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Late August can be a tough decision-making time in home gardens. Most flower beds are beginning to look a little tired, but it's rather late to be putting in summer annuals to perk things up. And it's a little early to start planting perennials and woody plants in anticipation of fall and winter rains.

Should we bother adding a few short-lived annuals? Or just wait out the last weeks of summer and put up with what we've got?

We could pop in some brightly colored chrysanthemums that are now stocked in nurseries. But a longer term solution is to use containers to create new and exciting focal points — at entryways, on decks and patios, and, most critically, within planted garden beds themselves.

A single, bold, even empty pot can transform an ordinary scene into an eye-catching one. For the greatest impact, move to the outer edge of your comfort zone when you select a new container to introduce something completely different.

Try a tall, narrow, shiny pot — metallic or a vivid glaze — where you've trimmed away perennials. Or set it within a low layer of ground cover where it will be sure to stand out above a contrasting green, leafy base. In lieu of a modernistic outline, you may prefer a sculpted clay container, a classic footed urn, tufa trough, or broad basin.

By grouping these pots together, you'll divert even more attention away from drab areas. Use those with the same shape and hue or ones with similar designs. Unlike a stand-alone pot, give them a backdrop against a wall, fence, or dense shrub.

For optimal effect, vary the proportions and set them like stair steps. An inverted pot makes a handy support to raise small and medium sizes, or create your own attractive base.

Keep in mind that a collection of small pots results in a cluttered look unless you gather them in tiers up to 3 or 4 feet above the ground or patio floor.

Planting schemes

Filling several small pots is a fairly quick and easy task, but when it comes to those that hold 10 and 20 gallons or more of planting mix, it becomes a chore. Yet, these are the containers that create a "Wow!" effect.

Roots of trees and large shrubs will penetrate throughout soil in a large container, but if you're using plants with smaller root systems, there are shortcuts to reduce the amount of soil you need in a large pot.

One option is to set an inverted 5-gallon or larger nursery can in the bottom to take up space before filling with potting soil — always with a purchased mix, never with garden soil, which compacts too heavily in any size container.

Another soil-saving ploy is to plant in a 5-gallon nursery can and set it atop the inverted one, both inside the large container. Place 2 or 3 small, creeping, evergreen groundcovers along the edges to spill over the sides and camouflage the inside can.

Dynamic compositions

Leaving a stylish container empty forestalls the question of what-to-plant. Yet, a handsome plant grouping is easier to concoct in a pot than in a sprawling garden bed.

Several small plants won't be lost atop a tall pot, but choose those that will carry over their interest throughout several seasons, particularly through the winter months.

Keep in mind that a tall thriller, a fluffy filler, and a dangling spiller make a pleasing combination. Species such as phormium, cordyline, liriope, and agave become a tall, spiky centerpiece. Heucheras, dwarf grasses, or Hellebore foetidus spread wide in shaded sites as do Euonymus Emerald Gaiety, lavender cotton (Santolina), or licorice plant (Helichrysum petiolare) in sun.

Add ribbons of dwarf myrtle (Vinca minor), carpet bugle (Ajuga), or Euphorbia myrsinites to dangle over the sides.

Introduce height

Japanese maples bring riveting fall colors into the garden and are top candidates for growing in pots. They do require some maintenance every 2 or 3 years, however, which entails removing the entire rootball from the pot, trimming off an inch of root growth all around and re-potting.

Named cultivars in the Dissectum Group — those with finely divided leaves — turn orange-red or purple in fall and are among the best for container planting.

Many also develop interesting shapes, gnarly or mushroom-like, that stand out after leaves drop and reach only 4 to 6 feet in height.

Rosemary McCreary, a Sonoma County gardener, gardening teacher and author, writes the monthly Homegrown column for The Press Democrat. Write to her at P.O. Box 910, Santa Rosa, 95402; or send fax to 664-9476.