Sure, fall is a great time to witness vibrant colors in your yard, but it’s also a great time to plant flowers and shrubs that look great in any season. Discover a few plants that just plain love fall weather.
If it’s been a hectic spring planting season and a bustling summer, you may just now be sitting down to enjoy the fruits of your labor: a colorful, vivacious yard.
But that’s only if you’ve planned ahead and included autumn-loving plants in your landscape.
“Fall color is a huge part of the overall landscape design and scheme,” says Sean Ducey, manager at Whispering Hills Garden and Landscape Center in Crystal Lake. “It’s a distinct season, so you want to get as much as you can out of it.”
Fall may be the best time to plant, for several reasons. For starters, fall gardeners are more likely to make better decisions when choosing what to plant.
“In the springtime, you’re buying things based on their beauty and things looking healthy,” says Jon Carlson, owner of J. Carlson Growers in Rockford. “In the fall, you’re looking at things when the leaves have dropped off.”
Also, fewer gardeners tend to shop for plants in the fall, so nurseries and garden centers will be less crowded, Carlson says, meaning staff has more time to give advice.
The first frosts arrive in late October, but there’s no hard timetable for when planting should be completed.
“You can plant any time you can dig your shovel into the ground,” Ducey says. “Planting in the fall is great. It’s not 90 degrees, the nights are cooling off – it’s an awesome time to be in the garden.”
First, Have a Plan
As you’re creating your four-season landscape design, take note of how your plants perform in spring and summer.
“Your layout should be a cohesive thought,” Ducey says. “Each season, you should go out and evaluate how your garden is doing. If you go out there in spring and say, ‘I’m kind of lacking in flowers,’ then you need to think about planting some early spring flowers. Then, go out in summer time. If everything’s purple, start thinking about adding pinks and reds. In the fall, if you say, ‘Wow, everything looks dead already,’ then you have to start thinking about adding color.”
If you buy your plants from a reputable nursery, nearly anything you pick out can be planted in the fall, says Robert Bloom, nursery manager at Platt Hill Nursery, which has locations in Carpentersville and Bloomingdale.
“Fall is a great time to plant,” Bloom says. “We definitely encourage people to come in and get started on a plan for the spring. We have a lot of people do that.”
This time of year, several staple plants – particularly shrubs and trees – provide attractive color and can be planted successfully.
The Burning Bush is a well-known ornamental shrub that turns a fiery red, says Ducey.
One of Bloom’s favorite fall shrubs is Winterthur viburnum. It’s a versatile plant with thick, glossy leaves that turn reddish-burgundy in the fall, and it produces berries. It blooms in springtime and attracts birds.
“In some cases, it rivals Burning Bush colors,” Bloom says. “It’s a plant that can take some shade. It can take some wet locations. And currently it has no disease or insect issues.”
Also consider the big shade trees that provide brilliant fall colors, like Autumn Blaze Maples, Red Sunset Maples and Scarlet Oaks, which turn a consistent red in fall.
The Serviceberry, considered a small tree or a large shrub, is admired for its versatility.
“Serviceberries are a good four-season plant with summer fruit, spring blossoms and a nice color in fall,” Carlson says. Their vase-like shape is attractive in winter and they provide berries to wildlife.
Fall is a good time to plant most dormant trees, but a few, such as oaks, redbuds and certain maples, don’t always transplant well in autumn, Carlson says.
Nursery employees can advise you on whether a certain tree will survive a late transplant. If it’s better planted at another time, just tag the tree and plant it in April, says Carlson.
Think Outside the Box
It’s easy to associate bright foliage with trees, but many other plants produce vibrant colors in fall, too.
Ducey points to the rugged Heptacodium miconioides, or Seven Sons flowering shrub. In early August, it’s still in bud form, but just a few weeks later, white flowers appear.
“I think a lot more people should plant these,” Ducey says. “To have something showing off its flower this late is awesome. The back petals turn bright red, so it almost looks like this plant is going through a second flower in a different color. And the bark peels – it exfoliates off – so this tree carries an interesting look well into winter. It’s a really, really neat plant.”
