Changing of the Guard(en) by the Whistling Gardener

September is the time to change garden containers and put a close to the summer season and welcome in the fall season.
Steve Smith, The Whistling Gardener, is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville. Photo credit: Sunnyside Nursery.

This weekly column is being reproduced with the permission of Steve Smith, The Whistling Gardener, and owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville.

I just returned from three days in Spokane where it is still very much summer and the baskets and containers still look lush and colorful. The petunias and zinnias are so vivid over there and the cannas are to die for. (Oh how I long for a bit more heat on this side of the mountains.)

While September on the east side is an extension of summer, on the west side it can be a different story. Despite the Indian summer we have had many containers are showing the telltale signs of fall. It’s time for a changing of the guard on our side of the mountains.

As I mentioned earlier this month, September often finds me conflicted as to what to change in my garden and what to nurse along for another month. But as good as some of my containers still look I find that in reality I am sick and tired of them and ready for a change whether they are or not. I need to put a close to the summer season and welcome in the fall season. I find it therapeutic to do this and having grown up in southern California where there were no seasons I really enjoy making these transitions in my garden.

Just last week I pulled out all the impatiens in my beds as they had finally started to contract downy mildew. Some of you may have read about all the problems with this disease on the east coast and how traditional impatiens just won’t grow there anymore. The disease has made its way out west and some of my customers had problems much earlier in the season. Too much water will aggravate the problem and high humidity will also encourage the disease. There are new varieties coming on line that should be disease free so keep a look out for these introductions. In the meantime consider trying something else like begonias next summer.

In those bare beds I will now add some compost and organic fertilizer, under-plant with some bulbs and plunge in some pansies or violas and a few clusters of ornamental kale for the fall and winter, all of this so I will have some color all winter and into early spring. It’s a bit more work at a time of year when I am actually getting tired of gardening but come February I am ever so thankful that I did it. Don’t forget to spread a half inch of compost on the soil surface to keep those winter weeds from germinating.

My containers are where I can really create some seasonal excitement and over the rest of this month I will give you some ideas of what to put in your containers that will go way beyond the traditional pansies and dusty miller. Fall and winter is far more about foliage and texture then it is about flowers despite the fact that there is something blooming everyday of the year in the northwest.

If we focus on the basics of an arrangement which include a thriller, some filler and some spillers we won’t go wrong. Clean out your pots this week, let the soil air out and get ready to replant next week.

On Saturday the 28th at 10am we will have a class on fall and winter interest for the garden which includes containers too so plan on attending so you can learn how to change the guard in your yard. Oh, that rhymes!

Steve Smith is owner of Sunnyside Nursery in Marysville and can be reached online at


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