Yes, it's only March, and yes, there's still snow on the ground. Yet smart gardeners know that now is the time to plan for fall color in your garden.
Nurseries and garden centers start receiving and displaying their stock in the next month or so, including the newest varieties of perennials for this year. Catalogs and web sites are already showing off new varieties, sometimes with "available on" dates. New varieties go fast, and gardeners who wait until late summer to think about their fall garden can find empty shelves and "sold out" sites instead of interesting new plants.
For this month's Smart Gardener, we sat down with Jacob Burns, curator of herbaceous perennials, to get his take on what to look for this spring—but with an eye toward fall. His suggestions for fall color—all hardy perennials capable of handling USDA Zone 5 winters, may surprise you.
And no wonder: Heucheras, or coral bells, are virtually carefree and at home in sun or shade. Consider them for containers, too: it's the newest way to add color and texture to patios and porches. When frost finally threatens, settle them into the garden, where they'll add interest for years.
Berry Timeless coral bells (Heuchera 'Berry Timeless') commands a container: its big, silvery, green-veined leaves stay low (just 6 inches tall), the better to show off tall, wand-like flower stalks covered in rosy pink flowers. Best of all, the flowers bloom continuously, early summer straight through fall, and dry in place on their stems—guaranteed to grab a gardener's attention! 20 inches wide
Dolce® Brazen Raisin™ coral bells (Heuchera Dolce® Brazen Raisin™) brings the "it" color of the year—marsala—to your garden, with dark purple leaves flushed with wine underneath. Low and mounding, this heuchera contrasts beautifully with white or pale companions, and its delicate cloud of white/pink/fuchsia summer flowers often reappears in fall. 8 to 10 inches tall, 18 to 24 inches wide
Grape Expectations coral bells (Heuchera 'Grape Expectations') pours on the color right from the start, emerging bright grape in spring, icing over with silver in summer, then going dramatically dark purple in fall. A gorgeous foil for yellows and greens, russets and oranges, it bears cream-colored flowers midway through the season. 12 inches tall, 24 inches wide
Seeing Sedum in a New Light
We know: we love 'Autumn Joy', too. But there are some intriguing newcomers to the autumn stonecrop crowd—and color is rejuvenating the category. Got rabbit trouble? Not with sedums.
Lemonjade sedum (Sedum 'Lemonjade') gives a fresh twist on the usually pink stonecrop flowers—its blooms are citron yellow. Perched over grey-green foliage, they give way to peach-colored seedheads. 16 to 18 inches, tall, 26 to 28 inches wide
Firecracker sedum (Sedum 'Firecracker') smolders with intense burgundy-red color and a dense habit so low (it's just 6 inches tall) that it could function as an amazing groundcover. 18 inches wide
Japanese Anemones: Shorter and Sweeter
If you haven't tried Japanese anemones, aka windflowers, in your yard yet, this could be your year, as a new group joins the already-popular Pretty Lady series. Note: Japanese anemones grow well for us here at the Garden, despite our heavy clay soil.
Pretty Lady series (Anemone × hybrida). Whether you try 'Pretty Lady Diana' or Emily, Susan, or Julia, anemones make a lively change from the usual chrysanthemums and asters. If you pick a spot that's sunny (a bit of shade is okay) and never let them dry out, anemones will bloom from August straight through October. All under 24 inches tall
Fantasy series (Anemone × hybrida). Gotta love a flower series named for princesses or sort-of princesses: 'Cinderella' and 'Pocahontas' are the newest windflowers to hit the market. Nice and compact, just 12 to 18 inches tall (rather than the typical 24 to 36 inches), Fantasy anemones are packed with bright, rosy-pink flowers with sunny yellow centers—such a treat in fall.
Helenium: Fired Up
Don't be put off by its common name, sneezeweed. (Heleniums. Do. Not. Make. You. Sneeze.) Two new series bring the tall height of the species down to a more manageable, useful-in-the-border size.
Mariachi series (Helenium autumnale). With names like 'Salsa', 'Fuego', and 'Sombrero', you get the idea: spicy, hot, solar colors make these daisy-like flowers glow in the fall garden. 18 to 20 inches tall, 24 inches wide
UFO series (Helenium autumnale). Shaped like the perfect little UFO, the flowers in this helenium series are richly colored and compact in size. Full sun-loving plants are wonderful for both cutting and butterfly gardens. 18 to 20 inches tall
Heucherella: Heuchera + Tiarella
Made for the shade, heucherellas, or foamy bells, attract attention for wonderfully multicolored foliage that lasts all season long. Excellent for containers, under shrubs, or to brighten the inevitable dark spots in the fall garden.
Leapfrog heucherella (Heucherella 'Leapfrog') looks like its name implies: bright chartreuse with burgundy veining. Late spring "bottlebrush" flowers add dimension. 8 to 12 inches tall, 18 to 24 inches wide
Pink Fizz heucherella (Heucherella 'Pink Fizz') is a great name for the pop-up look of this heucherella's pink flowers. While the flowers brighten spring and summer, the striking, star-shaped leaves combine green, silver, and dark purple to great advantage in fall. 8 inches tall, 18 inches wide
Grasses: A New Source of Color
Colorful cultivars of native midwestern grasses give gardeners a new set set of options for fall beds and borders: graphic grass shapes in unexpectedly vibrant colors.
Smoke Signal little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium 'Smoke Signal') holds its very vertical shape, even in the depths of winter—but it's the color that will surprise you. Like many bluestems, it starts out blue-gray in summer, but changes early to strawberry red, and then goes even deeper, to scarlet-purple for fall. Ultimately, it will claim a spot that's 2 feet around with 3 to 4 feet in height.
Twilight Zone little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium 'Twilight Zone') shines with color that's hard to describe: silvery and iridescent, with a rosy flush in summer that goes distinctly purple in fall. It has the classic clump shape that makes a grass so valuable in the garden, and it's happy in the hot, dry spots that so often stand bare in the fall garden. 4 feet tall, 2 feet wide
Ready to head to the nurseries for spring/fall?
Karen Zaworski is a garden writer and photographer who lives and gardens in Oak Park, Illinois.