Here in the mid-Atlantic, we tend to think of gardens as a spring and summer pleasure, perhaps, if we are lucky, extending into September. Done well, however, a garden can delight year round with different colors, shapes and textures. Fall can be particularly beautiful, with its dewy mornings, warm days and cool evenings, and the sun shedding a softer light over it all.
“It’s a long winter, so fall and winter are really important in garden design,” says Mary Shea, an independent garden designer. Just as you try to stagger when your flowers will bloom in spring and summer, you also need to consider when and what color the foliage turns in the fall, to think about berries and seedpods, the architecture of the leaves, and the visual interest of bark. And yes, there are flowers that bloom well into late autumn—and we are not just talking chrysanthemums, pansies and ornamental cabbage.
You can extend the blooming season for many perennials simply by deadheading and pruning, which allows them to be rejuvenated by fall’s rains and cooler temperatures, says Andrew Olson, public landscapes manager at The Delaware Center for Horticulture.
Consider planting native ornamental grasses that look good all summer and then turn a tawny color in fall, he suggests. Masses of shrubs, like witch alder (fothergilla) and hydrangea, and even small trees like serviceberry can also add fall delight.
“When you think about what to plant, be sure to look at the labels, to ensure that spring, summer, early fall, even late fall, you will always have something of interest in your garden,” says Helen S. Waite, horticultural and byways specialist at Delaware Greenways.
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Shea likes to break up large, sweeping spaces into human-scale, outdoor rooms. “Then, when you walk around the grounds, it feels like there are distinct places in the garden,” she says, “and the enclosures make you feel comfortable, like it’s a home.”
Walking through the three acres of grounds at her Centreville home, you come upon seating areas perfectly situated for enjoying the scenery. An old, stone wall divides the Shea property on one side from that of the historic Centre Friends Meeting House and cemetery. Another property line, behind the largest expanse of lawn, is defined by a row of tulip trees that turn vibrant yellow in fall, setting off the red wooden fence that fronts them, which is further accented by winterberry holly.
Shea’s husband, Tom, is an avid birder, so she planted an array of plants that berry, both to attract the birds and to add color to the garden. The three Winter King hawthorns, for example, produce bright red berries that robins and bluebirds find particularly tasty. “When a bluebird comes to the tree to feast, the combo of the blue and red is just brilliant,” Shea says.
To add outdoor interest to what Mary describes as a typical, ’50s Colonial house, the Sheas hired an architect to design a wooden arbor over the front walkway. Nothing grows over the arbor because the Sheas wanted to emphasize its structure, but both sides of the flagstone walk are lush with oak leaf hydrangea whose russet leaves contrast with a seed head that looks like a cluster of green grapes. Also along the walkway are golden spirea and fothergilla, which has leaves that turn pink, yellow and orange—sometimes all three on the same leaf. Several gingko biloba trees near the arbor further accent the architecture. Gingko is a slow-growing, deciduous tree with distinctive, fan-shaped leaves that turn autumnal gold.
Shea’s strategy for making her extensive gardens low maintenance is to mass perennials and pack them tightly to cut down on weeding. A garden, she reasons, should bring joy and pleasure, and not a long list of to-dos.
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It’s hard to imagine a better pedigree for a couple of home gardeners. The Greenways’ Waite is joined in the garden by her husband, John Feliciani, who retired last year from his job as director of horticulture and curator of gardens at Winterthur. Feliciani moved into Waite’s home in semi-rural Lewes when they married two years ago, but they began gardening together before that. “The joke is, if you want to attract a man, forget the casseroles, make sure you have a tractor,” Waite says. “I have a tractor and a pickup.”
Waite and Feliciani’s four acres of land is bounded on one side by Black Hog Gut (a small stream) and natural wetlands and woods. In the fall, the scarlet, orange and yellow leaves of the swamp maples, sassafras and tulip poplars form a dramatic background to the rest of the property, which includes two distinct meadows, a small orchard, a large vegetable garden, and formal gardens near the house.
The variegated foliage of the woods and the contrasting shapes and colors in the meadow—red-topped fescue against bright yellow pods of milkweed and white Queen Anne’s lace—demonstrate that nature designs for four-season beauty. Accomplished gardeners do the same.
The clethra Ruby Spice shrubs near the house and meadow, for instance, have a pink flower with a ruby spire in the spring, and in fall, golden foliage. The deep green leaves of the winterberry holly contrast in fall with its red berries and the yellow of the feathery amsonia planted in the same garden. Fothergilla, another shrub that Feliciani and Waite favor, has white, bottle brush-like flowers in spring, blue-green foliage in summer, and red-orange leaves in autumn.
Flowers that bloom well in their garden into the fall include crape myrtle, pink knockout roses and polyantha roses. Chrysanthemums are commonly used in gardens for fall color, but Waite and Feliciani prefer the daisy-like look of Sheffield mums.
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The Laffertys’ Greenville home sits on just 0.7 acre, but the lush, varied gardens make it seem much more spacious. It’s a yard meant for living in, too, with a patio, a playhouse, a hammock and several seating areas scattered about. Melissa Lafferty, a graduate of Longwood’s Professional Gardener Program, keeps the look of the garden “natural and loose,” to complement the cottage-style house, to cut down on the work required, and to make it more inviting.
She uses mostly trees, shrubs and perennials and very few annuals. One prominent exception included for fall color is the annual gomphrena Fireworks, which bloom a showy pink through November. Hydrangea, a perennial, blooms into the fall as well, and even when the colors fade, the dried blooms remain. Lafferty describes the perennial aster tataricus Jindai, also know as Tartarian daisy, as “the grand finale.” It is one of the last perennials to flower and blooms until the frost.
Just as with spring flowers, gardeners should consider fall colors and contrasts when positioning plants. In one area of Lafferty’s garden, purple beautyberry nestles alongside pink Sheffield chrysanthemums and the orange foliage of fothergilla.
Lafferty’s garden has something to offer in every season, she says, even in winter when the striking silhouettes of the trees are visible. Metal trellises and sculptures—created by Melissa and other artists—also draw attention year-round.
We typically think of dogwoods as a spring-interest tree, but Lafferty points out that the leaves have great fall color and the tree has a showy bark in winter. Lafferty has planted seven of them—of four different varieties—throughout her gardens.
“I personally think that with all the flowers, foliage and berries, the garden is more colorful in October and November than in spring,” Lafferty says. “If you do it right, fall can be pretty explosive.”