Extend your ornamental gardening season by designing a fall flower garden with plants that have unique seedheads and colorful foliage.
When summer draws to a close, the gardens in my northern Minnesota (Zone 2) neighborhood start to look a little ragged. No wonder my spirits soar at the sight of fall-blooming flowers, such as the tall, bronze stems of Helenium, the purple stars of Aster, and the golden rays of Heliopsis and black-eyed Susans. Fall-blooming perennials, persistent and long-blooming annuals, gardening bushes, fast-growing shrubs, and the creative use of seedheads will add life to the flower bed, just as our enthusiasm flags with the season’s withdrawal to winter.
While his neighbors are busy composting and mulching-over their summer spreads, Greg Bonovetz’s Duluth, Minnesota, fall flower garden comes into its own every autumn. Bees buzz among the bright red blossoms of bee balm, and the sturdy stems of purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) contrast with the fine flowers of drought-tolerant yarrow and the velvety leaves and trumpet-shaped flowers of Datura cultivars. White purple coneflower cultivars, such as ‘White Swan,’ blend with ‘Joan Senior,’ a cream-colored daylily that blooms for six weeks.
My eyes are quickly drawn to the fall flowers garden’s focal points. First, a tall obelisk covered with pink flowers and shiny foliage of a rocktrumpet vine makes a striking first impression. Second, spikes of an ornamental tobacco plant add a stately signature and a vertical accent. For a more subtle feature, ‘Stargazer’ lilies border another bed. Bonovetz says, “One of the reasons I plant true lilies is for the scent.” His other reason is the same one that I’m after every fall: “They look good when everything else is fading.”
One way Bonovetz extends his ornamental gardening season is by choosing long-blooming annuals, such as pot marigold and cultivars of Geranium, Petunia, and Datura for his landscape design. It’s not all annuals for Bonovetz, but he usually keeps his perennials in containers, where they’re mixed with annuals. Landscape designer Ellen Zachos, who also makes ample use of containers on New York City terraces and balconies (Zone 7), agrees: “For most of my color, I rely on annuals, such as wishbone flower because so much of the root space in these containers is taken up by trees and shrubs.” Zachos’ favorite perennials are fan flower and drought- and pest-resistant lantanas. Zachos reports that her fan flowers bloom in New York until Thanksgiving and survive temperatures into the 30s. While invasive in some parts of the country, lantanas are a great annual when grown beyond their hardiness zone: They never self-seed, they’ll continue to do well without deadheading, and they’re sure to bloom until the season ends. For shadier terraces, Zachos uses wishbone flowers in lantanas’ place.
In my own garden, tall ‘Carmencita’ castor beans look almost tropical with their dark maroon, maple-like leaves and fuzzy red seedheads. The bright orange flowers of ‘Fiesta del Sol’ Mexican sunflower contrast nicely with the burgundy tassels of love-lies-bleeding and the airy stems and delicate lavender flowers of tall verbenas. Tall, pollenless common sunflowers, such as ‘Van Gogh’ and ‘Moulin Rouge,’ surround the vegetable garden, which I’ve found to be ideal for fall bouquets.
Jo-Anne van den Berg-Ohms, of John Scheepers, Inc. in Connecticut, has several favorite long-blooming annuals. “Cleomes are easy-growing, carefree flowers that can hold up to late summer heat spells and droughts,” she says. “Garden nasturtiums give an opulent lushness to the early fall garden when other plants start to look a bit tired.” Van den Berg-Ohms uses coleus, also known as painted nettle, to fill in containers, and she often grows ornamental kale to use as a fall replacement.
Nancy Ondra, author of Fallscaping, says that one of her favorite tips for fall color is to wait until midsummer to sow or transplant annual flowers, such as California poppy, sulphur cosmos, and Cleome cultivars, so the fall-blooming flowers will peak in early autumn. Ondra explains that “these annuals, along with the later-flowering tender perennials, add a fresh look at a time when most people think of the garden as tired and fading.”
