The last leaves have fallen from the trees in my yard, and I just completed the final garden clean-up today. The landscape always looks so “blah” when fall is over, and as far as I’m concerned, it can snow any day now.
Fall was great while it lasted though! It seemed like we were going to go straight into winter this year, but then we ended up with a beautiful, sunny autumn. I know I wasn’t the only one who enjoyed it, and with some of the right plants in your garden, you can get more enjoyment out of the season, too. Most of these plants aren’t only good for fall, either. Many offer multiple-season interest, and all of them are drought-tolerant, readily available, easy to grow, and hardy to zone 3 (with the exception of the annuals).
Without further ado, I present: The Stars of the Fall Garden!
Let’s start with an obvious one, shall we? Chrysanthemums! Though the ones pictured are treated as annuals for seasonal planters in my climate, there are hardy perennial versions available. I love their range of fall hues, from yellow ochre to burnt orange and wine red. ‘Mums are also quite cheap considering the size of plant you get!
I paid just over $10 each for my ‘mums this year (from Superstore), and that’s for a lush, full dome of blooms about 18″ across. I can’t even think of another plant that gives you that much bang for your buck. To make your chrysanthemums last as long as possible; keep your containers well-watered, and protect the flowers from frost. I think I got a good six weeks of enjoyment out of my fall planters this year. Not bad!
Another great fall annual, and one that pairs perfectly with chrysanthemums, is Ornamental Kale. Also called Ornamental Cabbage or Flowering Kale, I especially love the ones with purple centers, since purple compliments the other fall colours so nicely, without being a typical fall colour.
If I can get another garden bed dug next spring, I plan on growing my own ornamental kale for fall containers! I’m interested in trying ‘Chidori Red,’ ‘Glamour Red,’ and ‘Peacock White.’ I’ll let you know how that goes. I’ve found kale to be much hardier than ‘mums, needing no frost protection. They don’t even seem to need much water!
This is one of my very favourite garden plants: Peony! Not only do they get gorgeous flowers in early summer, but pretty much every peony I’ve ever seen turns a very nice red in the fall. Here in Alberta, most trees turn yellow, so it’s always nice to come across a red accent. Though they can take several years to reach a nice size, peonies are among the longest-lived perennials, and mature peonies can literally last for generations. This one happens to be a division of a plant from my Mom’s garden, making it very special to me. I don’t know the exact variety, but it gets huge deep pink blooms in July.
Grow peonies in full sun and rich soil, with the “eyes” (growth tips) of the plant no deeper than 2″ below the surface of the soil. Deeper than that, and they won’t bloom. Fall is the ideal time to transplant peonies! Any time until the ground is frozen suits them just fine. In fact, I just dug and planted an entire garden bed full of peonies on the west side of my house. I can hardly wait to see them come up next spring!
These beauties are, unfortunately, not growing in my garden. I will definitely get some eventually, but I took these photos at a local Botanical Garden. They are Rudbeckia hirta varieties, aka Black-eyed Susans.
Grow them in full sun, and plan on re-seeding annually, as they are considered to be a biennial or short-lived perennial. They may self-seed in your garden, but I like to be sure of plants that I want growing in the same spot each year. And these lovelies definitely deserve a spot, don’t you think?
The little cutie to the left is commonly known as Fleeceflower (botanical name Persicaria affinis). One of several little clumps that I got from my Mom’s garden, I’m not sure I would have bought it if I’d seen it in a Garden Centre, but I LOVE it! The leaves are green in the summer, and the flower clusters bloom in shades of pink, drying to the rusty red you see in the pic. Fleeceflower has a wonderfully compact growth habit, and makes an excellent groundcover, spreading over large areas. It tolerates a wide range of soil conditions, and doesn’t get those annoying “dead” sections like other groundcovers. Grow in full sun to partial shade.
