Tired of browned, burned-up landscapes? Want a little color in your fall gardens? Are you afraid to tackle a big planting bed for fear that the heat and dry conditions will take it (and you) down? Container color can come to your rescue, and nurseries have generous supplies of superior choices. Let's do a little dreaming of the better times soon to come.
Start with good pots. You'll need sufficient soil reservoirs for your container plants to grow to their full potential. That's going to mean 16-inch or larger pots for most of the plants we're going to mention, especially if you mix and match more than one plant per pot. Choose large terra cotta or concrete pots if you want something simple, or look at the variety of glazed Asian pots that have made their way onto the market. You'll find some wonderful choices.
Fill those large pots with a quality potting soil. Many of us prefer a very lightweight mix along the lines of 50 percent sphagnum peat moss; 30 percent pine-bark mulch; 10 percent coarse, horticultural-grade perlite; and 10 percent expanded shale. You will not need pebbles in the bottom of the pot, but you certainly will need a drainage hole. It's difficult to water properly without one, and it's impossible to leach out the excess mineral salts that are bound to accumulate.
Shop your favorite nursery for transplants that would be suitable for fall. To a large degree, they're going to be the same plants you used in your spring garden, but you'll want fresh, vigorous transplants that are healthy and growing actively. The transplants will be in 4-inch or 1-gallon pots (or larger), and they should be growing in the same general lighting conditions you'll have for them when you get them home.
You'll want one to five plants per large pot. Jimmy Turner at the Dallas Arboretum is a master at large, decorative container color, and he refers to using "a thriller, a spiller and a filler."
The "thriller" is the tall plant that provides the structure and height. The spilling plant tumbles over the sides of the pot, unifying planting and container. The filler is a more subtle plant that makes up the volume of the rest of the grouping.
In some cases, such as with copper plants and large coleus, the main plant of the grouping may grow so large that it can stand alone. Crotons are another good example. They're large, full and showy with their gaudy, brightly variegated leaves. You can tuck them in with other plants, but if you intend to save them in a greenhouse or sunroom over the winter, you'll let them grow without partners. Bougainvilleas, which should come back into bloom once temperatures moderate, and even tropical hibiscus can be grown alone.
If you'd like more of a bouquet of plants in your pots, dwarf or midsize marigolds, dwarf zinnias, celosias and pentas are good for fall gardens. If you need plants for shade, search nurseries for vigorous wax begonias and impatiens. They'll take off as it turns cooler. Tropical hibiscus plants come in a variety of flower colors, all with attractive dark, glossy green foliage.
'Diamond Frost' euphorbia is a very popular filler plant, and purple fountaingrass works well, too. While it may have lost most of its brilliance in summer's heat, new plantings of purple fountaingrass will turn richer shades with fall's cool weather. Alternantheras are other good foliar fillers, and many of us use purple or green varieties of basil. There really are many excellent options.
The tumbling plants you'd tuck around the edges of your large pots will conceal the pot rims and take away the starkness of the vertical design. Ornamental sweet potatoes would be fine, even though the late planting date and confined root area would keep them quite small. Purpleheart (Setcreasea) blends well with many colors, or you could use trailing lavender or trailing white lantanas. Trailing rosemary or creeping thyme are other options.
Really, these are all just ideas. The sky is the limit, and your imagination is the canvas. By watering regularly and feeding your plantings weekly with a high-nitrogen, water-soluble plant food, you'll be on your way to a fresh look for the fall. Visit several nurseries this weekend, where you'll find many great options. You can get that touch of color without a lot of hard work.
Neil Sperry publishes Gardens magazine and hosts Texas Gardening noon-1 p.m. Saturdays and 9 a.m.-noon Sundays on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227 or 214-787-1820.