Plants - Perennials

Late-season blooms for a colourful fall garden

Larry Hodgson

Plant a harvest of hues that will last until autumn's first frost

It wasn’t so long ago that gardeners began putting their gardens to bed for the winter on Labour Day: pulling out all annuals, tying up shrubs and cutting perennials to the ground. After all, the growing season was over—wasn’t it? But today’s garden is increasingly seen as a spot that can be beautiful year-round, and rather than closing down their beds in autumn, gardeners now want colour until the snow flies, or even beyond.

And it’s so easy to achieve. Hundreds of plants offer fall colours to carry your landscape through to early winter. Autumn interest comes from flowers of course—numerous plants bloom from mid-September through November—but also from bright foliage and attractive fruit and berries. So infuse your patch with all three. Such plants are available in so many categories (bulbs, perennials, trees, shrubs, grasses) and grow under such a wide range of conditions (sun or shade, rich or poor soil, dry or moist conditions) that there is something for every environment.

A good rule of thumb to ensure late-season colour is that 20 per cent of your plants should be in bloom or in fruit, or sport colourful leaves at the beginning of fall. Choose your flowers with care, however; in short-season climates, some, such as nippon daisy (Nipponanthemum nipponicum), bugbane (Actaea simplex) and Japanese anemone (Anemone hupehensis), may simply bloom too late. Most flowers, though, adapt to daylength. For example, the same fall mums and asters may start to bloom in late August in Yellowknife, but not until October in Ontario’s Niagara region.
Should the cold come early (and some years it does), you’ll discover that most of the plants described here can shrug off light frosts. Those with attractive berries are the toughest of the lot, and many still look great and have fruit well into winter.

And don’t worry about cleaning up your fall-interest plants before winter. Most experts agree that the less tidying up you do, the healthier your plants will be in the spring because dying foliage helps protect them from severe cold. Just let them do their thing; you can do any necessary cleanup at the start of the next growing season.

Crank up the colour

Fall colour is best when days are warm and sunny and nights are brisk but above freezing. Here are some things you can do to get the most bang from your blooms:

  • Plant in a sunny spot
  • Stop fertilizing by mid-August
  • Water plants well in the summer but sparingly in the fall
The more, the berrier
Some plants with attractive fall berries need cross-pollination to produce fruit. This is especially true of hollies and bittersweet (Celastrus spp.), as they are dioecious (male and female flowers appear on separate plants). It’s now often possible to buy “combination pots” that offer a male and female plant growing together. If not available, plant one male for every five to eight females.

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