IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Fall in love with your autumn garden

Reflect fall's fab colors in your own backyard with these tips from P. Allen Smith.
/ Source: TODAY

Fall is a magical time when the world around us puts on a show that’s hard to miss, even if we seem to be consumed with raking leaves, attending football games, carving jack-o'-lanterns, and yes, gathering firewood for that first chilly night when we can finally sit by the fireplace and toast marshmallows with our family. For me, I look at a tree changing color and think back to my childhood and long walks in the wood, breathing in the crisp air and looking up at a canopy of orange and crimson. Every once in a while the wind would blow one of those leaves loose from the tree and it would fall gracefully down like gold flakes falling from the sky. 

These vibrant colors of fall are reflected in the color palette of the plants available at nurseries and garden centers this time of year, which is why I fall in love with the autumn garden over and over, year after year. 

Old standbysOld standbys that I return to each fall include mums, ornamental grasses, cabbage and kale. Chances are if you head out to the garden center any weekend between September and November you’ll find the shelves stocked with these beauties. When it comes to mums, keep these tips in mind:

  • Select disease-free plants with healthy, green foliage.
  • To extend bloom time, pick plants with tight buds rather than opened flowers. More buds mean more flowers.
  • To identify flower color and form, check the plant tag or ask nursery staff.
  • Keep mums well-watered. Potted mums dry out quickly and, if underwatered, produce malformed flowers. For borders, water frequently the first two weeks until established.

Protect your pansies
In my Zone Seven garden I have always planted pansies each fall with abundance because I knew the plants would bring me color and beauty in autumn and in spring. During the cold of winter the foliage and blooms may die back, but once the warmth of spring hits, the pansies return for a second showing. The roots of the plants have a sort of built-in antifreeze, but I find it helpful to give them a little protection by planting them along the foundation of a house or the edge of a sidewalk or border. I was gratified to learn after speaking with a grower in New Hampshire recently that Northern gardeners are starting to recognize the two-season benefit of pansies. They said that the pansies are flying off the shelves at greenhouses and nurseries in the Northeast. In my garden I lean toward a color palette of cool blues, purples and pale yellows.  While they complement the fall colors, they are a knockout mixed with tulips in the spring. Some of the more popular pansy colors for fall are dark purple, orange and red. 

The two-season standout
I like to save money where I can in the garden, and so if a plant can bring color and beauty to the landscape in more than one season, that makes it a winner in my book. If you’re looking for summer standouts that can hold over and add to your fall palette, look for plants such as Supertunias — I call this series of petunias “petunias on steroids!”  I plant a variety called Supertunia Vista Bubblegum, which is bubblegum pink, but if you’re looking for a color that will wow you in summer and then outperform in fall, try “Supertunia Royal Velvet.”  Calibrachoas resemble petunias but are smaller. The wine-colored blooms of “Superbells Red” are a nice addition during the summer and fall, especially in container plantings. 

Think back to spring in the garden. A savvy gardener can turn some of their spring showstoppers into fall magic. Plants such as nemesia and osteospermum perform well in the cooler days of late spring but seem to languish during the heat of summer. Simply deadhead the flower and continue to water and feed it during the summer. When the fall temperatures start to drop, don’t be surprised if you have new blooms on some of your spring annuals. 

Satisfy your sophisticated plant paletteA trend that nurserymen are noticing among American gardeners is their increasingly growing appetite for a more sophisticated plant palette. Plants with interesting textures seem to be feeding the hungry garden-center shoppers ready to gobble up the next big thing. If you want to give texture a try, consider ajuga. It’s traditionally used as a ground cover but can add a nice variation in a container combination. Heucheras, or coral bells, are fantastic, not for their bloom, but for their leaves, which have a two-tone effect — the top is a muted version of the glossier color on bottom. I particularly like “Dolce Key Lime Pie” and “Dolce Crème Brulee” and “Purple Petticoats.” Keep in mind that these heucheras are nice from summer to the first frost. 

If your summer garden and containers are looking a little worse for wear, stop by the garden center or nursery and pick up an old or new favorite and fall in love with autumn all over again.