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Mountain West Regional Reports

Perennials for Fall Color and Interest

Squeeze the most out of the fading season with these vibrant autumn performers

The deep purple of ‘Purple Dome’ asters creates a striking contrast with ‘Fireworks’ goldenrod. Photo: Mary Ann Newcomer

I love autumn. It’s my favorite time of year. It’s time for wool socks, sweaters, the low, warm light of the autumnal equinox, the smell of spices in the kitchen, and the colors of the garden. It’s time to get out your garden notebook or calendar and make note of what worked this year and what didn’t, or to take note of what you want to add for fall color next year. Here’s a place to start.

‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass
‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass pairs well with ‘Matrona’ sedum. Photo: Mary Ann Newcomer

Ornamental grasses are a fall garden’s best friend

Whether you like riotous colors, trees that glow, or ethereal golden grasses, even the smallest garden space can be lit up with careful plant placement. Ornamental grasses were made for autumn. They positively glow with the low setting sun of fall. Plant them where they catch the setting sunlight behind them. Don’t discount that workhorse ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass (Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, Zones 5–9). Yes, it is ubiquitous because it’s so easy to grow and stands up to almost everything. Give it a haircut once a year, and it performs well for the rest of the season. Autumn is its finest hour. Pair it up with drought-tolerant ‘Matrona’ sedum (Hylotelephium telephium ‘Matrona’, Zones 3–9) or ‘Blonde Ambition’ blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’, Zones 3–10) for a stunning combination. A pairing of ‘Fireworks’ goldenrod (Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’, Zones 4–8) with any of the purple asters (Symphyotrichum spp. and cvs., Zones 4–8) also works well. Voila! You have a party in the garden.

‘Purple Dome’ asters
‘Purple Dome’ asters bring a deep purple to contrast with the warm colors of fall. Photo: Mary Ann Newcomer

These asters and shrubs make a lovely autumn pairing

Asters are an amazing choice for autumn for so many reasons. Several types are native to the Rocky Mountain states, so we know they can take it here. An especially beautiful cultivar is ‘Purple Dome’ aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae ‘Purple Dome’, Zones 5–8). I am also crazy for the darkest foliage asters, such as ‘Lady in Black’ (Symphyotrichum lateriflorus ‘Lady in Black’, Zones 3–8) or ‘Prince’ (Symphyotrichum lateriflorus var. horizontalis, Zones 3–8), and those with the loudest color. The flowers of asters pair nicely with the grasses—add some fruiting shrubs for even more texture. Dog rose (Rosa canina, Zones 3–7) with its swell hips makes a lovely match with pink or white snowberries (Symphoricarpos spp. and cvs., Zones 3–7). One of my all-time favorite shrubs, the indomitable ‘Gro-Low’ sumac (Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low’, Zones 3–9) packs a hot fuchsia color in fall! Plant some pale golden grasses behind it for a winning combination.

‘Gro-Low’ sumac
‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass towers over the red and orange display of ‘Gro-Low’ sumac. Photo: Mary Ann Newcomer

—Mary Ann Newcomer is the author of two books: Rocky Mountain Gardener’s Handbook and Vegetable Gardening in the Mountain States.

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