Fall for Color

by: Hilary Newell

Toward the end of August, flower gardens often begin to look a little fatigued. Annuals have been blooming their heads off, summer perennials are starting to fade, windstorms may have broken some stems, deer have been nibbling, and diminishing day-length has started to affect the quantity of some blooms.

Luckily, there are plenty of plants whose time to shine is after all the showy summer flowers have faded. Late-blooming perennials and fall-blooming shrubs will help you keep your garden beautiful late into the fall. Spring and summer offer tons of color and interest, but to really enjoy your garden for a longer period of time, you will want an assortment of plants that are colorful and interesting in all seasons. If you put in some effort and a little planning your garden can look great well into late summer and fall.

Fountain Grass

When you are planning your garden early in the growing season, look specifically for plants that are late bloomers. Most of them will want to be planted toward the back of the border, as they will have the whole summer to grow and get tall. You may want to stake them to keep them from falling over, but do that when they are young. There is no way to make a curvy stem stand up straight after it is bent.

Periodic pruning and pinching is another way to make those taller plants stockier and bushier. Not all plants will produce flowers after they have been pinched, but asters will definitely benefit from a few good pinches. Start when the plant is small, and pinch a couple times before July 4, and then let the plant grow. The pinches will encourage side branches and they will have flowers too. Essentially, they are a little shorter, but a lot stronger when you pinch. Do a little research to find out if your plants will benefit from pinching.

Perennials are great, but what if there were some other plants that would bloom in the fall without all that fuss? Shrubs and ornamental grasses can help. Many ornamental grasses start to bloom in July or August and continue with ripening seed heads and even changing foliage late into the fall. Often doing double duty, lots of grasses look great all summer, too. Blue oat grass (Helictotrichon semper- virens) is like a fountain of tidy and graceful silver-blue blades. Panicles of flowers appear in late summer and they look great right up until snow. Hardy from zones 4-9, these semi-evergreen plants will grow two to three feet tall and the fall foliage is very colorful.

Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra) Aureola is a colorful groundcover grass for shady areas. It’s great in containers, showing bright-yellow leaves with thin green stripes. Tinges of pink appear as the nights begin to get cooler. This slow-growing perennial was deservedly the 2009 Perennial Plant of the Year.

A couple other grasses with colorful fall foliage worth mentioning are feather reed grass (Calamagrostis acutiflora) and red switch grass (Panicum virgatum) Shenandoah. Feather reed grass will give you a dramatic upright effect. It’s tol- erant of a lot of conditions, thriving in wet soil, but doing fine in dry, sandy soil. The seeds are sterile so they won’t spread all over the place, and the long stalks make great additions to cut-flower arrangements. Overall, this will grow to about two feet. Red switch grass has fast-growing, red-tipped leaves in spring that turn burgundy in the fall. Reddish-pink flowers top this grass starting in summer. Getting four feet tall and two to three feet wide, this would make a stunning specimen in a container, or you could use them in a mass background planting.

Plumy grasses are super interesting throughout the whole season, too. Fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) Moudry grows to 24-30 inches and spreads to 36 inches in full sun. Sea-green, finely-textured foliage changes to yellow gold in the fall, and the dark purple-black plumes stay beautiful until winter. Use this Pennisetum as an accent, or mass three of them together in your border. Pennise- tum is a low-maintenance perennial that should be cleaned up in spring. Once it starts growing, it’s best to leave it alone. Deer don’t tend to eat it, but there are no guarantees in that department.

Ruby grass (Rhynchelytrum nerviglumis) Savannah is a stunning annual grass that has blue-green spiky foliage that is soft to the touch. Deep rose plumes show up in mid-spring and those blooms fade through shades of pink and eventually turn pale cream. All the colors will be showing in mid-summer and they continue to look interesting and beautiful well into the fall. They’re great in dried floral arrangements, too.

One of the coolest new grasses I’ve tried in the last few years is pink muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris). It’s visually stunning in spite of its diminutive size. I’ve had it in the garden for a few years, and last year I thought it had succumbed to some kind of stress, but one day as I drove down the driveway after work, there it was, backlit and blooming with airy pink blooms. Sources say it is evergreen, but mine dies to the ground each year, rebounding with new growth and eventu- ally flowers. I can testify that it is drought-tolerant but it will do better with good watering. Those flowers lasted for weeks into the fall.

Flame grass (Miscanthus sinensis) Purpurascens will give you cool bronze-purple foliage all summer long. As the season goes on, it will develop arches of burgundy-colored seed heads. A heat-tolerant annual, Miscanthus grows to 30-36 inches tall and 12-24 inches wide, and makes a dra- matic statement. When it turns brown after several hard freezes, it can be left for the birds, but it needs to be cleaned up before planting time in the spring. Miscanthus varieties are generally resistant to dis- eases and pests, too.

Shrubs are the foundation for any mixed garden, and chosen care- fully, they will provide color and interest from spring through fall. Fall color isn’t necessarily limited to foliage, though. In some cases, plant breeders have taken many of the good qualities and turned them into great qualities.

