• Sandi Manna

Late Season Magic in the Autumn Garden


If you're looking for a little late season drama for your garden in autumn, and you're a little tired of mums-look no further.

Trees get all the credit for autumn color, and they are brilliant without a doubt...but what happens when it's in between seasons. No longer summer, but not quite fall. The trees aren't yet brimming with color and the gardens have certainly slowed down. The perennials and flowering shrubs have all but stopped flowering and there's really not much going on in your garden this time of year.

There are so many plants this time of year that can really make the garden pop!

Ornamental grasses steal the show as they set tufts of seed heads above their stems. Gracefully swaying this way and that in the the slightest of breeze, they seem to catch the sun in just that certain way this year that makes it difficult to look away from their hypnotic movements. As if the light that plays amongst their blades isn't enough, many of these graceful beauties start to change color this year and sport burnished shades of amber, russet and tawny yellow.

Ruby Ribbons switchgrass (Panicum virgatum Ruby Ribbons). This ornamental grass is deep green during summer, but as soon as the temperatures get a little cooler and the daylight is less, it turns a deep red.

Prairie Sky (Panicum virgatum Prairie Sky) is another great ornamental grass. Blue foliage in the summer gives way to gold during the winter. An added bonus is that this grass is a favorite food of birds.

Blue Heaven Little Bluestem (Shizachyrium scoparium Blue Heaven) is a grass that is a definite must for the autumn garden. Great blue/gray foliage during the summer gives way to oranges, reds, pinks and golds during the autumn season. I like to leave my grasses up through the winter to add to the interest in my garden over the winter months.

As the gardens wind down toward the Autumn months, panicle hydrangeas are starting to steal the show with blooms that put on an incredible display from now until frost.

While the mophead hydrangea (H. macrophylla) continues to be one of the more popular hydrangeas with their large summer blossoms, pannicle hydrangeas have the slightest edge over their cousins. They bloom in full sun or morning sun which means they are more adaptable to a wide variety of garden conditions. They bloom on new wood. While many of the newer mophead hydranges such as H. macrophylla 'Endless Summer' bloom on both old and new wood, it can be difficult to know just which species you have. Panicle hydrangeas take the guess work out of that. While the mophead hydrangeas may be more popular among gardeners, bees and butterflies prefer the flowers of panicle hydrangeas which provide an important late season food source.

Panicle hydrangeas typically start to change color in late summer from creamy white to robust shades of pink, rose and even cherry red. Unlike their mophead cousins, this color change is not derived from soil pH, but rather from a change in temperature. Panicle hydranges add great color and form to any garden. They range in size from 'Bobo' which is more of a dwarf hydrangea, all the way up to 'Limelight' which can be a small tree.

Some stand out perennials in the fall garden are of course the sedums. Russet-colored flower heads that have the bumble bees buzzing. An important plant for pollinators, few flowers rival the large flower heads of Sedum 'Autumn Joy'.

I also love anemones. In various shades of pinks or whites, they're very elegant flowers that sway gently when a breeze catches their petals. Plant them in a cluster or a grouping and you won't be disappointed!

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) is another fall standout, but not for the reason you might think. Butterfly weed has beautiful orange or yellow flowers during the growing season, but it's the late summer that makes this perennial a standout. Not to be at all confused with Milkweed which is Asclepias incarnata, butterfly weed is not at all a weed. It is a pretty yellow or orange flower that the butterflies just love during the summer. As season progresses, this unique perennial goes from flower to seed pod, which is a favorite food of monarch butterflies. Although the flowers are very pretty, it's the seed pods and the monarch caterpillars that hold my interest.

Russian Sage is another beautiful perennial. Spikes of purple flowers top silvery-blue stems. Planted in clusters this is a very showy plant in the autumn garden.

Let's not forget about the shrubs that produce berries. These are vital to any garden – especially as the fall turns to winter. Beautyberry (Callicarpa 'Pearl Glam') produces clusters of bright purple berries the birds just love. Berries add color just like flowers do, just in a different way. The winterberry hollies Ilex verticillata which produce red, orange or gold colored berries. These are great for fall decorating!

If you're ready to take your fall garden to the next level, try incorporating some of the above suggestions. The heat of summer is over and the rain is more plentiful, early fall is a great time to get out in your garden!


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