Hot Colors for Cold Days

I have a fabulous orange container. It's not a color I would ordinarily have chosen for our home but it was perfect for a magazine photo shoot we did this summer and I had been really looking forward to replanting it for fall and winter knowing that I would have fun playing off its exhibitionist personality!

Earlier this year I purchased a beautiful dwarf vine maple (Acer circinatum 'Little Gem'). I knew this was the perfect focal point for my design since it had been clothed in fiery shades of red, orange and gold since August – a great way to emphasize the sassy container color. Even when the leaves eventually fall the vibrant red branches will be striking.

The difference in the light reflective qualities of these two leaf surfaces make the partnership all the more striking. 'Ruby Glow' spurge with 'Spellbound' coral bells.

You can't be bashful with orange and I knew I needed bold companions to really make a statement. 'Spellbound' coral bells (Heuchera hybrid) has had everyone talking this year. This is no ordinary purple. Rather its oversized ruffled leaves have a silvery sheen on top and a delicious berry colored reverse. Partnering this with the deep purple ‘Ruby Glow’ spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides) created a dramatic yet monochromatic combination.

'Wickwar Flame' heather adds a warm note before changing to green in spring


With the bones established it was time to add accents. I wanted to play off the orange some more so selected the spiky grass-like ‘Goldfinger’ New Zealand iris (Libertia ixioides) and the richly colored ‘Wickwar Flame’ heather (Calluna vulgaris), both easy container plants in full sun.

Add a little sparkle with 'Wojo's Jem' periwinkle







So as not to get too hung up on a strictly orange and purple color scheme I added a lighter note with brightly variegated ‘Wojo's Jem’ periwinkle (Vinca maculata). This trails over the edge of the container together with golden rosemary.

All these foliage plants are winter hardy and evergreen here in the Seattle area (zones 6b-8). No flowers were really needed but I couldn't resist adding a couple of deep ruby-red pansies to draw attention to the tips and stems of the spurge. (The pansies were rather camera shy when this photo was taken due to several days of torrential rain)!


The glowing foliage of the 'Little Gem' vine maple pick sup on the color of the container and forms a great backdrop for the sultry spurge


The beauty of this design is that it will evolve with the seasons yet is a year round planting. In spring the pansies will be in full bloom and the spurge will explode with chartreuse bracts. Now hidden from view, spring bulbs will push through the foliage to add another layer of interest and the tree will have its new flush of bright green, pleated leaves.  I'll try to remember to post photos of its spring fashion show.

Summer will only need the two pansies replaced with annuals giving it a fresh new look for just a few dollars.



Sometimes we need an unexpected challenge to spark our creativity.

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  1. Sandi on November 5, 2012 at 4:30 am

    Absolutely stunning container planting! I am so glad to see that others use more than the "suggested" amount of different plants. I have always added a variety but started to question myself when I read an article in a garden magazine that said more than 5 would be a mistake. Great job on proving that wrong! I think this container is perfect, and would win any contest hands down. Next year I'm filling mine up with variety again. Thank you!

    • Karen Chapman on November 5, 2012 at 9:00 am

      Thanks for your comment Sandi. Yes I have heard – and ignored that philosophy before. In fact a certain well known magazine suggests more than THREE plants is too much!
      It's all about which plants you choose and how you combine them. Certainly we need to avoid a jelly bean effect which is why I emphasize color echoes but life is too short to limit quantity especially in larger containers! Another good design trick is to use fewer but larger plants so the whole doesn't look too busy but even them I can use a lot of plants! Here the main plant was a 2gallon, the Euphorbia, Libertia and Heuchera were 1g and the smaller accent plants were 4".

  2. Kathy Juracek on November 5, 2012 at 9:28 pm

    That is BEAUTIFUL!!

    • Karen Chapman on November 5, 2012 at 9:32 pm

      So glad you like it Kathy – thank you!

  3. debsgarden on November 10, 2012 at 7:42 am

    Hi, Karen! I hope you are enjoying some fabulous fall weather. There was a time that the idea of combining orange and purple would have been shocking to me. Then one day two plants of those colors accidentally (?!) combined in my garden, and I fell in love. Now it is one of my favorite combos. Your orange container planting is wonderful and perfect for fall. I love 'Little Gem'. At first glance I thought it was a coral bark maple.

    • Karen Chapman on November 10, 2012 at 2:36 pm

      Deb, accidents can be so rewarding! I've had the same experience myself.

      As for my little maple I thought it was a dwarf coral bark at the nursery but realized the leaves were too small which is why I went over to investigate. I really like it. It has had autumn tints at least since I bought it in August and only just shed them this week with a hard frost. Right now the stems are bright red and glowing in the sunshine making a great contrast with that little conifer.

  4. Jennifer on November 12, 2012 at 7:45 pm

    Hi Karen, I love the bold color of your orange "exhibitionist" pot. The combination of peachy toned leaves of the dwarf vine maple, the purple ‘Spellbound’, 'Wojo's Jem' periwinkle, and heather is very striking. I particularly want to remember the idea of adding periwinkle to container plantings. I have lots of periwinkle plants to spare and bet it will look great cascading over the edges of my pots. It would be a nice alternative to ivy or potato vine.

    • Karen Chapman on November 15, 2012 at 6:32 pm

      Jen, I use periwinkle as an alternative to ivy. It is equally colorful but its roots don't take over the pot so it can be safely left in for many years.

  5. The Winter Garden – beautiful bark on November 20, 2012 at 6:07 pm

    […] 'Little Gem' vine maple (dark red) […]