Another one of my absolute faves: the Double-Flowering Plum. A shrub with multiple-season interest, double-flowering plums get the most beautiful pink flowers in the spring! Some branches are positively loaded with blooms, though for me, it’s often only the lowest branches that were well-protected by the snow. The unassuming green leaves of summer turn golden yellow with an orange blush in the autumn, and unlike some plants, this one has consistently good fall colour. Sometimes the tips even turn vermillion, as in the frosted photo to the lower left.
Double-flowering plums take well to pruning (trim them immediately after blooming), aren’t picky about their soil, are beloved by bees, and are untroubled by bad insects. Do plant them in full sun though, or you won’t see many flowers. They also grow pretty fast for a shrub, giving you a mature-looking landscape in just a few years. What’s not to love?
I know, I know; who cares about green leaves in the fall? Well, the evergreen branches of Oregon Grape Holly create a pleasant foil to all of the other bursts of colour going on, and this surprisingly tough plant also gets some ornamental dark blue berries that resemble grapes (hence the common name). The berries are not poisonous, but they taste unpleasant to humans.
It’s botanical name is Mahonia aquifolium, and though my three plants sometimes die back to the ground during the winter, I wouldn’t be without them in my garden. Grow this pokey shrub in full sun to light shade, and away from pathways. Those leaves are sharp!
Oregon Grape Holly grows slowly, but requires no pruning due to its naturally compact shape. It prefers acidic, rich, moist soil, but mine have been doing very well in regular garden dirt. Never seen a bug on them, either!
Some Heucheras actually look like this for the entire growing season! This frosted cutie is called ‘Sweet Tea,’ and I must admit, I bought it for the name. My husband hails from the deep south of the USA, and I thought it would be a fitting tribute. While most plants are grown for their flowers, heucheras are grown for their leaves, which come in a veritable rainbow of colours. Varieties with similar leaves to mine include ‘Buttered Rum,’ ‘Orange Peel,’ ‘Creme Brulee,’ ‘Caramel,’ and ‘Southern Comfort.’
Heucheras love partial shade, whether in the form of morning sun (which isn’t as strong as afternoon and evening sun) or the dappled shade under a tree or shrub. They also prefer moist soil, though shady conditions usually help keep the water in the soil, and I’ve found that my heucheras never require extra watering once they’re established.
Liatris takes its sweet time, growing slowly all season, until it finally begins to open it’s purple flowers like birthday sparklers in late summer. In fact, it’s common name is Blazing Star. Interestingly, the flowers open starting at the top and working their way down. Most other plants are the reverse!
Plant liatris in full sun for best bloom, in any soil type, but avoid areas where water sits in the spring. Fall brings out red streaks in the foliage and in the flower stems. When most other perennials turn yellow, this fella gives you a nice kick of garnet.
Not that I have anything against yellow in the autumn!
Aspens (and their very close relatives, Poplars) are some of the very best plants for golden fall colour. Nothing beats an entire aspen forest glowing in contrast to the blue Alberta sky on a sunny day in September.
Unless you live in a rural area, you probably want to avoid all but the Swedish Columnar Aspens in your yard. They have non-invasive roots, and can be safely planted close to your house without fear of damaging it’s foundation or any plumbing lines. They aren’t picky about soil, but try not to dig near their roots unless you want suckers.
I happen to adore my very own piece of Aspen forest. In addition to the fall show, their trembling leaves make a soothing sound that is almost never absent from a summer day, and their white bark with black streaks and “eyes” looks good year ’round.
While many ornamental grasses can run amok in your garden, Feather Reed Grass ‘Karl Foerster’ is well-behaved. I’m always impressed by how such a tall plant can remain upright without supports, even in high winds!
I chose this guy not because of his fall colour (which is unremarkable), but because of his interesting and abundant seed heads. Most perennials are finished in the fall, but ‘Karl’ is in his prime. We usually try to keep grass out of our garden beds, but you really should make an exception in this case. The height alone is attention-grabbing, but the thin leaves of feather reed grass also provide a pleasant contrast to most garden plants. Grow ‘Karl’ in pretty much any soil, as long as he’s planted in full sun.
