Autumn Interest in the Garden: Beauty Beyond Bloom
By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor, University of Vermont
Fall marks the end of the bloom season for perennial flowers, but this doesn’t
mean gardens need no longer be attractive. There are a number of perennials
that will continue to provide beauty after bloom, often long into winter.
This topic, and the lack of appreciation for the fall effects of plants, is not new. In
an article in House Beautiful in August 1937, the author (Jean Hershey) states this
well: “In seeking blooms we had missed the beauty of the other stage of growing
things. A bud may be gentle and full of promise, a flower may be vital and
spectacular, but all the tenderness and drama of both are combined and
intensified in the beauty of the seed pod, which is their culmination. It is a
beauty of form, of shape and of texture, if not of vivid color.”
Seed Pods are Beautiful Too
Some examples of plants fitting such traits, or providing fall color and effect, was
given in a presentation by Warren Leach of Tranquil Lake Nursery (Rehoboth,
MA) in 2010. Perennials can be placed into groups of those with seedheads,
evergreen foliage, fall color, ferns and ferny leaves, linear leaves such as grasses,
and “illuminated” or colored leaves.
For attraction from seedheads after bloom, consider one of the many astilbe
cultivars (cultivated varieties) for sites with moist soils and part shade. Their
dense plumes can be from a foot to four feet or more above ground, depending
on selection. Don’t be in a rush to cut back peonies unless the foliage is diseased
or dead, as it can provide some late season color in addition to seedheads. There
are many new coneflowers on the market, many with attractive seedheads from 2
to 4 feet above ground. I’m not in a rush to cut back most perennials with
seedheads, as finches and other small birds often feed on them in preparation for
our long winters.
Most perennials with evergreen foliage are lower so not seen once deep snows
arrive, but in the meantime several can provide color. The spring-blooming
hellebores or Lenten rose have dark green dissected leaves a foot or so off the
ground. Lower to the ground are the glossy dark green leaves of the European
ginger. While some hellebores are not hardy in the colder climates (check the
hardiness of cultivars before buying), European ginger is hardy and can tolerate
dense shade and a range of soils.
Then there are the sedum, with reddish to bluish to yellowish leaves, from
groundcovers to a foot or more tall. Sedum, while not evergreen in cold
climates, last well into winter in many areas. Many tall sedum have attractive
seedheads. There are many coralbells with a range of leaf colors from purplish to
reddish, orange to yellow, and some with reddish undersides to leaves.
Several perennials can provide fall color before dropping their leaves. The
bluestars (Amsonia) turn a golden yellow, and at two or more feet high and wide
give the effect of a shrub. Some of the perennial geraniums turn a reddish color
in fall, such as the Bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum). The burgundy
foliage of Bonfire spurge (Euphorbia) turns a brilliant red in fall. Some hostas
turn a lovely yellow, as do the peonies already mentioned.
Many ferns, too, turn a nice yellow in fall. Osmunda ferns have brownish seed
stalks as a bonus. The painted ferns (Athyrium) often have silvery leaves, and the
cultivar Lady in Red has lovely red stems seen particularly well when backlit by
the lower fall sun. In addition to foliage color, ferns provide that fine texture
which contrasts well with broader leaves.
Grasses for Interest
For a fine texture many also use linear leaves, as with grasses. There are many
good and hardy ones to choose from including the Prairie dropseed
(Schizachyrium), whose upright 3 foot leaves also provide bluish color as in the
cultivar The Blues. Blue oat grass (Helictotrichon) is a mounded bluish grass,
about 2 feet high and wide, while the blue fescue grasses may only be 6 inches
high and wide. Heavy Metal and Northwind are bluish Switch grasses (Panicum),
while there are some cultivars with reddish colors such as Prairie Fire and
Shenandoah. Mass the upright feather reed grass (Calamagrostis) for its tan fall
spikes, or use the moor grasses (Molinia) for their very fine and loose stalks 6 feet
or more high.
Perennials with Colorful Leaves
For the more brilliant displays, often to use in moderation, consider perennials
with illuminated leaves. The spreading dead nettle (Lamium), with its unsuitable
common name, makes a great groundcover for most situations once established,
except hot sun or too wet. These have green to blue-green leaves with silver or
other variegation. Other perennials with white to silvery variegation include
lungworts (Pulmonaria), some Jacob’s ladders (Polemonium), and many hostas.
Perennials with golden foliage include the Gold Heart bleeding heart (Dicentra),
golden oregano, golden creeping loosestrife, golden cultivars of spiderwort
(Tradescantia) such as Sweet Kate and of speedwell (Veronica) such as Aztec
Gold, and the golden Hakone grass (Hakonechloa). Some hostas have golden
variegated along with green, as does a vinca, Gold Edge thyme, and Golden
Alexander loosestrife which is clump-forming and not spreading.
If you haven’t already cleaned up perennial beds and cut plants back, look for
and leave those that are attractive and provide food for birds during their
seasonal senescence. Look around, research, and make note of new such plants
to add to your gardens next year.