If your summer containers are looking a bit scraggly, don’t rush to empty them out; give them a new lease on life by subbing in plants that can survive later into the fall. Before swapping out the plants, make sure any pot you plan to renew can survive a light freeze. Do clean and put away any ceramic and terracotta containers, which can crack or flake, and replace them with ones made of plastic, fiberglass, wood, concrete, or metal. This is the time to be creative: old sap buckets and watering cans, wooden crates and baskets can all be repurposed for fall planters and all can adapt to expanding soil caused by freezing nights.

Not everything in your summer containers and windowboxes may be ready for the compost heap. Some annuals can be revived by trimming them back and putting them into your new containers, with freshly fertilized soil that is watered routinely. This first aid, along with cooler fall temperatures, often rejuvenates flowers that have suffered from heat stress. Discard only the plants that are dead, diseased, or too bug-ridden for a second chance. Replace them with fresh, cold-tolerant annuals or perennials instead of replacing the whole display.

Annuals that prefer cooler temperatures and can survive light fall frosts include pansies and violas and dusty miller. Ornamental cabbage and kale are widely available in a variety of sizes, some big enough to become a pot-filling display on their own, others tiny enough to mix back into salvaged displays. Their wide, colorful leaves in shades of purple, green, cream and rose will give you weeks of autumnal interest. Another colorful addition is those wickedly hot peppers, usually sold as houseplants, that bear small red, gold, or orange fruits.

Mums are the top seller for fall because of their autumnal shades of gold, bronze, yellow and maroon. In addition to their brilliant colors, mums have the added benefits of being hardy to around 27 degrees and virtually immune to pest and disease problems. While they can be planted in the ground after flowering in fall, I?believe it’s best to treat them as annuals, as they never seem to return with much vigor. You can get a big mum plant and pop it right into a container without even replanting and it will do just fine for several weeks before needing to be pulled, especially if you take the time to deadhead spent flowers. That will direct energy into the formation of new flowers.

If you’re reluctant to spend a lot of money on mums or ornamental cabbages that will last only until the hard freeze, look around in the yard and garden before you shop. Instead of digging and dividing perennials for replanting, pop a few clumps into a pot. Perennials with colorful foliage make the most sense, especially hostas, coralbells, spurge, and golden creeping sedum that can be combined with a few of the fall annuals mentioned. An added benefit of these borrowed perennials is that you can return them to the ground before the soil freezes and they should be just fine the following spring.

Scavenge anything else in the garden or landscape that will look good in your autumn pots. Cuttings of viburnums, bayberry and winterberry, as well as evergreen hollies and red, golden or yellow twig dogwood mix well with autumnal flowers. I’ve had my eye on some cattails that grow in a nearby ditch and have wondered how they’d do in a fall container. Ornamental grasses can provide textural interest; cut a clump of stems, and stick those into the soil, too. And save those corn stalks from the vegetable garden. They can serve as a tall centerpiece for fall annuals around the perimeter of a large container. 

If you’re planning to put in some new dwarf evergreens anyway, they can replace summer annuals in large containers or tubs. Flank the front door or front porch with a pair of pots planted with upright evergreens adorned with gourds, baby pumpkins, and berry branches, then switch out the fall display with lights and ornaments for the winter holidays. To ensure winter-pot survivability, select evergreens that are hardy to one zone colder than yours or lower. Keep the container soil well-watered before the ground freezes and take advantage of thaws to water, to keep the soil damp throughout the winter months. Many potted evergreens can survive all winter and can be planted in the ground next spring.