The following is a talk I gave to my Edmond Iris and Garden Club in September. I thought it might be helpful to others who want a gorgeous fall garden.
Having a beautiful garden in the fall goes way beyond garden mums, ornamental asters and pansies although these are important elements. So much depends upon what you plant in spring and summer. It is those plants which will carry you into autumn. Some are fall performers while others look great all garden season long.
First, think about diversity. Look at the Oklahoma prairie. It is filled with spring and summer blooming plants, but the grand concerto is only finished in autumn when the grasses fruit, form seed heads and turn a beautiful golden brown, silver or even red. Although these swaying grasses are the prairie’s most distinctive feature especially in fall, there is so much more. Nature plans for every season and weaves her magic with a diverse group of plants including shrubs, small trees, perennials and annuals. These are designed to come to fruition just in time for the migration of birds and insects from north to south. It is also when the rains return to the prairie giving everything a fresh feeling and the essential moisture to produce nectar.
So, with the prairie in mind, what should we plant in the garden which mimics some of the prairie’s meadow?
Grasses. In my own garden, I have planted numerous grasses which delight me with their motion in the Oklahoma wind, and their different types of bloom and fruiting seed heads. Not only do they provide food, but also shelter for the creatures who live in our gardens. Some grasses are grown as annuals in our state, but others are perennial. For the perennial types, choose carefully where you plant them as many grow quite large and wide. Also, if you live in a state like California which has trouble with grasses becoming invasive, check with your county extension before planting any grasses in your garden or consider natives from your area.
- Pennisetum setaceum var. ‘Fireworks’ was one of my best performers this year. It is supposedly cold hardy to Zone 7, but only time will tell. P. alopecuroides ‘Hameln’ is a dwarf cultivar grown for its plumes and short stature. It makes a nice grouping in front of the border.
- Panicum virgatum ‘Dallas Blues’ is a switch grass discovered in the Dallas area and now easy to find at your nursery. It is cold hardy in USDA Zones 4-9. ‘Ruby Ribbons’ is a red variety of switch grass and is also hardy, but it takes years to establish. ‘Heavy Metal’ is another selection which is metallic blue.
- Miscanthus sinensis, maiden grass, is very popular in Oklahoma and is easy to grow. ‘Morning Light’ is a popular selection. ‘Adagio’ has a small stripe of white in its center. It grows to three to four feet at maturity.
- Stipa tenuissima, Mexican feather grass, is another beautiful grass with swaying fronds. It should be planted in the front of the border. It is invasive in some states, but not ours.
- Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Overdam’ grows in one of my lower beds. It is beautiful throughout the growing season, but fall is its best time of the year.
Shrubs, Trees and a Vine. When considering trees or shrubs for a fall show, natives don’t always come to mind, but some of them should. Also, good cultivars based upon native plants can be an excellent choice.
- Callicarpa americana, American beautyberry, should grow in every garden. Purple or pink berries hang in clusters along its branches in the fall making it a show stopper. ‘Profusion’ is a purple cultivar, but you can also buy the species. ‘Welch’s Pink’ has gorgeous Barbie pink berries. I wrote about it for Fine Gardening last spring. It is a bit difficult to find in our nurseries so ask for it.
- Lagerstroemia indica, crapemyrtle, blooms throughout summer, and then has leaves which turn beautiful fall colors. Grow it as a shrub or small tree to get the best effect.
- Hydrangeas. Almost all hydrangeas have beautiful color in the fall. If you leave the blooms of H. arborescens ‘Annabelle’ on the shrub, they turn a beautiful soft pink and then golden brown. Also, H. paniculata ‘DVPpinky’ Pinky Winky™ or ‘Limelight’ have gorgeous fall color in both bloom and foliage. H. quercifolia, oak leaf hydrangea is another beautiful plant which takes us into fall. ‘Snow Queen’ is a good white blooming selection.
- Viburnum dentatum, arrowood viburnum has vibrant red or yellow fall foliage. White flowers held in clusters become blackish blue fall fruit. Or, how about V. carlesii, Koreanspice viburnum? Pink buds open to white blossoms which have a wonderful “spice cake” fragrance. These later produce fruit, and then good fall color. Koreanspice is an Oklahoma Proven Plant selection.
- Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’, red chokeberry or chokecherry, is another Oklahoma Proven Plant. It grows to six to eight feet and can be limbed up as a small tree or left as a specimen shrub. It blooms white in spring and then produces fruit birds love. The leaves turn a beautiful red in fall.
- Celastrus scandens, American bittersweet, is a vine indigenous to the U.S. It produces orange berries in fall and looks great with sumac and other shrubs. However, it shouldn’t be confused with Celastrus orbiculatus, oriental bittersweet, now considered invasive. Oriental bittersweet has thorns, and American does not. Also, the berries of American bittersweet only grow at the ends of the vine.
- Rhus typhina ‘Tigereye Bailtiger,’ a/k/a tiger eye sumac, staghorn sumac, Like many of the other shrubs above, this sumac blooms, produces fruit and then fine fall color.
