Barbara Ellis shows how to ease your deck or patio into fall and winter with these decorating tips.
Although cool weather may signal the end of the gardening season, don't let decks and patios slide into the winter doldrums. Whether frost has already cut down your summer annuals, or cool temperatures are simply fueling a growth spurt for plants that have been plagued with summertime heat, it's easy to dress your outdoor spaces well into winter.
If the surface of your deck is tired and dried out, plan to clean, repair and re-seal or stain your deck. Fall is a great time for these necessary chores since gardening "to do" lists tend to be shorter in fall than spring, and the deck isn't as heavily used as it is in summer. Fall also offers weather that's warm enough for cleaning and sealing or staining. Pound in nails that have worked loose and sand away rough edges on damaged boards, then clean and seal. Although requirements vary depending on the product you buy, waterproofing sealants generally require temperatures above 32 degrees F and popular stains require temperatures above 50 degrees F to set properly. To clean up before you dress up, start by removing annuals that have been killed by frost from containers. Or pluck damaged leaves and flowers to keep plants presentable for a few more weeks. From about USDA Zone 8 south, the growing season is far from over, and cutting plants back encourages new growth and flowering.
If frosts and freezes are on their way, but container plants are still going strong, take steps to keep the color coming. To help protect annuals, move pots close to the house, ideally under a roof, to delay when they are hit by frost. When frost threatens, cover plants with lightweight blankets or plastic sheets overnight and uncover them in the morning. This technique is especially useful for protecting plants from an unusually early frost. Covering for a night or two, until warmer weather returns, can keep plants blooming for a few more weeks until really cold weather arrives.
Long-blooming perennials, such as 'Mystic Spires Blue' salvia (shown on right), provide color up to a hard frost.
From USDA Zone 7 south, spruce up deck containers by replacing tired summer annuals with cool-weather annuals. They will add color to the garden during mild weather all winter long. Ornamental cabbage and kale are good choices, as are pansies and Johnny-jump-ups. For even warmer zones, also consider snapdragons, stocks and primroses for wintertime color. Containers planted with perennials that feature attractive fall or winter foliage look just fine after frost. Ornamental grasses such as dwarf forms of Japanese silver grass (Miscanthus sinensis), like 'Little Kitten' and 'Yaku Jima,' or dwarf fountain grasses (Pennisetum alopecuroides), like 'Hameln' or 'Little Bunny,' stay handsome all winter. Also consider lavender (Lavandula officinalis), variegated yucca (Yucca filamentosa) such as 'Bright Edge' or 'Golden Sword' and sedum 'Autumn Joy' for containers.
To dress up a collection of containers especially ones that are colorful and interesting in their own right try planting them with a single perennial or groundcover per pot, so the plants highlight the pots but don't detract from them. European ginger (Asarum europaeum), variegated pachysandra (Pachysandra terminalis 'Variegata') or variegated lesser periwinkle (Vinca minor) such as 'Alba Variegata' all make suitable specimen plants. Evergreen barrenworts, such as Epimedium x perralchicum, E. pubigerum or E. x versicolor, also are effective, as are sedums (Sedum spp.) and hens-and-chicks (Sempervivum spp.) (figure A). Colorful cool-weather vegetables make handsome pot-fillers, too. Mixing several together in one pot is most effective. Consider purple-leaved beets, Chinese cabbage, kale, leaf lettuce, mustard, snap peas, spinach and Swiss chard, especially 'Rhubarb' or 'Bright Lights.' Or, plant containers of hardy herbs. Thyme, parsley, oregano and sage are handsome and cold tolerant, plus useful in the kitchen.
Another option for keeping large containers attractive for the long haul is to plant them with dwarf conifers (figure B). Simply sink conifers pot and all into the soil. Avoid using terra-cotta containers for this because it's time to move them into a garage or other dry, frost-free place for winter storage to prevent cracking. Instead, try thick, lightweight polyurethane foam containers, which resemble terra cotta or stone and also insulate roots over winter. Good conifers for decorating decks include weeping or upright junipers (Juniperus spp.), dwarf Norway spruce (Picea abies) such as 'Little Gem,' 'Nidiformis' or 'Pygmaea' and dwarf white spruce (Picea glauca) including 'Conica,' 'Hobbit,' 'Humpty Dumpty' or 'Jean's Dilly.' Dwarf cultivars of mugo pine (Pinus mugo) such as 'Mops' or 'Gnom' work well, too.
Use large arrangements of seedheads from the garden to fill now-empty containers and decorate a deck for fall. Pick plumes of ornamental grasses or seedheads of annuals like sunflowers plus perennials like allium (shown here), coneflowers (Echinacea spp.), black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia spp.) or blue false indigo (Baptisia australis).
Other shrubs to consider for temporary display or permanent display in large containers include Japanese maple (Acer palmatum), boxwood (Buxus sempervirens), Japanese holly (Ilex crenata) and oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia).
Arrangements With Flair
Use large arrangements of seedheads from the garden to fill those now-empty containers and decorate a deck for fall. Or use branches cut from evergreens. Just stick stems down into the soil, or make arrangements in bushel baskets or copper tubs. (Place a crumpled-up piece of poultry wire in containers that lack soil to hold stems in place.) Make smaller arrangements to dress up tables long after it's too cold to dine outdoors. Avoid using Oriental bittersweet (Celastris orbiculatus) in arrangements because this non-native invasive quickly becomes a serious weed in the garden when seeded around by birds.
Collections and Garden Art
Use small sculptures, grouped collections and interesting found objects to create still-life-type groupings (figure C). Ideally, position your arrangements where you can see and enjoy them from indoors. Display a garden sculpture or old watering can with a group of containers, for example. Or, arrange a collection of favorite items driftwood, rocks, old garden tools or frog sculptures to create a still-life display that expresses your interests and personality.
Topiaries also are great for decorating any garden space. Look for ones created with English ivy (Hedera helix), a hardy herb or a clipped evergreen shrub.
Quick Decorations for Parties
Consider decorating chairs or other deck furniture with small bouquets of foliage and seedheads, wreaths of cut greens, ornamental grasses, bunches of herbs or branches of fall leaves. Make table arrangements with small colorful containers planted with sedums or hens-and-chicks, and add other interesting objects, such as blown-glass balls, small sculptures or other collectibles, to create a table decoration that's colorful right into winter (figure D). Tiny white lights strung on deck railings or trellises, as well as over plants in containers, add a festive air to any outdoor space. Or, hang plants with ornaments that attract and feed birds. Candles in hurricanes or lanterns make a deck look magical, even if it's too cold to go outdoors.
(A former publications director for the American Horticultural Society and managing editor of garden books for Rodale Press, Barbara Ellis is the author of Deckscaping (Storey, 2002, Shady Retreats (Storey, 2003) and Covering Ground (Storey, 2007). She lives and gardens on Maryland's Eastern Shore.)