the opportunity to clean your garden containers and fill them with fresh soil.

*Plants aren't likely to grow much as the weather cools, so your fall pot should be planted full.

*You don't have to create a fall container garden from scratch. You can simply swap out summery annuals with fall colors, like ornamental kale, a bronze heuchera, orange and red lantana, or miniature pepper plants. Add a gourd or a tiny pumpkin to signal the season.

*Don't forget to water. Cold weather can dry pots out quickly. On the other hand, plants aren't growing rapidly in the fall and the days are cooler. You won't need to water as often as you did during the heat of the summer.

*If you think you need to fertilize, use a water-soluble product. Slow-release fertilizers are often triggered by temperature. Lower temperatures mean no fertilizer will be released.

*When planting, include herbs such as sage and parsley and vegetables like spinach, chard and lettuce. They can handle the cold and are edible, too.

*Check the growing zones on the plants you are choosing. You are safe with plants hardy to two zones colder. Choose plants that will not only withstand cooler weather but will bloom despite shorter days.

*Coleus and sweet potato vine seem perfect selections for a fall container. But both will be damaged by the first hint of frost.

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McClatchy-Tribune Information Services