Ten Favorite Plants for Autumn Interest

Autumn is my favorite season. I suppose it might be a little strange that as a gardener I like fall better than spring and summer, but I always have. By fall, most of your hard work is done, and, if you plant even a few of these plants, you will still have beautiful color in your yard that will only accentuate the gorgeous reds, yellows and oranges of the leaves and the clear blue skies of autumn. I just want to enjoy my garden in the fall, spending time in the crisp air raking leaves and doing whatever cleanup I can, harvesting the last crops of the year, sometimes listening to the Lions on the radio (hopefully winning!) Ah. There is no better gardening experience, as far as I'm concerned.

1. Autumn Crocus

These are corms that you plant in the summer for fall bloom. Autumn Crocus blooms in white, pink, or lavender, growing from 6 to 12 inches tall. Give them full sun to part shade in moist, well-drained soil. Autumn crocus is very pretty at the front of a shady border or in a rock garden.

2. Hardy Mum

Hardy Mum
Hardy Mum, Chrysanthemum
"Clara Curtis "
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When I think of fall, I think mums, which bloom from September through the end of October, and sometimes into November. Mums come in several colors: white, red, orange, yellow, purple, and pink. They grow from one to three feet tall and up to four feet wide. Plant them in full sun in fertile, moist well-drained soil. Most people treat mums as annuals, buying them in the fall (when they invade garden centers) to give the landscape a little color. Planting them this late in the season, it's almost impossible for the plant to become established enough to survive the winter. To grow them as perennials, buy small plants in the spring so that they will be well established before winter. Keep pinching back the growing tips to encourage side shoots, which means more blooms. Do this pinching up until Fourth of July, and then stop. Any pinching you do after that may result in the plant not having enough time to grow new buds before winter. Divide them every other spring to keep them vigorous, and increase your stock. Also, don't cut the stems back until spring, because the old stems and foliage will protect the crown of the plant through the winter. If you have to buy them in the fall, and would like to attempt to keep them through the winter, you will have the most success if you do two things. First, keep them well watered until the first hard frost hits. Second, after that first hard frost, throw a nice, thick layer of mulch over them. Be sure to keep the old stems standing, and, to give even more protection, stuff fall leaves inside the old stems. In spring, pull the mulch and leaves back. When the new growth is about three inches tall, you can go ahead and cut back the old stems.

3. Joe Pye Weed

Joe Pye Weed
Joe Pye Weed,
Eupatorium "Chocolate"
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Joe Pye Weed is perfect for the back of a border in a more naturalistic setting. This Michigan native grows up to seven feet tall and anywhere from one to four feet wide. It blooms in pink, purple, blue, or white from late summer through fall. Plant Joe Pye Weed in partial shade in fertile, moist soil.

4. New England Aster

Along with mums, these are the most commonly grown autumn bloomers, and with good reason. They are so cheerful, with their purple, daisy-like flowers with yellow centers. New England Asters grow up to five feet tall (but I've rarely seen them get that tall. Figure on more like three feet tall) and two feet wide. They thrive in full sun, but will stand a little shade. Give them moist, well-drained soil. The most important thing with New England Asters is to be sure to pinch them back by about half in mid to late June to get nice clumps with tons of blooms.

5. Goldenrod

This is a plant you don't see much in gardens, and I think it is because people wrongly blame it for allergies. It blooms at the same time as ragweed, which is the real villain. It is a beautiful plant, with plumes of bright, cheerful yellow flowers from midsummer through fall. Goldenrod grows from two to three feet tall and around eighteen inches wide. Give it full sun to part shade and average, well-drained soil.

6. Japanese Anemone

These beautiful perennials are totally underused in the landscape, maybe because it takes them a while to get established. Anemones grow a long taproot, and for the first couple of years in the garden, the plant is focusing most of its attention there. But after those first couple (very important) seasons, they are absolutely stunning. Japanese Anemones grow anywhere from two to five feet tall and around two feet wide. They bloom in pink or white in late summer through early fall. Anemones prefer partial shade and moist, rich soil.

7. Viburnum

Viburnum
Viburnum "Doublefile"

There are many, many varieties of viburnum, and just about any you could pick would be beautiful in the autumn landscape. Viburnum foliage generally turns a coppery purple in autumn that looks absolutely breathtaking surrounded by the yellows and oranges of the fallen leaves. Viburnums are, in general, large shrubs, so be sure you have enough room for them. Expect them to get around eight to ten feet tall and wide, and some get larger than that. Give them full sun to part shade and average soil. Some of my favorites are American Cranberry Bush, Koreanspice, and Doublefile.

8. "Purpurascens" Miscanthus

Miscanthus
Miscanthus "Purpurascens"
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I really wanted to include an ornamental grass here, and Miscanthus 'Purpurascens' is an absolute showstopper. It blooms in early to late fall with gorgeous, feathery white plumes. That would be enough, but the foliage is even more gorgeous. It has a maroon tint throughout the season, but in the fall the foliage turns red. It grows three feet tall and about two feet wide. Give 'Purpurascens' full sun and average soil.

9. Red Twig Dogwood

There is no season that the Red Twig Dogwood doesn't work hard in the landscape. For more on Red Twigs, see our Plant Profile.

10. Sedum 'Autumn Joy'

Sedum
Sedum "Autumn Joy "
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With its rosy blooms that eventually fade to a deep rust color in fall, 'Autumn Joy,' also called 'Showy Stonecrop,' is a wonderful plant for Autumn interest, but if you leave the flower stalks standing, they will also give you winter interest. 'Autumn Joy' grows in nice upright clumps two feet tall and wide. Plant them in full sun to part shade in average soil. In May, prune them back by half to promote more blooms. ITGO