No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace/As I have seen in one autumnal face
— John Donne
These words from poet John Donne give praise for autumn ‘s natural beauty, and what better homage to the season? With the rich colors of autumn , we ease out of summer and are reminded of cooler weather on the horizon. It’s a great time to savor nature’s beauty before we nestle into eventual cold. Autumn is a beautiful season for gardeners and gardens.
Whether you’re a gardener, garden gazer or leaf-peeper, the season has something to offer every beholding eye. Here in the Northeast, where the growing season is roughly May through October, getting the most out of it can be both a challenge and a reward for gardeners.
If you don’t have a garden of your own, there are public gardens and hiking trails where you can take in the season’s unique colors and fragrances.
If you have a garden, or are looking to start one, possible plant choices range from annuals and perennials and herbs to woody plants (shrubs) and trees. There are many plants that are prized for foliage, flowers or both and complement landscapes at different times, and autumn is one of the best times to appreciate the special beauty a fall flower garden can offer.
Most summer garden plants may have reached their peak by the time leaves turn to gold, red, orange and yellow, but that’s not the end of color or fragrance in the garden. In late summer into mid-fall, many annuals continue to bloom, ornamental grasses have filled out, roses are still vibrant, foliage from spring and summer flowering shrubs serves as good structure in flower gardens throughout the remainder of the growing season.
With an array of flowering plants in jewel tones and foliage plants that are more than just green, you won’t be at a loss when looking to supplement an existing garden — or break ground for a new bed. Keep in mind that we are in a cool zone (Zone 3 to 5 depending where you live in the region) when choosing what to plant. While nurseries will carry plants that will grow here, keep in mind that if you buy plants or seeds from out of the area, they may not survive.
One of the most important aspects in garden design is attention to bloom times and plants that add structure to the garden. Incorporate these key elements to your fall flower garden, and you’ll be enjoying colorful and fragrant outdoor views deep into fall.
If you’re out enjoying already established gardens, take note of what appeals to you from them, so that you can incorporate those elements into your own.
Some of the most popular flowering plants in fall include roses, chrysanthemums or hardy mums, butterfly bush, daisies (many varieties), cone flowers, black-eyed susans, hydrangeas, autumn joy (sedums), phlox, iris, rose of Sharon and day lilies.
Annuals that hang on to their blooms well into fall include petunias, impatiens, pansies, portulaca (moss rose), begonias and geraniums.
Ornamental grasses, while not bursting with color, can add a lot of texture and dimension to a fall garden. Most grasses give structure to gardens all year long, whether they’ve dried up or are of the evergreen variety.
Misicanthus is a popular ornamental grass can be used as a specimen plant or when grouped can act as a low hedge of grass. In addition to structure, grasses also add the element of sound. When the wind picks up (as it often does in autumn ), you’re greeted with light rustling sounds that add to the garden’s beauty.
Impatiens that have been blooming all summer long are still blooming into fall, and since they’re an annual, you could even supplement existing gardens with them. There’s also the option of adding a hanging basket of impatiens. Whether hanging off of a porch, house or hook, the added dimension of height here can complement your other plantings quite nicely.
Butterfly bush is a great addition to your landscape where you’d like to attract a little wildlife. These plants can reach up to four feet in height and are available in many varieties and colors. Expect a few fluttering friends to drop by and grace your garden.
Ground covers that work well in autumn gardens include sweet woodruff, pachysandra, ivy and Bishop’s weed. Herbs and climbers like clematis and trumpet vines also provide color and/or foliage in later summer and early fall months.
You may not think of roses as a fall flower, but many varieties keep blooming well after summer heat has left. They’re great for all-season color and fragrance, and one of the best roses for this area is the Knockout rose, according to Neal Plummer of Price Greenleaf Nursery and Garden Center in Delmar.
“The Knockouts bloom for a long time and really come back nice after pruning. Other roses can get leggy and gangly; this variety though seems to thrive and produce a lot … after you cut them back,” says Plummer.
Rose bushes and other plant materials can be pruned and shaped up until about a month shy of what would be considered a frost warning. A good rule of thumb is to consider mid to late September the cut-off time for cutting.
Mum’s the flower
In almost every garden with fall color, you’ll find hardy mums. While they may remind you of ones you see at a florist shop, they’re not quite the same. The flowers carried by florists are meant to be cut and are different varieties than the hardy mums you’ll see in gardens.
These plants stand up to dipping night time temperatures, common to autumn weather. When planting mums, keep in mind that they will remain a bit nondescript until bloom time comes around in September. Until then, the foliage offers a nice low, mounded structure to your location.
Some common hardy mum varieties are:
Anemone: One or more rows of petals with a cushion-like center.
Pompom: Familiar globular shape.
Regular incurve: Petals curve up and in, forming a sphere.
Single or daisy: Looks like its cousin, the daisy.
Spider: Long, curled petals droop down and give a spider-like look.
Hardy mums can be planted in containers or directly into the ground. As with planting any new plant, loosen the root ball and make sure the hole is deep and wide enough to cover the roots. Alternating colors along a border and staggering (not planting them in straight lines) are good ways to incorporate mums into your garden. Planting them near some earlier bloomers is also a good idea, so that you’ll have a continuous array of color.
Deciding to plant only perennials, only annuals or a mixture of both types of plants can be a source of great conversation among gardeners. While there is much to be said for either case, colors and fragrances achieved with both are evident in autumn .
Gardener Maggie Poll of Delmar has been actively shaping her perennial garden for nearly a decade and attributes the timing of her blooms to trial and error. One of the plants that gives a nice structure to her garden is the fairy rose. She has also incorporated salvia, black-eyed Susans, azaleas, rhododendrons, hostas and cone flowers. Of particular note in Poll’s garden is the flourishing area of black-eyed susans.
“I have separated them many times. They’re starting again to creep into areas I’d rather they didn’t,” said Poll of the prolific yellow stand.
Dee Banigan, also of Delmar, has been busy in her garden for the past several years and likes having a balance of annuals and perennials to provide bloom times through almost the entire growing season. Banigan chose different colored impatiens for this year’s front border, which gives a nice boundary to the groupings of plants beyond. In the middle, she has planted black-eyed susans, dahlias, petunias, hardy mums, dianthus and snap dragons. By mixing perennial and annual plants, Banigan has achieved a rich palette.
Fall is also a great time to divide perennials, plant spring bulbs and plant grass seed. When a plant needs pruning or cutting back, consider harvesting the flowers before they’re completely spent so you can dry them. Drying can be done by simply gathering bunches of flowers with string and hanging them upside down in a dry place. Pressing flowers and leaves is also a nice option for retaining their color.
So get out and take in the most of what autumn has to offer, before we’re watching nature take on a blanket of white.