Great Plants for Fall Color

by Connie Holland
Adams Co. Master Gardener
Gettysburg Garden Club

Classic colorful fall plantings that usually come to mind are chrysanthemum, aster and goldenrod. Granted these can be spectacular in the fall garden, but they are just the tip of the iceberg when it
comes to the myriad of fantastic fall flowering plants that provide lots of great color all autumn up to frost. There are hardy perennials, annuals, vines and even bulbs, some of which are exclusively fall bloomers. Other plants start earlier in the season and continue flowering straight through autumn. In addition to flower color, many perennials and annuals are starting to produce seed heads now that are just as attractive as their blooms. An added bonus is they will self-seed producing volunteer plants next season while at the same time providing food for birds.

Some lovely summer blooming plants that are underappreciated for their fall color are Walker’s Low catmint (Nepeta), coreopsis, both perennial and annual salvias, hardy geraniums, orange Mexican Sunflower (Tithonia) and fall crocus, to name a few. Right now many are still in bloom and will continue until a frost.

Most of the coneflowers (Echinacea) have finished blooming and are loaded with tall stately seed heads that are such a favorite of the goldfinch birds who seem not to mind the sharp seed head spines when pecking out the obviously delicious seeds. It is a treat to watch them perched on the seed heads waving back and forth while feeding. Other seed heads they prefer are those of the orange Mexican Sunflower and the hyssops Blue Fortune and Golden Jubilee. And, if any seeds do remain, they produce volunteer seedlings next spring – to relocate or share. If you want to keep these plants in bloom, periodic deadheading (cutting off faded blooms down to a side bud or to the next bloom) is the key to keeping these plants producing more blooms. Deadheading also defers seed formation if you do not want any volunteer plants.

Annuals giving fall color right now are zinnias and brightly colored celosias. In addition to flowers, there is a wealth of leaf color in the form of coleus and perennial heucheras (Coral Bells). Coleus breeders have gone over the top in terms of leaf color, leaf size (the newer Kong series), and even more sun tolerant plants. It seems the sky is the limit and they provide color until frost.

Discover the value of heucheras in providing color to shade gardens in fall. Heucheras range in color from stainless steel grey to dark burgundy to rose and coral toned shades. A lovely heuchera relative in my garden is heucherella ‘Pacific Crest’ that has sharply pointed lime green leaves with center streaks of burgundy. It gives a lovely contrast where planted near its solid colored burgundy relative.

A few other perennials providing color right now are white blooming Chocolate Eupatorium, yellow Black Eyed Susan Rudbeckia hirta and triloba, purple feathery Russian Sage (Perovskia), and fantastic looking pink and white Japanese Anemones are at their peak. Monkshood (Aconitum) also is in full beautiful bloom. See photo.

Other annuals to be enjoyed are the explosive colors of red, orange, yellow and purple annual hot peppers, the hyacinth bean vine with its purple flowers and burgundy bean pods, and spike  celosia spicata whose light pink and fuscha colored blooms stand straight up on spiked flower heads at least two to four feet tall. These plants are easy to grow and will germinate without any attention next season.

Caladiums provide leaf color all summer and still look great in their pots going into fall. Their corms can be overwintered if kept inside above 50 degrees. Fall blooming bulbs such as the fall crocus are soon to pop up and surprise us with big purple blooms.

A few fall tasks that will give you more enjoyment next season – collect desirable seed heads and store in a cool dry place for next season, get rid of flowering weeds BEFORE they set seed, divide overgrown perennials, plant spring flowering bulbs, root softwood cuttings, sow seeds that need winter chilling for germination (e.g., poppies columbines, coneflowers, hollyhocks), buy discounted remaining perennials on sale to fill holes (be sure to tend to them until established), clean up vegetable garden debris, especially tomatoes and potatoes that can harbor diseases, bring in tender outside plants (inspect or treat as appropriate for unwanted critters), and finally make sure your garden tools and equipment are ready for storage. All the while enjoying the colors of fall.