Container Makeovers

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We’re nearing the end of August, and both the garden and the gardener are… tired. This has been a long, hot, summer, and the entire state of Colorado is in a drought. The unending parade of 90+ degree days, unusual for our elevation, has left the plants bedraggled, the flowers faded, the leaves with crispy brown edges.

The large pots of color on our deck are the worst. The violas that looked so pretty in June are now covered with powdery mildew. In spite of what the seed packets promised, the cosmos and zinnias grew too tall, towering over the petunias, and the snapdragons stayed too short. My chard leaves are tunneled with leaf miners, and it’s nearly impossible to keep them sufficiently watered. (Memo to self—do not plant chard ‘Bright Lights’ in a container with more xeric annuals, no matter how colorful the stems or how many seedlings are left over after planting the veggie beds!)

Containers stuffed with flowers are supposed to look attractive, not shabby. Should I dump out the pots and condemn the annuals to a premature end? I cringe—we still have another 4 to 6 weeks until our first frost, and the season is already too short. Maybe, instead of simply giving up, I can swap out the failures for some fall blooms.

It won’t be easy, and the options are limited. By late August, there are few plants left in the nurseries and garden centers, and most of those that remain have endured heat, drought, and hail. No wonder they’ve been bypassed by picky buyers. It may be too late for this year, but in the future I can solve that problem by growing my own transplants. Meanwhile, the big box stores do bring in a few “fall color” specials, such as pansies, violas, and chrysanthemums. I can work with those.

The next step will be to harden my heart and ruthlessly commit “planticide.” Out go the diseased and infested, the overgrown and the tattered. Some will be well-entrenched, and I’ll need to pull them out carefully so as not to disturb the roots of the plants I still want. We can eat the newer chard leaves; the rest will go into the trash due to the leaf miners. The violas do well in the fall, but I don’t want to spread the mildew spores, so those will join the chard in the trash tote. I’ll make a bouquet of the zinnia blossoms and toss the rest of the plant into the compost pile.

Then there are keepers. The zonal geranium ‘Mrs. Pollock’ continues to impress. Its multicolored leaves and blazing orange flowers will look terrific with a fall color scheme. I just need to do a bit of deadheading.

The snapdragons still look healthy, and they’re quite hardy for an annual, so they’ll stay as well; the cooler fall days should trigger new flowers (I hope). The petunias are thriving, having somehow evaded the budworms that are plaguing my neighbors’ plants. It’s a start.

Now to fill in the gaps. New violas, planted in a different pot to avoid contamination, will carry well into fall.  Pansies take up a bit more room, and expand the color options. Mums in 4- or 6-inch pots are just right for the largest gaps, and not overly expensive.

Finally, I won’t stop at flowers. The yard is full of interesting seedheads—and surely those grasses can spare a few plumes. Convoluted or colorful branches, dried flowerheads, sprays of berries, and small branches trimmed from evergreens will all give the newly planted pots more substance, and add to the autumn theme. Then, once a heavy freeze finishes off even the hardiest annuals, they’ll make for containers that still look attractive in the dead of winter.

I can hardly wait to get started!

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