By the time October arrives, I’m tempted to “throw in the trowel,” especially after a summer as hot, dry, and smoky as this one has been. I’m tired of hauling the hose to water the containers on my deck. I’m tired of pulling weeds that manage to stab my hands even inside of gloves. I’m even tired of eating chard, chard, and more chard. (Note to self: five or six plants is plenty!) I’m ready for fall, with its orange leaves, warm days, and brisk nights, but I’m not at all ready for winter’s drab colors and bare branches.
At this time of the year I’m drawn into the garden, not to work so much as to linger. I want to curl up in the now-welcome sunshine and sip a drink, read a book, and admire my plants. However, just as the weather finally moderates to temperatures I enjoy, the summer flowers turn to seedheads and the tender plants succumb to frost. The colorful, lush garden I had a month ago is now fading away. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Lately, I’ve been envisioning landscapes that look their best now. Which plants maintain, or even improve, their looks after a frost? Are any still in bloom, or are their flowers still pretty when dried? What plants feature attractive seedheads? Which shrubs and perennials offer bright fall foliage? And what about evergreens? There are a surprising number of shrubs, vines, and perennials that look great right now.
To create a fall garden, I prefer to gather all my “autumn specials” into one border. That area captures a viewer’s attention, distracting the eye from the less-than-lovely plants in other parts of the yard. There’s also the advantage of pairing companions that complement one another, with the whole effect being more pleasing than any one part. During the spring and summer I often consider what flowers would look better together. Now, I pay more attention to foliage. That’s why I particularly love the juxtaposition of my dwarf blue spruce and my three-leaf sumac. The combination of blue-gray needles with warm orange sumac is just stunning.
Here are a few more companion ideas: school bus yellow rabbitbrush and yellow-twig dogwood,
hardy mums surrounded by the silvery foliage of tansy (Tanacetum),
or ‘Blue Carpet’ juniper and rugosa rose hips nestled against the red leaves of creeping Oregon grape holly (Mahonia repens).
The various succulents offer more possibilities. Try blazing orange stonecrop ‘Angelina’ and next to blue-green sedum ‘Turquoise Tails’—or the rose-turning-rust flowers of showy stonecrop, Hylotelephium ‘Autumn Joy’ (or another similar cultivar), with the scarlet leaves of hardy geraniums.
Given the small size of my yard, I look for plants that have something to offer over more than one season. For example, our hawthorn tree has white flowers in spring, red fruit in fall, and contorted branches in winter.
Red osier dogwood blooms with white flowers followed by white berries. Then the bright red stems, revealed when the leaves drop, are decorative all winter. If you choose the variegated cultivar, you also get to enjoy chartreuse and green leaves.
The ornamental grass, Little Bluestem ‘Blaze’ (Schizachyrium scoparium), features fountain-like, blue-green foliage in spring, plumed “flowers” in summer, and is now turning an impressive vermilion orange. That will eventually fade to a warm tan that lasts all winter. Even better, I’m finding that my established plants self-seed in a restrained, mannerly way, giving me even more clumps of my favorite grass. Mine is situated next to some catmint, with its soft gray-green leaves. In years where frost is delayed, it would also look amazing mixed with yellow goldenrod (Solidago).
If inspiration fails, try a visit to the closest botanic garden, where there are plenty of ideas, as the photos at the top of the page attest. The possibilities are endless. There’s no reason to give up on the garden just because temperatures have begun to dip below freezing. Make fall a time to cherish the last warm days of the year, in a garden as beautiful as it was last spring.