Another of Ducey’s favorites is Itea virginica, or Virginia Sweetspire, which produces a white flower that changes color.
“It flowers in June, when a lot of other spring plants are done, and then it has a really awesome red flower color,” Ducey says. “Instead of having just Burning Bush as your fall color, you can have one of these.”
The “Little Henry” is a dwarf version of Virginia Sweetspire that also provides summer and fall color, just like the Clethra alnifolia, also called Summersweet. All attract hummingbirds and butterflies with their sweet fragrance.
Berries are another way to introduce fall color that lasts into winter and benefits wildlife. The Amethyst Snowberry shrub produces a pink berry during the waning summer months and into autumn.
“It’s very attractive, really showy,” Ducey says. “It looks like little ornaments hanging from the shrub.”
Mum’s the Word
There isn’t much variety in fall annuals, which might explain why chrysanthemums, better known as mums, get so much attention, says Cindy Bloom, greenhouse manager and production manager at Platt Hill Nursery.
While some varieties are hardy perennials, they should be planted in spring in order for root systems to develop enough to survive the winter. Most potted mums found in stores are considered annuals that won’t live beyond one season.
Garden mums come in lavenders, reds and pinks, but the biggest sellers in fall are those with rust, orange and yellow blooms. Bloom time varies with each variety. The right combination of mums introduces color to your landscape throughout the season.
Ducey believes many gardeners overlook Calamintha nepeta, commonly known as Calamint. The “Montrose White” variety was named “Perennial of the Year” by the Wisconsin Nursery Association in 2010. Its foliage has a minty smell.
“That’s a plant that pretty much flowers from July all the way through fall, with these tiny white flowers,” Ducey says. “‘Cali’ comes from the Greek word for beauty, and mint is mint, so it’s a ‘pretty mint.’”
Some ornamental vegetables and fruit trees offer fall color, too.
Ornamental cabbage and kale produce fancy foliage. The middles of the head can be red, white or green, but don’t eat them for supper. “They’re edible, but I wouldn’t advise eating them,” Bloom says. Some of these plants still look good in January.
Also consider ornamental peppers like the Chilly Chili, which turns a bright red and orange-yellow, or a Black Pearl pepper plant, which produces a black, pearl-shaped pepper.
Ornamental fruit trees such as pears and cherries produce soft, pretty spring flowers and bold, vibrant autumn foliage.
If you’re still not sure about planting in the fall, consider the benefits.
“The fall can sometimes be the best time to plant because the days are cooler, the nights are cooler, there’s ample moisture available and when the leaves are falling off in October, that’s the time the roots are really growing underground,” Carlson says. “It’s the perfect time to do it.”
Fall is also a good time to protect your plants before a freeze and give them a head start next spring.
Robert Bloom, of Platt Hill Nursery, believes a fall soil amendment program is one of the best things a gardener can do in the fall, especially to aid trees and shrubs.
The addition of organic compounds such as compost, manure or peat moss helps to improve the quality of the soil and protects plants from harsh winter temperatures. Good organic matter also helps roots to store energy for the spring flush, the time when shrubs and trees leaf out, says Bloom.
“We always say ‘the better the roots, the better the plant,’” Bloom says. “Trees and shrubs that you treat in the fall will have a much better spring than plants you don’t treat.”
Bloom recommends using a soil conditioner, a blend of organic matter that improves soil pH and breaks up clay.
Consistent watering also is essential.
“Water is the key to success in anything that you do,” Carlson says. He suggests thoroughly soaking the root ball of a new tree or shrub by laying your hose near the base of the plant and turning the water on just enough to create a thorough soaking. Run the water until the hole is full and water is running off that area.
“Do that once or twice after you put something in,” Carlson says. “After that, water the plant once a week or so. Even when you get all the rain we’ve had this year, you almost have to ignore it. If you think the rain is going to soak that plant, it’s generally not.”