Mum's the Word

Flowers of Fall

Fall is no time to be naked, yet so many of the city’s window boxes that teem with colorful flowers during the summer are left bare as the leaves begin to turn. It doesn’t have to be this way. Autumn actually offers a host of worthy choices to dress up any urban dwelling in a spectrum including the warm reds, oranges and yellows that blend perfectly with the season.

Most fall flowers are inexpensive and surprisingly easy to care for, so window box owners should keep their planters full for fall says Phil Herbert, owner of the Dupont Circle plant and flower store, The Third Day. He recommends planting fall foliage in late September or early October to allow most plants time to acclimate to the shorter days and colder nights of the autumn months. October, he adds, is historically the driest month and extra watering may be needed.

Herbert says consideration should also be given to the type of window box used. A window box’s long narrow shape not only makes the plants and their roots vulnerable to fall’s constant weather changes.

“Those containers will freeze and thaw, and as they do the soil mass expands and contracts,” he says. “The roots get pushed around and break.”

Those contractions can also shatter ceramic and plastic window boxes, says Leona Hayes, master gardener and sales coordinator for Johnson’s Flower and Garden Center in Tenleytown. Hayes suggests using a box made of wood, cement, or Styrofoam, materials less likely to react to the temperatures outside.

Whatever they’re made of, it’s also important to prepare your boxes for any planting.

“If you haven’t used it yet, wash it out,” says Hayes. “If you already have plants in there from the summer, when they die take everything out and wash it down again.”

Once the box is clean, the most basic ingredient is the biggest factor in good quality plant growth. “Fresh soil is my biggest thing,” says Hayes, who notes that the soil should be moist, dark and feel rich to the fingers. “If it feels like Death Valley, throw it away.”


Of course, you can’t forget the importance of choosing the flowers with which to fill your window box. Although many fall flowers are available, only a select few will flourish in a window box climate.

Jeff Fritz, owner of Flowers on Fourteenth, says one of the favorite fall flowers is the chrysanthemum, also known as the mum. The mum should arrive in flower shops in late August in a bevy of colors. Fritz warns that planting the flower before the weather cools will cause it to bloom early and shorten its life. When planted correctly, the mum will continue blooming until a heavy frost or around Thanksgiving. Once the mums begins to fade, it can be cut back and replanted in the ground to come back next year, so long as the following winter is not too harsh.

Another great fall flower is the pansy, strains of which have grown increasingly hardy over the past decade. The toughened-up pansies should arrive in flower shops by early September, and will bloom in late fall and into winter.

The Third Day’s Herbert says pansies bloom fantastically in the spring, even if they appear dead during the winter. “They come back much prettier [in the spring] than if you had bought them in April and put them in there.”


Other choices for your window box display are ornamental cabbages or a variety of ivy, which have very low maintenance requirements. “Nature pretty well takes care of them,” says Fritz, though he adds that if the weather stays hot for longer than usual the plants should be watered about once a week.

So with a small amount of planning and planting, you can bring a lasting touch of color to your fall season, a time of year that Fritz says is one of nature’s best.

“The bright vibrant colors, the change of seasons, seeing the leaves turn — it’s just a pretty time of the year.”