Making the Most of the Fall Garden

If you’re like me, it’s hard to choose a favorite season. I prefer a garden that celebrates each one in turn. For fall, that means embracing transformations, as well as choosing plants that capture the season’s particular beauty and abundance.

            If your garden lacks late-season charmers, fall is one of the best times to plant; the soil retains warmth, and the cooler air temperatures are less likely to stress the plants and deprive them of much-needed moisture. In this, my first column for TABLE, I want to share some of my favorite plants for making autumn awesome.

            Grasses—yes, grasses—are particularly wonderful at catching the angled fall light and brisk autumnal winds. Morning Light Maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis), for example, adds a silvery quality to the garden border with its variegated foliage. Its airy plumes emerge deep red late in the season, before turning gold to accent the winter landscape. At six-feet tall and four-feet wide, Morning Light provides a dramatic focal point.

            Still tall and dramatic, but better-suited to tighter spaces, is the native switchgrass (Panicum virgatum). I’m partial to the Northwind cultivar, for its sturdy blue-green foliage that turns bright yellow in fall and remains upright through winter snow. It also sports flowery panicles and showy seed heads that add sparkle when the rest of the garden is at its most quiet. (Northwind is named for the nursery of the great plantsman, Roy Diblik, who taught me about perennials in grad school, and whose exceptional plants I frequently seek out.) For a slightly looser effect, try Shenandoah, another gorgeous cultivar with ribbon-like red foliage and a slightly shorter stature.

            But say you have space to fill at the front of the garden. Look to the lower-growing, native prairie grasses. Dwarf Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis “Tara”) creates soft clumps of arching, finely-textured green leaves. Its panicles appear to float above the foliage and smell like popcorn. The amorously-named Purple lovegrass (Eragrostis spectabilis) shares this airy quality, with flowers that resemble purple clouds when planted in drifts. Choose a dry location with morning sun to capture their full effect, and watch for the flowers to scatter on windy days.

            Grasses are easy to care for. Give prairie grasses too much water or fertilizer, and they’ll flop. Plant them instead in a sunny spot, with enough space to do their thing, and they’ll thrive. In early spring, cut back the dry foliage to make way for new growth.

            Grasses also mix beautifully with perennials, and many pollinators beloved for their long-blooming summer flowers continue to dazzle through fall and winter, as long as we’re not overzealous with the pruners. The Summer Beauty ornamental onion (Allium angulosum, another Roy Diblik introduction) is one of my favorites. It has glossy green foliage and lilac-colored round umbels that persist for months. Once the weather cools, the seeds resemble a child’s sparkler. Similarly, the spiny seed heads of coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea) and black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida) create dark punctuation marks in the winter landscape (though I’ve been known to strip the stems of their leaves once they become too tattered—a garden is still very much a cultivated space). Blazing star (Liatris spicata) offers long spikes of soft brown seeds after its purple flowers fade.

            To best capture the shift of seasons, try adding in some perennials with foliage that celebrates the passage from summer to fall. Threadleaf bluestar (Amsonia hubrechtii) lights up the garden with extremely soft golden-yellow foliage, while the hardy Cambridge geranium (Geranium cantabrigiense) flames a brilliant red. (The spicy fragrance its leaves emit when rubbed smells like fall, too.)

            Allowing plants to complete their growth cycle reminds us how nature continually renews itself. Just as summer flowers support our native bees and butterflies, the remaining seed heads provide much-needed winter food for birds. And all of those sturdy grasses? Winter shelter. Unless the cultivar is bred to be sterile (and not to spread), any seeds left behind will create new plants, ensuring that our favorites return indefinitely to the garden, even if—as is the case with coneflowers—the plants themselves are short-lived.

            Fall, then, is the perfect time to slow down in the garden. Savor these seasonal changes, and resist the urge to be overly tidy. As foliage decomposes, it feeds the worms and insects below, creating a richer soil for future growth. So go ahead and rake the leaves off the lawn, but try leaving them where they fall in the perennial beds. They’ll nourish the soil through the winter and protect any new perennials from the harsh cold. Come spring, it’s immensely satisfying to clear away last-season’s foliage and reveal new growth below.



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