Midwest Regional Reports

Plant in Fall for Spring Color in the Northern Plains, Part I: Perennials

These plants explode with colorful blooms early in the season

spring blooming perennials
Willow bluestar may be most loved for its golden fall foliage, but its bright blue blooms usher in spring with charm. Photo: Michelle Gervais

When it comes to spring color, planting perennials in the fall can be just as beneficial as planting in the spring or early summer. Evaluating your garden in late summer allows you the opportunity to see where there are gaps to be filled. The ground is warmer in the fall, and frequent rains are helpful in getting plants settled in their new home.

Spring-flowering perennials used in conjunction with spring-blooming bulbs, trees, and shrubs add a finishing touch to a Northern Plains spring garden. Often thought of as only providing summer displays, perennials provide some of our loveliest blooms in spring. Here are just a few spring-blooming perennials that you should consider planting in your garden this fall.

Barren strawberry
Barren strawberry can spread as a ground cover and has lovely sunshine-yellow flowers. Photo: pixabay

Barren strawberry

Waldsteinia ternata, Zones 3–9

Barren strawberry blooms in late spring with a sea of composite yellow flowers. Happy in sun or partial shade, it’s a true show-stopper when growing en masse in a carpet of blooms. Do not be surprised if your doorbell rings and you are asked what that intriguing plant is. As a bonus, barren strawberry has a flush of fall foliage color, and its foliage hangs on late into the winter.

Foam flower
Foam flower is a native spring ephemeral that forms clumps and naturalizes well. Photo: Jennifer Benner

Foam flower

Tiarella cordifolia, Zones 3–9

Growing taller than a ground cover but still low growing, foam flower and the related Wherry’s foam flower (Tiarella wherryi, Zones 3–9) reward us with blooms as foamy looking as their name implies. Flowers range from white to pale pink, and foliage ranges from green to variegated to silver with splashes of reds, yellows, and oranges. One could plant a full display of only these two species. They are also both RHS Award of Garden Merit winners.

Snowdrop anemone
Snowdrop anemone is perfect for woodland and shade gardens. Photo: Jennifer Benner

Snowdrop anemone

Anemone sylvestris, Zones 3–9

Early-blooming snowdrop anemone carpets the ground with small, white, delicate blossoms from March till April in gardens with sun to partial shade. It looks great planted in a woodland garden scheme. The flowers also have a lovely fragrance.

Willow blue star
Willow bluestar has bright, sky-blue flowers that draw the eye despite their small size. Photo: Marti Neely

Willow bluestar

Amsonia tabernaemontana, Zones 3–9

Willow bluestar is often overlooked. A large, shrublike perennial, willow bluestar is a spring-blooming perennial that also provides a fall-foliage color display. It takes sun or partial shade and blooms as early as March in some areas. Its light blue, starlike flowers are delicate and profuse. It looks great in the back of the border, and its narrow gray-green leaves provide good contrast for companion plants with dark or bold foliage.

Tips for planting perennials in fall

Select plants with a healthy root system, planting six to eight weeks before the ground freezes solid. This gives roots enough time to get established. Apply mulch when the ground begins to freeze and the nighttime temperatures reach 32°F or lower. Do not cut back the foliage before winter; leave it in place as an extra layer of protection for the crown of the plant.

Whether you plant these perennials in combination with spring-blooming bulbs or have them stand alone, your garden can be awash with color as early as March with thoughtful planning and plant selection. Now is the time to evaluate where you have gaps for some plants that can be installed this fall. For more perennials with spring interest, check out 9 Perennials to Liven Up Your Spring Garden.

—Marti Neely, FAPLD, owns and operates Marti Neely Design and Associates in Omaha, Nebraska.

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