Garden Variety: Arranging the perfect floral display for the cold season

Flowerpots and other containers are a great way to add vertical interest and color to an entryway, porch, patio or other outdoor area. Gardeners often use annual flowers in containers to get the most blooms throughout the summer, but these plantings fade quickly with the arrival of cool fall temperatures. For fall and winter, spruce up containers with cold-tolerant annuals or with perennial plants that have decorative foliage or other features.

The basic premise to creating a stunning container is to put together three elements, often called “thrillers, spillers and fillers.” The “thriller” is tall and meant to go in the center or back of the pot. The “spiller” should spill or hang over the edge of the container, and the “filler” fills the space between the other two.

Depending on the size of the container, this approach may mean more than three actual plants. For example, you might need three or four filler or spiller plants to fill the space, or you might opt to use two or three species as fillers.


For fall and winter containers, the best bets for thrillers are ornamental grasses with interesting seed heads or fall color, such as little bluestem, switchgrass, ornamental millet or tall sedge varieties. Tall ornamental kale, celosia, and asters also work as thrillers, especially in smaller pots or combined with smaller plantings.

Another option for a tall accent for fall and winter pots is to clip long decorative twigs or seed heads from grasses and flowers with long stems and stick them into the pot. This could become an outdoor dried flower arrangement, or you could combine dried flowers with cold-hardy plantings for a unique look.


For spiller plants that will continue to look good into the fall and winter, consider using vining or low-growing perennials. Trailing sedums, Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia), ivy and coral bells are all possibilities. Coral bells are best known for their foliage, which comes in a range of green, silvery green, purple and chartreuse. Their size also varies a bit with variety. Pansies and violas are cold-tolerant annuals that could also be used as spillers.


Fillers are where fall and winter pots really have variety. Ornamental cabbage and kale are popular right now for plantings because of their range of shades of purples to silvery greens. Sage, celosia, and coral bells are also popular as fillers. Midsize sedums look good blooming and their flowers are decorative as they dry into the winter months. More traditional plantings might include mums and asters in a wide range of colors.

Plant species can easily be used for different effects depending on the height and size of the particular species, the size of the pot into which they are being planted, and the height and size of the other plants in the display.

Many filler plants are attractive as individual plantings as well.

Small decorative items such as pumpkins, gourds, pinecones and hedge apples can also be added to fall and winter container plantings as fillers.

— Jennifer Smith is a former horticulture extension agent for K-State Research and Extension and horticulturist for Lawrence Parks and Recreation.


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