To be honest, I have a love/hate relationship with ‘Diabolo’ Ninebark. Hardy shrubs with purple leaves are rather hard to come by, and they are such a great foil to all of the green-leaved plants. Not only that, but ‘Diabolo’ gets nice balls of palest pink flowers at the tips of it’s branches, it has a unique vase-like growth habit, it has cool shaggy/peeling bark for winter interest, and it turns this fantastic garnet colour in the fall. The love part is obvious, right? What’s to hate? Weeelllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll. . .
The arching branches often fall right over, resulting in a shape that is half vase-like, and half “Hey-I-think-your-plant-is-dying.” Also, the Monrovia plant tag claims that ‘Diabolo’ is “a great dense hedge,” but it is SO not. I have owned five of these shrubs, bought from two different Garden Centers, and not a single one of them can be described as “dense” or “compact.” That bugs me, because I prefer compact growth. (There is a new dwarf Physocarpus called ‘Tiny Wine,’ and another called ‘Little Devil’ that I would be interested in testing in my garden.)
‘Diabolo’ has also appeared on several lists of drought-tolerant plants, but I don’t think it is. These guys definitely droop in the hottest, driest parts of summer. They also get covered in black aphids every year, as a result of this heat/water stress. Aphids are easy to deal with (just a blast of water or insecticidal soap), but ‘Diabolo’ just isn’t the amazing miracle plant it pretended to be!
I dug up and gave away two, and I sometimes chop my three remaining ninebarks down to the ground in the spring to help prevent the floppy stem problem. It does help, but it also means that I sacrifice the flowers that year. The shaggy bark is also best on older stems, so I’m giving up on that, too. Nevertheless, I think I’ll keep my Devils for now. They just look so darn fantastic in the fall!
The last of the trees in my yard to change for the fall is my ‘Evans’ Cherry. I always think it’s going to snow before ‘Evans’ manages to turn, and then suddenly, I look out the window, and he’s started to go amber, saffron, and vermillion. It’s like the double-flowering plums, but with a greater range and intensity of colour. I love it!
‘Evans’ Cherries are easy to grow in full sun. In fact, they do better if you don’t fuss over them. No rich soil, no fertilizer, and no extra water from August until freeze-up. All I’ve ever had to do was a serious pruning job to encourage branching when my tree was young, and that’s it. In exchange for that benign neglect, I get white flowers in spring, big sour cherries for eating/pies/jam/whatever in summer, three shades of fall colour, and beautiful shiny red bark to enjoy all winter. Did I mention that it’s also self-pollinating? That’s right: you only need one tree to set fruit! It’s even a perfect small size for any city lot. I plan to grow an entire allée of them on my three acres.
You may find ‘Evans’ for sale under the name ‘Bali,’ but if you know anyone who grows this lovely little tree, just ask them if you can dig up a few of the suckers. I’m sure they’d be happy to oblige you!
One tree you probably don’t think of as being good for fall interest is the Colorado Blue Spruce. Make no mistake: this beauty looks absolutely fantastic next to aspens and other yellow-leaved flora! Of course those steely blue needles are a great contrast all year long, but I happen to think they look best in the autumn.
Grow blue spruces in moist soil (though they are very drought-tolerant) with full sun to light shade. There is literally a cultivar for every yard, with varieties that are columnar, dwarfed, and creeping, in addition to the usual super-sized specimens. Chose the site with care, as spruces are very long-lived.
Spruces have shallow roots that spread far and wide, sucking up all available water. For this reason, there is often a “dead zone” under the tree. Instead of battling to grow other plants there, just mulch it and leave it! Don’t prune the branches up to expose the trunk, and no one will even know or care.
In addition to plants, garden ornaments can really add to the fall landscape. I collect ceramic mushrooms, and place them in various groupings throughout my front garden bed every spring. Often the lush growth of summer hides these faux fungi from view, and only when things begin to die down in the autumn do I find them again. Serendipitously, the vast majority are glazed in fall colours!
