Frost Tolerant Containers

Agastache 'Blue Fortune' with purple ornamental cabbage in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’ with purple ornamental cabbage (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

I hate to drop the F-bomb so soon, but before Jack and Jill come down the hill to dump a pail of frost on your tender container annuals, you might want to prepare yourself.  While I agree that heavy covering or inside storage provides temporary  protection from Jack’s icy grip, ultimately you’ll be holding up the white flag and surrendering to their fate.  However, there is another option, which I will sum up in one word: perennials.  Don’t scoff yet, let me explain.  The Merriam-Webster description for perennial plants is: “Living for several years or for many years, existing or continuing in the same way for a long time.”  In other words, you have lots of choices for plants that can withstand Mr. Frost’s embrace, looking good until you’re ready to store your containers for the winter. 

Golden Mum with Heuchera 'Caramel' in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Golden Mum with Heuchera ‘Caramel’ (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

In preparation of the cooler temps, I started hunting for some interesting perennial plants that were compact enough for container living, while offering interesting colors and textures that would endure autumn’s chill.  I visited my local garden center, Claire’s, in Patterson, NY, where I was able to freely wander about, picking up a variety of herbs and plants that I could place together and see what made a nice combination.  I found many wonderful options that looked as fresh as they did in spring, and when paired with some ornamental cabbages, perennial asters or mums, these combinations literally glowed-if I do say so myself.

Here are a few of my frost tolerant recipes:

Heuchera 'Electra', purple aster and variegated sage in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Heuchera ‘Electra’, purple aster and variegated sage in container (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

*Heuchera ‘Electra’ with variegated sage and a plum purple aster: The purple-red veins of the heuchera leaf are perfectly accentuated by the flower of the aster, while the golden variegated sage adds texture and a fall element.

*Agastache ‘Blue Fortune’ with a purple ornamental cabbage: The free spirited violet blossoms of the agastache are beautiful, and are a dramatic contrast when paired with a dark cabbage.  If space permits, you could combine with a dwarf grass or purple sage to add even more texture.

Thyme, aster & ornamental cabbage in container in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Thyme, aster & ornamental cabbage in container ( photo by: Kathy Diemer)

*Frosty thyme, white ornamental cabbage and a dwarf magenta pink aster: The thyme adds a soft texture, fragrance and the maroon stems complement the aster’s pink flower while the white ornamental cabbage adds an autumn glow.

*Golden mum with Heuchera ‘Caramel’: This pairing is simple yet elegant.  The bronze foliage of the heuchera lends a different form to the smaller leaves of the mum, while bringing out the rich henna shade of the mum’s blossoms.

Sedum 'Angelina' in winter container in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Sedum ‘Angelina’ in winter container (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

*Sedum ‘Angelina’: Is an easy care, stand-alone sedum in a container-even in my sizzling hot, full sun driveway.  In summer the succulent leaves are chartreuse green, turning a bright red in fall, persisting through the winter. I embellish the happy dragon centerpiece with an antique glass ornament around his neck for the holidays.

And some additional contenders:

Late season Lettuce in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Late-season Lettuce (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

*Colorful Lettuces: Late season lettuces have great color and form, and you can combine them with any hardy herbs (oregano, thyme, chives, fennel, etc) to create an ornate edible container.

Hardy Pansies in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Hardy Pansies (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

*Hardy Pansies:  Pansies are incredibly cheery and many have a sweet fragrance as well.  The range of shades, from bright yellow to indigo blue, make them great companions for any combination.

Variegated Sweet Flag Iris in Container in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer

Variegated Sweet Flag Iris in Container (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

*Variegated Sweet Flag Iris: Although sweet flag is well past bloom, the erect golden striped blades add an upright element that stands out wonderfully when combined with softer oval forms such as dwarf grasses, the unusual blue-ish grey foliage of rue, Ruta graveolens or the feathery texture of narrow leaf ironweed, Vernonia lettermannii ‘Iron Butterfly.’

Change it up any way you choose.  Go through the selections at your local nursery, and find the plants that appeal to you.  Dwarf grass, thyme, oregano, fennel, mint, heuchera, sedum, even a series of dwarf evergreens can work like a charm in autumn container situations.  With color and interest until the holidays, and low maintenance requirements, using perennials in your season’s end containers makes sense. And, you’ll be able to enjoy these same plants in your garden afterward, which saves dollars.


  1. Love these ideas. Do they have to be planted out in the garden before winter or will they survive until next spring in the containers?

    • That’s a good question, Dana. I usually tuck them into the garden at the end of November, because that’s when I’m filling my containers with greens and cones etc. for the holidays. The ground doesn’t freeze here until late December to January, so that works for me. I water, apply a little mulch and will check periodically to make sure the plants don’t heave up, so far so good. I do think you could keep your containers over the winter if they are in a protected area (perhaps close to your foundation or in the garage) so they don’t freeze solid. If you try outdoor storage, be sure your container will tolerate the temperature shifts without cracking. Thanks for writing!

  2. Patty Wahlers says:

    Beautiful, & a great idea for fall!

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