In the fall palate of gardens, there is always the dependable beautiful flush of maroon, rust and gold of mums. These plants are readily available in hardy forms to repeat their blooms year after year. They need to be cared for with regular watering and mulching to be successful in your garden. They come in flowering varieties as small as buttons or with large spidery-shaped blooms. As in all garden design the presence of an outstanding plant is often not the end of the story but simply a part of it. There are a myriad of colorful additions to your garden that bloom in combination with those bountiful plants that warrant attention.
For colorful interesting gardens the gardener is committed to a year round process. Wintertime consists of education and planning. Check out your local Native Plant Society, Master Gardeners, Audubon and colleges for updated information. Ask for a tour of their greenhouses and about what they suggest for particular problem areas of your land and what is best to plant for fall and spring blooms. This is the time to plant the bulbs that you want to see in the early spring. The soil needs to be 50 degrees or cooler for best results and the bulbs need a period of time to winterize and be dormant before spring. When planting bulbs, it is always important that you place them at the correct depth in the soil. The rule of thumb is that the bulb needs to be planted at a depth of three times the measurement from the bottom of the root to the top of the bulb. Some gardeners prefer to put a handful of crushed oyster shells or chicken grit in the hole before placing the bulb in the hole to discourage hungry voles. Bulbs need to be visualized clearly and placed in the hole with the root side down. This is not always as easy as it sounds. Look carefully especially with smaller bulbs when placing them in their holes. The roots can be very fine and difficult to see. Strange as it sounds, placing a questionable bulb on its side is a choice that works well.
As spring arrives and shoots begin to emerge there is always the yearly clean-up and the appealing new seedlings arriving at the plant stores to temp you. During the spring, the cooling days of fall may seem like they are far away but not when you plan ahead. Plants and bulbs for the fall can be planted at that time. Catalogs are a great source for bulbs and plants not readily locally available. Don’t forget to keep them watered occasionally during the heat of the summer. Cool season grasses including blue fescue and feather reed grass grow well in the spring and stop in the heat of the summer. In the fall they resume growth and send up their colorful inflorescence or bloom. Spring is the ideal time to plant ornamental grasses for that flush of bloom in the fall.
Following the heat of the summer, the fall days begin to shorten and cooler days and evenings give us another opportunity to color our gardens. Colchicum can be planted in early fall for later fall color. Plan on planting asters in the cleaned out pots where your summer flowers grew or fill them with cool season grasses. Consider filling up your pots with gourds and pumpkins among your fall mums and asters and they will act to retain moisture and provide visual interest. Plant the tall flowers of Joe Pye weed or Jerusalem artichoke in front and
beside ornamental grasses for a charming affect. Joe Pye weed will tolerate both moist conditions and dry ones. Most grasses need well-drained soil so planting them together in those conditions works best. Jerusalem artichoke likes the dry soil conditions as well. This tall yellow bloomer is a two-fold
winner in combination with grasses as they help support each other physically and visually.
Fall bloomers, which include bulbs, perennials and shrubs, are lesser known and are a great source of an extended season of color and interest in the garden. These can range from the Ajania, Allium (onion family), Amarcrinum, Arum and the many forms of the Colchicum. The lesser known fall Crocus has many varieties as well as the Cyclamen, the Lespedeza, a lovely weeping age-old shrub in the pea family, Thunbergii, Phlox, Rhodophiala-bifida and Patrinia scabiosifolia.
Don’t forget those rebounding
Certain flowers love the spring weather when they are beginning to grow and bloom. Others just get a good start and then shut down in the heat of summer. How often have you noticed geraniums that were so-so in the summer and then turned so glorious in the late fall that you take them in to be in a sunny window for the wintertime. Dahlias are like that too. Watch for their flush of bloom in the cooler days of fall. They too can be grown near ornamental grasses as the grasses are beginning to turn their fall shades of amber and gold.
The most consistently outstanding fall bloomers are: Aster (Michaelmas Daisy), Caryopteris (Blue Mist Shrub) actually a sub-shrub that can be cut back in the early spring for best show. Also consider Chelone (Turtlehead), Chrysanthemum, Eupatorium (Joe Pye Weed) a native often seen by the side of the road in slightly moist conditions but very effective at the back of the garden. Try Helenium (Sneezeweed), Helianthus (Perennial sunflower) and butterfly magnet, Heliopsis (False Sunflower) with up to eight weeks of bloom, Sedum (Stonecrop) ‘Autumn Joy’ with beautiful blooms that needs protection from deer, and Solidago (Goldenrod) ‘Fireworks’ and ‘Golden Fleece.’ These varieties grow more upright and are not as invasive as the natives. Don’t forget the burgundy leaves of the oriental herb Perilla and its contrast to the chartreuse leaves of mature ornamental tobacco or comfrey. Comfrey with its gold and green leaves is a better choice than the deer-preferred hosta plant. Fall color can come from foliage as well as flower. For fall color plant in the spring.
The fall clematis is an enthusiastic charmer. Cut back in the early spring it can easily grow six to eight feet and then bloom and look like a snow drift. It is a welcome addition to all the colors of the garden with its white star-like blossoms. The Lycoris or rain lilies spring up in shades of pink and red at the first rain of the fall. They do well with little care, preferring to be left alone and not divided. They multiply beautifully and easily fill a garden in several years. The greens appear following the bloom and then disappear until they flower again the next year. Grown in ground cover they appear like magic when that rain comes.
The cooler days of early fall are the ideal time to start some cool season seeds of lettuce, kohlrabi, cabbage, kale, turnips and spinach. In zone 7 the horticultural zone for most of tidewater Virginia, many of these plants will continue producing well into the winter. These same crops that benefit from mulching and shade cloth to protect their roots from the heat of the summer, thrive in the cooling days. When mulching all fruit-producing plants it is suggested that you use dry and not green material. Green material contains nitrogen that encourages growth and in the case of fruit-bearing plants: tomatoes, peppers, fruiting trees…the nitrogen causes them to grow tall and leggy with small quantities of fruit. The reverse is true for these green leafy vegetables that are dependent upon the nitrogen to grow abundant leaves. So go ahead and mulch them with those grass clippings.
Fall bloomers have special needs. They can become leggy with the growth of summer but respond well to staking and periodic pruning to keep them in good form for their fall show of bloom. They can be easily forgotten, removed as non-productive plants or left to their own devices. But if carefully tended, watered through the heat of the summer, with minimum staking or pruning as needed, they show their glory in the cooling
days of fall.
Our gardens are not over, but merely entering a new time. That glory can be prolonged. Remove the straggly heads of your summer flowers, clean out the finished vegetable plants of summer. Sip a cool glass of cider while wandering through your gardens and the beautiful blooms of the fall.
The House and Home Magazine would like to give a special thank you to Becky Heath of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs on Daffodil Lane in Gloucester, Virginia for assistance with this article.