Early Fall Colour, For the Love of Red, Yellow and Orange
Colour is such a personal thing. I think of myself as a very blue/green person, but my son loves everything red and orange. The only time we can agree over colour is in the Fall. I throw out my preconceived notions of colour preference and bask in the glory of scarlet, burnt sienna, golden bronze and amber (or red, orange and yellow if you prefer).
It’s a common mistake, that I’ll admit to making myself, that when planning out a garden we concentrate on spring and summer blooming plants. But then the summer fades and the garden looks dry and tired. The good news is it doesn’t have to be that way, it’s so easy to add a few plants that are coming into their glory right now and get an Autumnal colour fix. Bring on the reds, yellows and oranges.
When you banter about words like Fall or Autumnal Colour… what springs immediately to mind are the glorious turning leaves. Now don’t get me wrong, I can be completely stopped in my tracks in awe at the sight of a Parrotia persica (Persian ironwood) in full Fall colour (if you haven’t seen this then it is worth a Google).
But trees aren’t the only colour story of this season, and let’s be honest, trees can up a lot of space and take a long time to grow into their own. At this time of year (late August/early September) the trees turning colour can actually be a sign of stress. So, our options are to wait a few weeks for the temperature to drop and the show to begin, or we can get the party started now by adding fall colour perennials and annuals to our garden.
So, in typical fashion I’ve listed a few of my favourites below. Full disclosure, a few are missing. That’s because I’ve already talked about echinacea, rudbeckia and Shasta daisies which you can read about here. But don’t worry, there are more beauties to be found.
Asters are the Queen of the Fall flower parade; they literally are at their best when so many other flowering plants have given up for the season. They are known by many different common names but Michaelmas daisies is a very popular one. The name apparently comes from the Christian holiday of Michaelmas which falls on September 29th, when this lovely flower is still shining in the garden. The daisy shaped flowers come in shades of blue, pink, purple and white with a yellow central boss. These plants are delicate looking but don’t be fooled, they are tough. Blooming from August right up until they are cut back by the frost.
Most asters are happy growing in full to partial sun, well-drained soil. Now, I say most because there are actually 250 recorded species (and no I didn’t count them myself). So, to say there is some variation is a bit of an understatement, some are annual and some perennial, and some are small and others tall.
The two most common for the garden are the New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), with dark pink to deep purple flowers, and the New York aster (S. novi-belgii) which is found in pink to blue-purple colours and can be single, double or somewhere in-between. Head on down to the garden centre and find one that suits you. Growing asters is very easy, if you cut them in early summer they will grow in a dense neat mound or skip the pruning and let them go leggy and long so they spread out and weave through near-by plants giving the garden an airy feathery look.
Also, asters are an amazing flower for pollinators, that often need something in the late dog days of summer. So, if for no other reason plant an aster, the bees will thank you.
Garden mums –
If asters are the Queens of the Fall flower parade then garden mums are the cheerleaders, the flowers remind me of a cheerleaders Pom-Pom and they just seem so cheerful. Adding one to the garden is like adding an exclamation point. One of the big questions I get is are they annuals or perennials and the answer I always give is, yes. They are what I like to call “sometimes perennials.” The problem being is they have been so beloved, hybridized and crossed over the years to give us such a show of blooms that they have become a bit of a grey area. If you buy and plant one in spring then chances are it will get established in your garden and will act like a perennial. But if you’re like me and haven’t really thought that far ahead and just want a crazy, fantastic Fall show on your doorstep, garden or patio right now, then run on down to GardenWorks and get some to pop into a pot so you can create an Autumnal vignette worthy of an Instagram photo.
If you really want to up your game, consider hollowing out a pumpkin and pop your mum right into it. Often garden mums you get in the fall and keep in a container don’t really have a chance at overwintering but I’m happy to treat them like an annual and enjoy them for all the joy they give me. Be sure to deadhead them regularly to keep the show going well into the cold months. Garden mums are so easy to grow, they have very few pest problems and as long as you remember to water them regularly, they will bloom for months.
Ornamental Kale –
Or you can just forget about flowers all together and grab some kale… just don’t eat it. Ornamental kale, or ornamental cabbage, is way to pretty to eat. With their curly, frilly, green/white/purple leaves they look just like giant roses. The best part is they look that way all the way into winter. Be sure to plant them somewhere prominent but away from strong light and the heat of the sun. These are cool weather plants that actually get more colourful as the temperatures start to dip.
Hardy Sedum or stonecrop –
Succulents are all the rage when it comes to houseplants (for good reason, they are beautiful) but not enough love is being given to the big bold fall blooming hardy garden sedums. These perennial garden plants look like they belong in the desert or at least indoors but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
They are hardy, drought resistant and just so ridiculously easy to grow. Plant them where they will get a good amount of sun, and then sit back and enjoy the show. The flowers start to bloom at the end of August and are gorgeous clusters of pink/red flowers (which kind of look like pink broccoli) put on a show right through until winter.
But for me the foliage is the true star of the show. Succulent foliage in shades of grey/green, burgundy, variegated or even purple/black foliage depending on the cultivar. The cultivar ‘Autumn Joy’ was for me the one that started my love of this plant but to be honest, growers have been working hard to create even better colours. Some of my personal favourites are ‘Matrona’ with grey-green, even purple tinged, foliage and pink flowers, it’s an award winner. ‘Autumn Fire’ which is an improvement from of ‘Autumn Joy’ has beautiful rose-pink flowers that seem to last forever. ‘Elsie’s Gold’ is a bright spot in the garden with variegated golden yellow and green leaves that fade to a soft cream colour and are topped by pink flowers. ‘Dark Magic’ gets me every time with its glossy dark purple foliage and matching flowers.
Helenium – aka. Sneezeweed
What an unfortunate name for such a beautiful plant (and don’t worry, it won’t add to the misery of allergy sufferers any more than other flowers would). A member of the daisy family this flower comes in the all the colours you crave at this time of year and has a large, bold, three-dimensional russet coloured central boss (it reminds me of a toasted marshmallow). Both annual and perennials (but I am mostly interested in the perennials) modern cultivars are a result of the crossing of two different species.
Give them full sun but with moist well-drained soil and once established they can become drought tolerant. There are so many hybrids but some favourites are the rich velvety orange-red ‘Moerheim Beauty,’ the cheery yellow of ‘Butterpat,’ and the well named two-toned ‘Ring of Fire’ all of which have been awarded an RHS Award of Garden Merit. They look best when planted in mass if you have the room for it. Make sure to deadhead them regularly and they will perform well into the cold months.