I don’t know about you, but I live for fall — with its cool mornings, crisp air and quiet evenings. Plus, at least one-third of my plants bloom after August, and the trees, shrubs, grasses and perennial flowers bring a rainbow of colors to the garden until early November, long after summer flowers have faded.
There’s always so much going on in a fall garden, from changing colors and plants’ going dormant to wildlife’s preparing for winter. Here are some design strategies you can use to create beauty and function for humans and animals this fall, and every year after.
1. Plant late-summer and fall bloomers to support pollinators. Lots of insects are at their highest population numbers in fall, and many have just emerged to complete their life cycle, migrate or even hibernate. When designing a fall garden to support pollinators, your first goal is to get the flowers pollinators thrive on. You can’t go wrong with astersand goldenrods, two fall staples visited by pollinators, as well as sunflowers.
Consider how these plants reproduce and spread before planting them in your garden. For example, Canada goldenrod (Solidago canadensis) has a tendency to spread and take over in the home landscape, but there are many other more well-behaved goldenrod species. Asters tend to spread by seed, especially in open spots in garden beds, so create thicker plantings where seedlings will have a harder time sprouting, if that is something you are concerned about. While plants started this year won’t bloom this fall, now is the perfect time to put them in the ground for next year.
Groups of flowers are appealing to both humans and pollinators, with massing making the flowers easier for pollinators flying above to see.
2. Cluster plants in groups of three or five. Repeating plants throughout the landscape also lends a subtle cohesiveness for the eye to follow. Aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium) is a neat little shrub-like perennial native to the East Coast that looks nice dotted throughout beds and borders. For more vertical interest and early-fall blooms that are dark purple to magenta, try ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata). For a lower-growing plant that does well in wetter conditions, look to blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum).
Most mums for sale aren’t native, but you can still make a good choice for pollinators.
3. Reconsider mums. Mums are probably already for sale at local garden centers and in grocery store parking lots; they are desired for their fall color as well as for their ability to make stellar container plants. While most are bred hybrids from East Asia and aren’t of much use to wildlife like generalist bees and butterflies, some offer ecological benefits to pollinators. Look for pollen-producing and single-ray flowers, or those that look more like asters. These mums will add function as well as beauty to the fall garden.
4. Think about fall foliage differently. Does your landscape lack colorful autumn foliage? This is the perfect time to plant new trees and shrubs, as cooler temperatures and increased rain will help them take root and become established with less transplant shock. For shrubs with attractive fall color, chokecherry(Prunus virginiana) and viburnum species are solid choices. Native trees to plant include serviceberry, elm and sweetgum. Many native perennial flowers and grasses, including bluestar (Amsonia spp.), blazing star (Liatris spp.), American senna (Senna hebecarpa) and little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), feature attractive fall color.11 Trees for Brilliant Fall Color
Giant coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima) holds on to its seed heads through most of the winter.
5. Don’t clean up your garden. Sure, this sounds like the opposite of creating an attractive fall garden, because everyone wants a neat and tidy landscape heading into winter. However, you’re missing two important details: 1. Many plants look fantastic in winter, including rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), roundhead lespedeza (Lespedeza capitata), Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum), coneflowers (Echinacea spp.), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and various grasses; and 2. wildlife needs shelter, and plants left standing with a carpet of leaves are critical habitat for hibernating insects and birds looking for a winter snack.
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