Time in the garden
Shade Gardening
Fall Garden Beauty
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Fall Garden Beauty

Autumn colour has two aspects, firstly the bright blooms of late flowering species and secondly the maturing plant foliage colours and fruit. Using good design principles, including contrasting forms, we can integrate these to create a fine display for the Fall. For colour, there are two key components: the plants of the daisy family providing bright focal points (also see pp 137-140 in the Society’s book “The Calgary Gardener”) and the mint family and others plants for green background. In September and October, typically we see straw-coloured remnants of early-maturing plants: we need to contrast these with large groups.


Other plants we need to have to provide “any colour but brown” include evergreen trees & shrubs, vines, semi-evergreen ferns and tough annuals. Search for trees, shrubs and vines that provide attractive leaves, bright red or orange berries, including climbing nightshade, red-berried cotoneaster, and of course, mountain ash, and roses with showy hips. Interesting seed heads, ornamental “grasses", and good lawn care are the remaining ingredients for the fall garden recipe.


One of the greatest contributors of late blooms is the daisy family, Asteraceae (or Compositae) including the many varieties of Helenium, Helianthus, and Heliopsis helianthoides. Rudbeckia fulgida v. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’, Echinacea purpurea, Ratibida columnifera all also attractive. In the Fall of 2006, new Heucheras and Mums were particularly noticeable in Calgary. I prefer using only one or two colours of Chrysanthemums, the pink C. rubellum ‘Clara Curtis’ for instance. A disadvantage with “mums” - or “chrysanths” for some gardeners - is that they look awful after the first really hard frost, whereas many other perennials have attributes that provide winter joy.


New or under-utilized perennials include Pink Turtlehead, Chelone obliqua, (and the white form, ‘Alba’), bugbane, Actea (Cimicifuga) simplex ‘Hillside Black Beauty’ or ‘White Pearl’ and the sedge, Carex morrowii ‘Aurea Variegata’, or, if you can find them, how about the late flowering Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Arendsii’,  Physostegia virginiana, ‘Bouquet Rose’ or  the deep lilac-pink ‘Vivid’? If you have the appropriate spot, try Veronicastrum virginicum ‘Album’, and of course, the white, perfumed Phlox paniculata in partly shady corners where they bloom later in the season.


Contrast – background color – is important. Ground cover plants for fall contrast include lamium, and other perennials of the Lamiaceae family, as well as periwinkle, ajuga, various saxifrages and sedums, lungworts and perennial geraniums, along with the relatively new perennial, Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’. Slightly taller than these are the yuccas and variegated iris than give interest in the fall and early winter. Annuals, including Japanese Blood Grass, Black Mondo Grass, and late season pansies are useful. Quite splendid is another annual, Coreopsis rosea. Rarely do we see bright light green ground cover, but the frost hardy Kenilworth Ivy (Cymbalaria muralis) when used en mass, is great. Similarly, bright green contrast can come from semi-evergreen ferns such as some forms of Asplenium, Dryopterus and Polystichum. Kenilworth Ivy can also look good in containers combined with grasses, sedums, or hens and chicks.


Changing leaf colour is important: shrubs like barberry, black currant and burningbush: euphorbias too, if we have the right weather. Bergenia, especially the reddish leaved varieties, provide good leaf colour. Heuchera … older forms such as Plum Pudding & the new varieties such as ‘Marmalade’ … all exhibit great fall colour. Try Tiarella Stargazer Mercury for its intriguing leaf colour patterns


Tall plants with attractive seed heads, such as Joe Pye Weed, Eupatorium purpureum maculatum ‘Atropurpureum’, several ligularias, and even lovage are very worthwhile. Some seed heads, such as on the cow parsley Anthriscus sylvestris ‘Ravenswing’ show well in that inevitable early snow. If you are not familiar with the following perennials, and want to take advantage of our lengthening growing season, try the giant yellow scabious, Cephalaria gigantean, or the red-flowered Angelica, Angelica gigas. If you want to push the zone, try Phytolacca americana (for its exquisite deep red berries), Clematis viticella ‘Polish Spirit”, Leucanthemella serotina (and keep the Ox-eye / Shasta police at bay), or the new Big Sky series of coneflower from the States.


Clearly planning for the Fall can be very rewarding: keep on the look-out for the right combinations. Do not wait for September to plant, but do walk around Calgary in the Fall and see what impresses you.



Glynn Wright.


  December 1, 2006