If a garden "falls" short in the bloom department, take stock of its latest flowers so you can compare them to what others are growing, place plants for most impact, and find what you need at the garden center in spring.
...because we can easily forget fall bloomers' importance over a winter. By April, spring species dazzle us and leap onto our cart at the garden center. Among the latest fall bloomers:
• Frost aster (Aster pilosus/Symphyotrichum pilosum)
(more about asters on our Aster page...),
• Fall fairy candle (Cimicifuga ramosa/Actaea ramosa),
• Rough Joe Pye (Eupatorium rugosum)
• Fall crocus (Crocus kotschyanus)
• Montauk daisy (Nipponanthemum nipponicum)
• ...and others pictured here.
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Left: Fall monkshood (Aconitum carmichaelii)
waits until October to open its vivid blue flowers.
Fall bloom in a perennial garden or mixed border
does require patience. We must plant this year for
next, since new perennials may take that long to hit
their stride. Then, every year we must predict each
plant's growth months ahead. What nearby plants will
be attractive when it blooms? Should we reduce its
spread with spring division, or delay its bloom with a
For instance, a mum
It's great for its bloom in late October. However,
many mums would flower in late August if left to their
own devices. So we delay them with pinches --
shearing the plant's top in midsummer to make it start
over with new buds.
We not only pinched the mums we have in mind to stall off their bloom, we divided them in spring so they could not spread to their full potential. That's because even though we say at bloom time, "Wish we had more of that!" a mum is not a star deserving of the room in spring and summer. Pre-bloom, it's more of a green filler.
Then in fall we gave them one more boost. We selected appropriate company by cutting this and not that near the mums as we closed the garden at Halloween.
Below: A border before and after our fall cut. Mums can look lonely in fall if we cut everything else. That's why we deliberately left a few cold-tolerant petunias in place.
For example, two years' wait for a toadlily
This toadlily (Tricyrtis hybrid, right) is beautiful this year. However, one year it ended its season prematurely under the shears of a misguided gardener during a September tidy-up mission. At cutting time it hadn't even begun its month-long transformation from upright clump to gracefully widespread stems gracefully, each leaf node ready to display its orchid-like flowers.
Toadlily flowers develop best color and the foliage remains deep green and unmarred when the plant's grown in a cool, moist place, shaded during the hottest part of the day and surrounded by loose soil to accept the running roots.
Salvia is a huge genus with plenty of red flowering late bloomers -- most of them perennial but hardy only in zones 7 and warmer. Yet they're worth the space and the wait.
The red warmth in the background border (below, left) comes from the bloom of tender, late blooming Salvias. They call hummingbirds to one last feast before migrating.
Even the most dramatic flower is prettier in good
company. Place them and tend the bed near them to
let them pose with cold tolerant annuals, as well as
perennials with an extended bloom season or a
tendency to rebloom after a summer cutback.
For instance, placed with a backdrop:
Nerine bowdenii (below, left) has contributed only foliage throughout summer, yet we give it front row position. There, its pink flowers have better background from dusty miller than they would if directly in front of the brick.
For instance, tended to show off to the end
Asters are beautiful in fall. (Above, right, this aster also benefits from a light colored backdrop.) The color continues even as the blooms fade (below, left to right) and sometimes a quick cold snap that stops petal-fall freeze-dries the color to make it last even longer.
As we cut back in fall so we can see to weed and divide, we are attuned to fitting companions for the asters. We preserve and cut around those rather than cut them down. (Above, left: Leave the evergeen bergenia foliage. Above, center and right: Cut down everything but the asters and say "thanks" to the dark hedge background.)
It's a line-up that changes every year based on what shapes and foliage colors remain around the fall bloomer.
For example, giving cool colors a boost
Cool colors can be lost in fall's long shadows. The blue salvia at right (annual Salvia farinacea) would be wasted but for the backdrop of pale leaves from blue mist spirea (Caryopteris 'Worcester Gold').
Shrubs are often the best backdrop for fall bloomers. The best choices are evergreens and species that hold their leaves long into fall then develop color complementary to the foreground autumn bloomers.
Below, left: Fall colors of weeping larch needles (Larix decidua 'Pendula') back up a rose's October blooms.
Garden space telescopes in late fall and winter. Our increasing distance from the bed shrinks space. Where a dozen plants grew, each distinct in summer, now our eye compresses such a spot and can skip right past.
Above, right: Getting back to the border with the mum, shown earlier, notice how that space telescopes in this season. Right: We've cut away visually distracting plants in an eight foot stretch beyond the mum (arrow). That space is barely a blink now even if it would have generated a rumble in August, "What's that big bare space?"
So in fall something 20' beyond a late bloomer can become its immediate background. When we clip, fertilize, weed and mulch for fall, we leave certain plants untouched even far behind and well in front, if they add to the composition -- "behind" and "front" defined by the indoor viewer's cold-weather angle of view.
Some of the best companions for fall blooming plants are earlier blooming species that extend their bloom if we deadhead, and those that when cut back can be relied upon to develop fresh foliage and a repeat bloom.
Masterworts (Astrantia species; here at right A. rubra 'Rose Symphony') grow wonderfully in cool air and some shade. This one puts on a show in June but often celebrates the fall weather with more flowers. It's not only the blossoms but the compact mound of neat foliage that complements the height and sprawl of the season-end bloomers.
Japanese anemones will keep producing more buds
high on the flower stalks if individual blooms are
clipped off as they fade.
At left, Anemone x hybrida 'Whirlwind' is still
producing new blooms in early November.
Below: By November, we're into our second month of
deadheading and clipping fading foliage from the
Japanese anemones on the right. During all that time the angel wing begonias to the
left have been effective, undemanding company. Now that it's cut-down time, we
leave just a few begonias to accompany the anemones.
Gardens at friends' homes and in botanical gardens, arboretums and public parks look good in to November. Take some walks there, collecting ideas for what to plant for fall bloom and what to pair it with.
Below: From friends you can copy a panicle hydrangea - Japanese anemone border, or ask "Where did you get that tall, pink cut-flower mum?!"
We're lucky enough to live near Windsor, in the Canadian province of Ontario. That means a short trip across a river gives us a look at ideas from a whole different region, influences coming more from Toronto and Montreal than Chicago. For instance, in Windsor's Jackson Park at the Queen Elizabeth II Sunken Gardens we see more mixed border combinations than at home where perennials and annuals tend to be segregated.
It's also good to check out the gardens at your provincial agricultural college or State land grant college (below, Michigan State University's DeLapa Perennial Garden in late November, where ornamental grasses, asters, turtlehead and winterberry glow). Most have displays that look good in all four seasons. Take notes or use your camera to record plant names and particular varieties.
Below: In touring gardens we also take in what plants look like in real life, as opposed to their marketing photos. We've learned that late monkshood (Aconitum carmichaelii) does indeed provide beautiful flowers in October, but its nether regions may need camouflage unless the plant's grown where it's cool in summer.