It happens every year. When summer’s heat and humidity ease up and I can think about getting back into the garden, I realize that I haven’t done enough to take advantage of autumn. I have enough plants that strut their stuff from September on, but I haven’t put them in situations where they can shine. I take hope from the combinations and plantings in this article. The designs are doable and involve plants that add to the garden in multiple seasons. So this is the year my garden will be awesome in autumn, once the heat and humidity wane.
Start in late summer
The heat of summer is embodied in the hot yellows and oranges of the sneezeweed and red-hot poker. Start the transition to fall with the cool pastels of the asters, which will keep blooming when their hot neighbors have burned out.
1. ‘Nobilis’ red-hot poker (Kniphofia ‘Nobilis’, USDA Hardiness Zones 6–9)
2. ‘Monch’ aster (Aster frikartii ‘Monch’, Zones 5–9)
3. ‘Moerheim Beauty’ sneezeweed (Helenium ‘Moerheim Beauty, Zones 4–8)
Ground your grasses
Fall is the time when ornamental grasses look their best. To provide a contrast to their airy plumes, add a heavy, ground-hugging mass like this ligularia. And if you like the fluffy inflorescence of miscanthus, but it is invasive in your area, try one of the many native grasses that has a similar look.
1. ‘Skyracer’ purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea ‘Skyracer’, Zones 5–9)
2. ‘Yakushima Dwarf’ miscanthus (Miscanthus sinensis* ‘Yakushima Dwarf’, Zones 4–9)
3. ‘Desdemona’ ligularia (Ligularia dentata ‘Desdemona’, Zones 3–9)
4. Blue fescue (Festuca glauca and cvs., Zones 4–8)
5. ‘Kaskade’ miscanthus (Miscanthus sinensis* ‘Kaskade’, Zones 4–9)
6. Heuchera (Heuchera cv., Zones 4–9)
Red still pops
Not all autumn colors need to be muted or faded. The bright blossoms of the lantana provide spark against the soft green and muted orange surrounding them.
1. Leatherleaf sedge (Carex buchanii, Zones 6–9)
2. ‘Skittles’ lantana (Lantana ‘Skittles’, Zones 8–10)
Yellow foliage isn’t always a bad thing
We expect a tree’s leaves to turn, so why not pair it with something that will turn a similar color, as the foliage of purple moor grass does for the leaves of the birch? The aging blooms of the sedum add a welcome touch of darkness. Even better is that this scene surely looked good from midsummer on.
1. Birch (Betula spp. and cvs., Zones 3–9)
2. ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum (Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, Zones 3–11)
3. ‘Zuneigung’ purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea ‘Zuneigung’, Zones 5–9)
Patience will be rewarded
Plants like false Queen Anne’s lace and Joe Pye weed make you wait, but when they bloom, you know it was worth it. Their fluffy, fine textures make a perfect pairing, while the salvia flowers add visual weight with their dark color.
1. ‘Gateway’ Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium maculatum ‘Gateway’, Zones 3–8)
2. ‘Paul’ salvia (Salvia splendens ‘Van Houttei Paul’, Zones 10-11)
3. False Queen Anne’s lace (Ammi majus, annual)
Everything is looking up
The verticality of the grass dominates this scene. The sedum stems echo this feature, and their foliage complements that of their large neighbor. The conifer has some vertical branches, too, but its squat habit and cool color provide a grounding touch of contrast.
1. ‘Heavy Metal’ switchgrass (Panicum virgatum ‘Heavy Metal’, Zones 4–9)
2. ‘Matrona’ sedum (Sedum ‘Matrona’, Zones 3–9)
3. ‘Compacta’ corkbark fir (Abies lasiocarpa var. arizonica ‘Compacta’, Zones 4–8)
Top Plants for Fall
Many plants look great after Labor Day. Here are some worth building combinations around.
Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’
Aster tartaricus and cvs.
|‘Grace’ smoke bush
Cotinus × ‘Grace’
Hydrangea quercifolia and cvs.
Schizachyrium scoparium and cvs.
Steve Aitken is the editor.
Photos, except where noted: Marianne Marjerus/Marianne Marjerus Garden Images