Essential Plants for the Fall Garden

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Many plants have something to ­offer as the growing season winds down, but to truly take advantage of the best of fall, one should grow the three pillars of the autumn garden.

The first pillar of the autumn garden is ornamental grass. During this third ­season of the garden, masses and mounds of these plants explode into bloom and set a framework for everything else still strong enough to be standing. The second pillar is the aster. Regardless of what divisions they have been split into—Aster, Symphiotrichum, Eurybia (Zones 4–8)—all asters stand equal to orna­mental grasses in autumnal impact, if not in height. The third pillar is the upright ­sedum, now given its own classification apart from its low-growing cousins, Hylotelephium (Zones 3–9).

All three pillars play a subordinate, almost invisible role throughout spring and summer, often being merely the plant next to the one that is blooming. But the wait is worth it.

garden with perennials in bloom and ornamental grasses
They look great together and with almost anything else. Simply planting the three pillars together yields a fantastic fall scene. But ornamental grasses fit into any design, and the color range of asters and sedums is also widely adaptable. Photo: Nicola Stocken

The pillars are just the start 

So many plants shine in -autumn, a season full of color and interest that rivals—and in some ways surpasses—spring and summer. Start by exploring the great diversity among asters, grasses, and sedums, then keep looking. Here are some ideas to get you started.

Fountain grass
Photo: Stephanie Fagan

red chokeberry
Photo: Danielle Sherry

1. Fountain grass

(Pennisetum alopecuroides and cvs., Zones 5–9)

2. ‘Brilliantissima’ red chokeberry

(Aronia arbutifolia ‘Brilliantissima’, Zones 5–9)

Monch aster
Photo: Ann E. Stratton

smoke bush
Photo: Steve Aitken

3. ‘Monch’ aster

(Aster × frikartii ‘Monch’, Zones 5–10)

4. ‘Grace’ smoke bush

(Cotinus ‘Grace’, Zones 5–9)

pink New England aster
Photo: Brandi Spade

Oakleaf hydrangea in fall
Photo: Steve Aitken

5. Alma Potschke New England aster

(Symphyotrichum novae-angliae ‘Andenken an Alma Pötschke’, Zones 4–8)

6. Oakleaf hydrangea

(Hydrangea quercifolia, Zones 5–9)

Oneida viburnum
Photo: Lily Fagan

Postmans Pride sedum
Photo: Kerry Ann Moore

7. ‘Oneida’ viburnum

(Viburnum ‘Oneida’, Zones 5–8)

8. ‘Postman’s Pride’ sedum

(Hylotelephium telephium ‘Postman’s Pride’, Zones 3–9)

Waterlily autumn crocus
Photo: Lily Fagan

Arkansas bluestar
Photo: Steve Aitken

9. ‘Waterlily’ autumn crocus

(Colchicum ‘Waterlily’, Zones 4–7)

10. Arkansas bluestar

(Amsonia hubrichtii, Zones 5–8)

 

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