One benefit to my Zone 2 front-yard garden is that some of my favorite perennials are just reaching their zenith in late summer and early fall. Summer ragworts light up my shady spots with their almost-black, rubbery leaves and golden flower clusters. My favorite cultivars are ‘Britt-Marie Crawford,’ ‘Desdemona,’ and ‘Othello.’ Feathery flowers of western meadow-rue provide a great backdrop for the dark purple foliage and deep red flowers of ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ dahlias. Spires of sweet-scented black baneberry pair well with the chartreuse foliage of the biennial feverfew. And I can’t say enough about my blue giant hyssop, which is a magnet for the Monarch butterfly migration that graces my garden every year.
In her Pennsylvania garden, Nancy Ondra religiously deadheads long-blooming perennials, such as shasta daisy, lanceleaf tickseed, and perennial sage to extend their summer flowering into the fall. She also relies on flowers that rebloom in fall if you cut them back after their first round of summer flowers, such as white doll’s daisy, Joe-Pye weed, and Asteraceae cultivars. (For more advice on selective pruning and pinching-back perennials, see Tracy DiSabato-Aust’s The Well-Tended Perennial Garden.)
Ondra also likes showy stonecrop, Carmichael’s monkshood, and goldenrod ‘Fireworks’ because they start in late summer and keep going into autumn. For autumn foliage color, she suggests stonecrop ‘Angelina’, foamflower, and coral bells. She adds that “another perennial that doesn’t come into its own until late September or early October is Mexican bush sage.”
Both Ondra and Zachos mention Hubricht’s bluestar with its fine, threadlike foliage that turns brilliant yellow in autumn. Zachos plans to use it as a companion for globe amaranth. Finally, Ondra always loves to incorporate rex begonias for their dramatic leaves. At the end of the fall flower garden’s zenith, she pots her rex begonias up and brings them indoors to enjoy as the leaves fall and winter sets in.
In northern hardiness zones, tropicals take time to mature, but they’re always worth the wait. For a touch of paradise when I need it most, I plant tall Canna cultivars, such as ‘Pretoria,’ with striped leaves; water-loving elephant ears, such as ‘Black Magic’; angel wings; ornamental bananas; and cultivars of Cordyline, Agave, Hibiscus, and Brugmansia.
Northern Minnesota is known for its brilliant fall color, and we’re fortunate to have maples, oaks, poplars, birches, and dogwoods on our property. The assortment turns our woods into a kaleidoscope of yellows, oranges, reds, and deep purples. In addition to their dazzling foliage, many trees and shrubs feed birds through the winter, including dogwoods, elderberries, Viburnum varieties, winterberries, sumacs, and mountain ash.
Michigan landscape architect Maureen Parker favors Canadian serviceberry, panicled
Hydrangea ‘Pinky Winky’, and the cutleaf sumac ‘Tiger Eyes’ for fall color. Among the late flowering trees, seven-son flower is a particular favorite (Zones 4 through 8). Seven-son flower’s “clustered, creamy-white, fragrant blooms open in late summer to early fall,” she says. “After they drop, the remaining flower-like calyces turn bright reddish-pink, making it look like the tree is blooming for a second time.”
Zachos recommends the ‘Kousa’ dogwood because it has large fruit, great reddish fall color, and is less prone to anthracnose disease than native dogwoods. She also likes the sourwood tree — a small Zone 5 tree with beautiful white flowers in the spring and vibrant red foliage in fall — and redbud for its bright yellow leaves.
With such a variety of plant choices and techniques available to prolong the ornamental gardening season, there’s no need to despair when fall rolls around. With a bit of planning in spring, I’m overjoyed by the abundance of color that graces my fall flower garden until our hard winter freeze. Moreover, once I started looking at my autumn landscape with new eyes, I realized that there are fall-blooming flowers and late-season beauty all around!
Margaret A. Haapoja always keeps her fall garden in color at her home in Bovey, Minnesota.
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