Fall Gardening Lessons from Our Test Garden

Potted plants with orange flowers and purple leaves in the Test Garden
Autumn can be an exciting time in your garden if you apply any of these tips from the Better Homes and Gardens Test Garden.

Look Beyond Trees

Most gardeners know that trees like maple, oak, and dogwood can add colorful foliage to a fall garden. But many shrubs also perform a colorful third act. One standout in the Better Homes and Gardens Test Garden is this 'Spring Red' American cranberry bush (Viburnum trilobum). Other shrubs with excellent fall color include burning bush (Euonymus alata), sumac, and oakleaf hydrangea.

Try Something Different

Believe it or not, there are fall-blooming perennials other than mums and asters. Here, sunny fall-bloomer Helianthus angustifolius 'First Light' holds its own with 'Earth Song' rose and 'Sheffield' mums. Other fall-blooming perennials include Japanese anemone, toad lily, Joe Pye weed, and boltonia.

Mix In Some Roses

Roses can be a wonderful addition to the perennial garden or shrub border. Many modern shrub roses put on a wonderful show right up until a hard frost. This beauty, 'Heritage', is a David Austin variety with densely petaled shell pink flowers followed by large orange hips. In addition to their long bloom season, many shrub roses offer better resistance to common diseases than their hybrid tea cousins. Your rose dealer can help you find varieties that will thrive in your area.

Hire a Relative of a Friend

The spiky blue beauty hiding behind the 'Hameln' fountain grass is a larger cousin to common garden sage. Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha) is a tender perennial that can be grown as an annual in northern gardens. In the Test Garden (Zone 5), Mexican bush sage starts blooming late in the season, providing a nice "surprise" come fall. The lesson here: look for different versions of plants you like. Sometimes it's nice to invite relatives into your garden.

Keep a Few Annuals Around

Annuals (and many perennials grown as annuals) can provide a flowery insurance policy in the fall garden. In the Test Garden, pink begonias, purple coleus, and gray-leafed licorice plant (Helichrysum petiolatum) ring the central plaza, providing a surefire display right up until frost. Annuals are particularly useful in high-visibility areas like patios and entries.

Look for Contrasts

Don't limit yourself to flowers when putting on a fall show. Beautiful leaves can also create eye-candy. This harmonious trio works because of the contrast in color and shape. The large ovals are canna; the strappy leaves are daylily; the crimson leaves of barberry bring up the rear.

Move Some Water

Even a relatively quiet area of the fall garden can come alive with sound and movement when you include a fountain. Although you may not have the space or budget for a water feature as elaborate as the one in the Test Garden, you can find smaller fountains that will provide just the right focal point for your yard.

Make Fruitful Plantings

Fruits and berries provide another avenue for fall interest. Here, the tiny (1/2-inch) fruit of a flowering crabapple adds a ruddy cast to the tree, even from a distance. Shrubs like viburnum can also provide a colorful helping of fruit that pleases your eye while also feeding the wildlife. Check with your local nursery or browse mail-order catalogs for varieties that feature attractive fruit.

Let Leaves Shine

Every gardener should include as least a few plants with leaves that feature interesting patterns or variegations. This canna 'Pretoria' combines bright green color with striking veins. Even when the plant is not in flower, these large leaves are a welcome sight.

Try Some Fine Vines

In addition to screening views, softening up fences, and providing vertical accents, vines can help the fall garden shine. This sweet autumn clematis (behind the canna 'Pretoria') tops a board fence in the Test Garden and comes into bloom late in the season. Other good vines for fall interest include bittersweet (orange fruit), Virginia creeper (red fall foliage), and Boston ivy (red-orange fall foliage).

Waste Not

While not as glamorous an activity as planting bulbs, making compost should be on everyone's fall gardening to-do list. The large amount of yard waste in the fall makes this a good time to start, or add to, your own composting setup. Come next summer, you'll be richly rewarded with the best soil conditioner known to gardeners.

For best results, follow the Test Garden's lead and use several bins. A multi-bin system lets you process more compost; as a batch in one bin starts to decompose, you can move it to the next bin. This process helps aerate the compost, and further speeds decomposition.

Fall Back on Evergreens

Like a steady friend, evergreens are the sometimes forgotten stalwarts that are always there when you need them. Keeping a few evergreen trees or shrubs in your garden will ensure that even an early frost doesn't leave you searching for something green. These compact Colorado spruces (Picea pungens 'Glauca Globosa') provide year-round interest. The red-leafed plant against the wall is red chokeberry.

Settle on Sedum

The most commonly planted sedum, 'Autumn Joy', is indeed a big bold source of fall color. But there are other varieties of this fleshy-foliage wonder that provide a more subtle accent in the late-season garden. Here in the Test Garden, sedum 'Tricolor' is a spreading ground cover that grows only a few inches tall. In the fall, its cream-and-green leaves add a distinctive red accent.

Grab Some Grass

Ornamental grasses are an outstanding addition to any fall garden. Many varieties are grown in the Test Garden, but few are as dramatic as Japanese blood grass. Other ornamental grasses sport fluffy spikes or dramatic shapes. Many add interest to the winter garden, as well. One note of caution, however: some species, including blood grass, can become invasive so consider planting them in a location where you can control their spread.

Plant Some Portability

In northern gardens, fall is a time for extremes. You can have a hard freeze in October followed by six weeks of mild weather. By including a few small container gardens in your plans, you can outwit Mother Nature by bringing them in at the first sign of trouble. The Test Garden includes dozens of containers, including this one populated by an orange tuberous begonia and a purple-leafed Persian shield.

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