- Acer palmatum, Japanese maple, ‘Tamukeyama’ will take some sun, and turns the most beautiful red in fall. It is red all summer, but becomes ever more brilliant as the weather cools. ‘Sango kaku’, also known as coral bark, does have beautiful bark in winter, but its fall color is also extraordinary.
Perennials. What would a diverse garden be without perennials to flesh out the space? I don’t like to think of such a place and neither should you.
Goldenrod is one of the best nectar plants of the fall garden, and if you grow more than one type, you will find it blooms over such a long period.
- Solidago canadensis is the goldenrod most often seen on Oklahoma roadsides and makes a good garden plant although in wet soil, it will multiply rapidly.
- S. rigida, rigid goldenrod, as its name suggests, is a upright blooming native.
- S. speciosa var. rigidiuscula, showy wand goldenrod, is also upright and blooms later.
- S. rugosa ‘Fireworks’ is a selection which grows much shorter and more compact than many of the species of goldenrod. It is a good choice for smaller gardens.
Asters, which are native to the U.S., bloom longer and much better than those bred only for a short blossoming and an early death. Try the following asters in your garden, and you’ll be rewarded with a month or more of bloom. All asters can be cut back a couple of times in June so that they won’t grow so tall and leggy.
- Aster ericoides, now Symphyotrichum laeve, heath aster, should be grown in poor sandy soils. If you have clay, create a burm or add sand to your soil. If it is grown in richer soils, it may spread too fast. Shear it a couple of times during the season to have it bloom at a shorter height. It has tiny snow white blooms.
- A. drummondii, Drummond’s aster, is often seen on Oklahoma roadsides, but it deserves a place in the garden too. Beautiful lavender to white blooms are great nectar sources.
- A. praealtus, willow leaf aster, is a tall beauty and should be grown at the back of the border. It has beautiful willow like foliage and blooms lavender.
- A. Loaevis ‘Bluebird’ is new to my garden this year. It is a brilliant lavender and is three to four feet tall.
There are several sunflowers which are perennial and late blooming.
- Helianthus angustifolius, narrow leaf sunflower. This native grows to be six feet or more so place it in the back of the garden. It begins flowering in September, and is one of the most beautiful plants in my garden.
- H. salicifolius, Table Mountain sunflower grow to three feet and has beautiful foliage
Mums are a much beloved flower of fall. To keep them from getting leggy, cut them back during the growing season, or do like my friend, Katie, and let them bloom twice. Mums aren’t just for fall. Also, instead of planting the ones which only last for three weeks and then are gone, why not consider some of those highlighted in this article by Bobbie Schwartz? I thought it was one of the best articles written about mums in a long time, and I added C. ‘Will’s Wonderful’ to my garden this fall. I can’t wait to see what it does next year and for many years thereafter.
Many sedums are good fall performers. ‘Neon’ which has bright red florets is a newer variety as is ‘Postman’s Pride’ which purplish pink blooms and dark colored foliage.
Annuals and others. I’m going to write more about annuals later, but I think our obsession with perennials in recent years has left the poor annuals out in the rain. Let’s find a place in our garden for these hard working, one season wonders.
- Amaranthus hypochondriacus, burgundy amaranth, takes all season to get started, but once it does, look out. It grows to five to eight feet and has long plumes of burgundy seed heads. One of the most striking elements in the fall garden, it should not be overlooked. Seed can be purchased from Botanical Interests, and they also have an autumn palette mixture with pink, yellow and golden brown seed heads.
- Salvia leucantha, Mexican bush sage which comes in a solid purple and purple and white flowers and further, a variegated leaf form, is a wonderful fall blooming plant. It begins in September and blooms until the first freeze. It also sometimes overwinters which is a bonus.
- Crotons, usually sold as houseplants, make great fall color statements with their bright leaves of yellows, greens, rusts, yellows and even pinks. Plant these in summer. They will grow and continue looking great until a hard freeze. By the by, I learned about crotons from my friend, Helen, who runs a fantastic landscape design business, Unique by Design.
- Pennisetum glaucum ‘Purple Majesty,’ Purple millet makes a bold statement in the garden throughout the season, but really shines in fall.
- Salvia elegans, pineapple sage, is beautiful in fall and makes a great middle of the border plant.
Bulbs. You know I love them, and here are some which love the fall garden.
Lycoris radiata, red spider lilies, begin blooming in late September and continue into October. Plant as many as you can afford. They are expensive, but will colonize after a time. Also, don’t expect them to bloom the first year. They don’t like being disturbed.
- Zephyranthes, rain lilies, fairy lilies, zephyr lilies. These little bulbs have many fanciful names because they lie dormant until a good rain. Although they start blooming in June, they continue through September and are a cheerful sight after a rain. They come in yellow, pink and white. Many thanks to Cindy who sent me white ones. I think they’re truly graceful.
- Colchicum autumnale, autumn crocus, is supposed to grow well in Oklahoma. I am trying it this year, and I’ll let you know how it does.
That was my talk. I enjoyed it, and I think my wonderful group of ladies did too. If you get a chance to join a garden club, give it some thought. It is one of the best ways to learn what grows well in your area, and you’ll get the seeds of both plants and friendship if you do.