Powerhouse bloomers that hold their flowers until the snow falls are particularly interesting. Hydrangea Limelight and Little Lime are two of these. Once they start blooming in mid-summer, they never stop looking good. Lime-green flowers mature to white, then light pink, then finally to deep-rose and even cinnamon-brown as the days get shorter and the temperature falls. By the time they are brown, the flowers have dried and they continue to provide value in your landscape. Regular pruning on Lime- light can keep it at under six feet tall, but without pruning it can reach as high as eight feet. Little Lime will top out at about five feet with no prun- ing. Firelight is a relatively-new introduction with a very deep pink color in late fall. All of these are hardy to zone 3.

Viburnum nudum Brandywine absolutely has it all. Glossy green foliage turns deep maroon in the fall. White flowers in summer develop into clusters of vibrant pink and blue berries in fall. Growing to six feet tall, it prefers full sun to part shade and a moist but well-drained soil. It’s attractive to birds, but deer don’t like it. Win, win, win.

Often mistaken for poison ivy, Virginia creeper Parthenosisus is a highly-ornamental climber that turns bright red in the fall. It’s a fast grower, and can quickly become an eye-catching mass of autumn foliage. It can rapidly climb up trees and fences, but is easily controlled. It is a native plant that is often spread by birds.

Once I planted a Callicarpa (beauty berry) where I thought it would be just perfect. Alas, it was another shrub that did so well I had to dig it up because no one could reach the propane tank to fill it. But the thing I liked the best about it was the gorgeous pinky-purple berries it had in the fall. Perhaps it grew so well because it is not attractive to deer. It grew to over five feet tall and spread at least eight feet. It would have been perfect had I chosen a better spot.

Itea is another native plant that has outstanding fall color. Old-fashioned Iteas grew very tall, but Little Henry is more re- strained, only reaching about three feet tall. Summer-blooming, the flowers are lightly scented and very attractive to butterflies and hummingbirds. The summer green gives way to a splendid show of oranges and reds. Deer don’t like it, so that’s a plus.

Fall interest is a strength of Abelia Ruby Anniversary and it has some other great qualities, too. The fragrance of an Abelia is hard to beat, and it blooms for a very long time, beginning in summer and continuing through the fall. But the ruby-red foliage pro- vides a bright spot in the fall. It will grow to six feet tall or you can prune it to keep it under five feet. Deer do not like this shrub, but the butterflies are attracted to the delightful scent.

While shrubs are a great way to increase your garden’s color in the fall, late-blooming perennials will provide pockets of color, too. Hardy mums and New England asters are old standbys, but there are so many more. Goldenrod (Solidago) is hardy to zone 3. A native wildflower, it is often wrongly blamed for seasonal allergies. It is actually ragweed that is the culprit, but ragweed sends out its pollen at the same time that goldenrod is blooming. There are some very nice newer hybrids that are commercially available, too. Fireworks is aptly named, with bright-yellow sprays exploding like its namesake. Plant it with ornamental grasses and nice blue New England asters for a neat effect. This is one of those perennials that likes to be pinched until early July.

If you’re looking for something taller and you have an area that might be on the wetter side, you will like Joe Pye weed. Eupato- rium maculatum is a tall, native perennial that you will often see blooming by the side of the road. On Nantucket there are many wetland areas that are host to Joe Pye. It is very attractive to but- terflies, and will thrive in rich garden soil. The native variety will grow over eight feet tall, so plant it way at the back of the border, or next to a tall fence. The flower heads are large enough that small birds can perch and pick at the seeds late into the fall.

My old standby Verbena bonariensis keeps on blooming well into the fall, waving in the breezes, providing food for the birds. It’s not technically a perennial, but rather an annual that readily self-sows. And I do mean readily. Finches seem to really like the seed heads on these, so I don’t deadhead, and that’s what al- lows them to self-sow. We have to thin the carpet of seedlings that emerges in late spring, but it is worth it. I use this verbena for cut-flower bunches as well, and I never seem to run out of stems to cut. The purple color is a nice foil for just about any color, and the flower form is so different that ii seems to go with everything.

Boltonia is often mistaken for aster, hence its common name of false aster. These peren- nials are super-easy to care for and have al- most no disease or pest pressure, and they are deer-resistant. One or two plants provide ex- cellent cut flowers through the season. For the best effect and for the most flowers, plant in full sun. They will get gangly in too much shade. Boltonia starts blooming in mid-sum- mer and continues right through some light frosts. It’s the last thing to cut back before the snow starts to fall.

While I write about planning ahead for the garden, the truth is that my husband and I are impulsive plant-purchasers. “Oooh, that’s pretty ... Where shall we put it?” seems to be our motto. But planning for fall color is something that we have actually worked on, and that forethought keeps the color coming and the birds landing right through the fall.

If there are seed heads left on plants, we leave them until the very last minute to clean up, and sometimes they are left for the entire winter. Either way, the garden can remain beautiful until the snow flies. ///

Hilary Newell is the marketing director at Bartlett’s Ocean View Farm and a regular contributor to Nantucket Today.