Of course we can’t forget Pumpkins! Available in shades of red, orange, yellow, green, white, and tan; tuck them into your garden beds and fall containers. I’d love to grow ‘Cinderella’s Carriage’ Pumpkins next year. I love the deep orange (almost red!) colour and the unique flat shape. A friend of mine grew them this past season, and she said they actually ripen in the garden! That’s pretty rare for pumpkins in Alberta.
‘Fairytale’ has also caught my eye, and one of my neighbours grew cute little mini-pumpkins like ‘Lil’ Pump-ke-mon,’ ‘Jack Be Little,’ and ‘Baby Boo.’ Perfect for Halloween decorating or your Thanksgiving table!
I bought Ornamental Gourds for my fall containers this year, but I’d love to grow my own eventually. I just love the weird, warty ones, so I’ve got my eye on the Lunch Lady Warted Gourds from Stokes, as well as Turk’s Turbans, Autumn Wings, and the Daisy Mix.
I have grown their Small Warted Hybrid Blend before, and found them extremely easy to grow. You just need enough space, since all members of the squash family tend to sprawl!
Below is my favourite foursome of trees in the fall:
From back to front: Austrian Pine, ‘Diabolo’ Ninebark, ‘Evans’ Cherry, and Colorado Blue Spruce. Aren’t they beautiful?
In addition to everything I’ve already mentioned, there are a number of other excellent trees, shrubs, and perennials for brightening the fall landscape. They include:
• American Bittersweet (Celastrus scandens)
• Black Chokecherry ‘Autumn Magic’
• Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus and E. nanus var. turkestanica)
• Dogwoods (Cornus sp.)
• Maples (especially Amur, Red, and Sugar Maples)
• Mountain Ash (especially Sorbus decora – Showy Mountain Ash)
• Oaks (great leaf shapes and colours and acorns)
• Rugosa Roses (red leaves and showy rose hips)
• Russian Sage
• Showy Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ and ‘Autumn Fire’
• Siberian Crabapple
• Siberian Larch
• Virginia Creeper
• Willows (some of the last trees to change, they extend the season)
Autumn-coloured annuals I’d love to try are:
• Bronze Leaf Dahlias ‘Mystic Haze,’ ‘Mystic Wonder,’ and ‘Karma Choc’
• California Poppies
• Chinese Lanterns
• Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ (a perennial for those who live in zone 5 and up)
• Pansies (in fall colours)
• Sunflowers of all types and colours (did you know they come in red?)
All of these plants will someday be in my garden, and I will share photos of them then! In the meantime, here are a few more pics of my front garden bed in the fall, bathed in the rosy glow of sunrise:
You probably noticed the ‘Little Lime’ Hydrangea in that last pic, and wondered why I didn’t include it in the list of “Stars of the Fall Garden,” right? Well, that’s because it’s more of a late-summer star in my garden. It only looks good for about a week into the fall. ‘Little Lime’ has also only been there for two years, which isn’t really long enough for me to form a solid opinion of it. I did have a neighbour a long time ago, in a different neighbourhood, who had a whole row of ‘Annabelle’ Hydrangeas that I recall looked amazing in the autumn. So perhaps I’ll do a “Stars Part 2” blog post some fall in the future!
And yes, those are my Oregon Grape Hollies planted right next to the pathway. How did you think I knew that that was a bad idea? LOL
If you want to learn even more about making the most of your fall garden, I highly recommend the book “Fallscaping” by Nancy J. Ondra and Stephanie Cohen. It is completely jam-packed with plant suggestions, detailed growing information, and GORGEOUS photos. It even contains information on plant propagation, companion planting, how to chose healthy plants while shopping at Garden Centers, digging a new garden bed, transplanting, fall garden clean-up, sample garden plans, and ideas for seasonal containers. Those of you in warmer climates than me (Lucky Ducks!) will also find information relevant to your planting zone. “Fallscaping” is seriously an amazing book that will inspire you!
What’s your favourite plant in the fall?