As the summer season winds down, bringing with it shorter days and cooler nights, we can relax and appreciate the dramatic seasonal changes in the garden. Fall performing perennials require less maintenance than all the deadheading and watering involved during the hot summer months. The choice of plants used for a fall look tend to be of a selection that returns nature to the garden.
This natural, spontaneous look is especially emphasized by the use of native and ornamental grasses. Grasses are not a one season performer. They add structure and interest in the fall and winter months. During the summer they dance in the breeze and are found to be useful not only as a focal point but can also serve as a screen to block out unsightly objects in a yard such as a large utility box.
A variety of textures can be found when using grasses in a landscape. Some soften, some stand like sculptures. The seasonal late fall color dynamics will find them displaying shades of yellows, browns, copper, and tawny rose. Some like the Miscanthus sinensis ‘Strictus’ (porcupine grass), Calamagrostis acutifolia ‘Avalanche’ and ‘Overdam’ (both variegated forms of Karl Forester feather reed grass) have foliage which pairs well with colorful blooming perennials such as black eyed susans, asters and coneflowers. Both Panicum virgatum ‘Cheyenne Sky’ Prairie Winds and ‘Shenandoah’ have foliage with a generous leaf tone of rich burgundy red. Their seed heads are a source of food for birds. Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Blue Heaven’ transitions into a burgundy red with purple highlights. Sporobolus heterolepis (Prairie Dropseed) is an attractive fine textured grass. The miscanthus grasses have beautiful pampas type plumes which is a look often sought after. The Miscanthus x ‘Giganteus’ is in a league all of its own standing 10-12’ tall and 4’ wide at maturity. This impressive giant plumes late.
Highlights of fall color and interest can also be found in blooms, foliage, berries, aging blooms and seed heads. The sedum family with its handsome foliage and flower heads that slowly transform in color from bud to flower then drying to a shade of brown make this plant a perfect fall garden staple. A bonus is the added winter interest with the taller varieties. Sedum generally looks attractive at any stage of its entire growth cycle.
There are many perennials which bloom in the late summer and fall. Some like salvias, gaillardia, coreopsis and reblooming echinaceas will many times bloom past the first freezing temperatures. Helenium, rudbeckia, aster, hardy mums, agastache, eupatorium (jo-pye weed) and solidago (golden rod) provide a variety of late seasonal color and flower forms. Sweet Autumn Clematis puts on an eye-catching show with its foliage covered in fragrant small white flowers that eventually change into feathery puffballs. Hydrangea shrubs are instrumental in the fall garden with their long lasting blooms. Changing out a planter by removing tired looking annuals and dropping a chrysanthemum in their place will be an instant, long lasting focal point for fall.
Foliage can also add color to the fall garden. Some perennials have colorful foliage all season long such as many heuchera and Mukdenia rossii ‘Crimson Fans’. Others like Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’, Geranium ‘Bevans Variety’ and Bergenia ‘Winterglow’ start to exhibit a change in foliage color as fall approaches. Many shrubs also have fall color changes or have all season deep purple leaves. The fall “look” wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the interesting seed heads that form if deadheading hasn’t removed them. Some of the more showy ones include penstemon, siberean iris, pardancanda, baptisia and martagon lily. Rose hips and shrubs producing colorful berries are also desirable.
Including some fall performing perennials, grasses and shrubs will ensure that successional planting won’t leave the autumn garden void of interest and color. It is a time of the year to reflect, rest and enjoy nature’s beauty as it presents itself in a festive finale.