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Fall Garden Show-Offs

By: Nancy Ondra
Autumn isn't just for trees — here are 10 spectacular plants that highlight your fall garden.

Karma Dahlia Series Karma Choc Coyright Nancy J. Ondra:  Dahlias offer a wealth of glorious colors to the fall garden, this ‘Karma Choc’ dahlia has near-black centers opening to velvety, deep red petals.

Fall garden interest

No matter how long the growing season is, the first frost always seems to come too soon. There’s no need to give up gracefully, though! Add a variety of fall superstars to your garden, and autumn can be every bit as glorious as spring.

More than trees

With their showy autumn leaf colors, deciduous shrubs and trees rightfully top the list when it comes to late-season interest. But certain annuals, perennials and even edible plants can add surprising color and intriguing textures at a time when many plants are looking limp and faded. Fall-flowering plants add a welcome sense of anticipation as you watch their buds develop into full-blown blooms, providing the same thrill you get in the spring.

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Refresh containers in fall

Instead of starting over with new plants in your containers, consider replacing only those that are tired and tattered, so the whole effect looks both fresh and finished. Or, consider making container displays of individually potted plants, so you can easily rearrange them or swap out some as they pass their prime. My favorite way to jazz up fall containers is to add some unexpected touches from other parts of the garden, such as squash or gourds, cut branches, bundled grass plumes or some special seedheads.

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Fall garden show-offs

Ready to explore some of the best this season has to offer? Check out these 10 fall show-stoppers, then put some (or all) of them on your shopping list!

Karma Series dahlias (Dahlia hybrid)

The darlings of the fall flower garden, dahlias offer a wealth of glorious colors, bloom sizes, flower forms and heights. Look for the Karma Series, which has been bred for sturdy stems. Pictured above is ‘Karma Choc’, with near-black centers opening to velvety, deep red petals on dark stems over purple-shaded leaves.

Type Tender perennial Blooms Red, orange, pink, purple, yellow, white and bicolors in a variety of sizes from midsummer to frost Light Full sun Soil Average, well-drained Size 36 to 48 in. tall, 18 to 24 in. wide  Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 8 to 11; elsewhere, store indoors for the winter

‘Black Pearl’ ornamental pepper (Capsicum annuum)

Plant ‘Black Pearl’ pepper in a sun-drenched spot and it will produce bushy clumps of lustrous, jet-black leaves. (The foliage is more of a purple-blushed green if shaded, so give it the very brightest site you can.) Small purple flowers are followed by clusters of glossy peppers that turn from black to red as they ripen. Though it’s normally used as an ornamental, you can eat this pepper, too: just be prepared, because it’s a hot one!

Type Tender perennial Fruit Black to red 1-in.-wide, rounded to pointed peppers from late summer to frost Light Full sun Soil Average, well-drained Size 14 to 18 in. tall, 12 to 16 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 9 to 11 

Autumn crocus (Colchicum spp.)

Turn the seasons upside down with the lavender-pink or white blooms of this fall-blooming flower. Like many true crocuses, autumn crocus does have a spring presence, but only bold, strappy green leaves that rise early in the growing season and die back to the ground by midsummer. Slender buds emerge and open in early autumn, making a surprising seasonal accent. Autumn crocus is toxic if eaten, so it is not a good choice in sites where it may be nibbled on by pets or unwary garden visitors.

Type Perennial Blooms Lavender-pink or white, 4- to 6-in.-tall blooms in early fall Light Full sun to part shade Soil Average, well-drained Size 6 to 10 in. tall, 3 to 4 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 4 to 9

‘Carnival’ winter squash (Cucurbita pepo)

‘Carnival’ winter squash produces chunky, ribbed fruits that start out with heavy green and white speckling, turning more orange and yellow as the weather cools. Tuck them into or around containers, pile them along steps or around posts for decorative fall accents. ‘Carnival’ is edible as well as decorative, so bring the fruits into a cool, dark place for storage once you’re done with them outdoors, and enjoy eating them later.

Type Annual Fruit Speckled, 5- to 7-in.-wide “acorns” from late summer into fall Light Full sun Soil Average, well-drained, fertile Size 24 to 30 in. tall, 48 to 60 in. wide 

‘Snow Fairy’ bluebeard (Caryopteris divaricata)

‘Snow Fairy’ bluebeard emerges in spring, with medium green to gray-green leaves that are showily edged in creamy to bright white, forming dense clumps of fine-textured foliage. But unlike some variegated plants, ‘Snow Fairy’ looks as fresh in fall as it does in spring. The arrival of autumn brings out masses of wispy flowers that create a purple-blue haze around the tops of the plants.

Type Perennial Blooms Purple-blue, 1-in. flowers in early to midfall, green and white variegated foliage Light Full sun to part shade Soil Average, well-drained Size 2 to 3 ft. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 6 to 9 

Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans)

Pineapple sage's spikes of vivid red flowers are sure to catch your eye, as well as the attention of late-season hummingbirds and butterflies. Bright, showy foliage stuns all season and releases a fresh pineapple aroma when crushed.

Type Tender perennial Blooms Red tubular flowers in late summer to fall Light Full sun to part shade Soil Well-drained Size 3 to 4 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 8 to 10

Hyacinth bean (Lablab purpureus)

This heat-loving vine is perennial in tropical areas but easy to grow as an annual pretty much anywhere. Hyacinth bean is a magnificent sight in its full fall glory, twining up a trellis, arch, arbor or other vertical surface with purple-blushed foliage, clusters of pink-purple flowers and showy magenta-purple seedpods, too.

Type Tender perennial Blooms Purple-pink, 1-in. pealike flowers from mid- or late summer to frost Light Full sun Soil Average, well-drained Size 10 to 20 ft. tall, width depends on support Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 10 to 11 

‘Pink Zebra’ ornamental corn (Zea mays)

Dwarf ‘Pink Zebra’ ornamental corn typically reaches just 3 to 5 feet tall, so it fits easily into small gardens or even large containers. Its long, strappy leaves are showily striped with white and green, then blushed with pink as well, and the stems are topped with purple tassels later in summer. Plants produce beautiful ears of deep purple kernels you can use to enhance your outdoor fall displays.

Type Annual Blooms Dark purple, 6- to 10-in.-tall tassels from midsummer to fall Light Full sun Soil Average, well-drained Size 36 to 60 in. tall, 18 to 24 in. wide

‘Strawberry Fields’ globe amaranth (Gomphrena haageana)

Echoing the brilliant leaf colors of autumn trees and shrubs, the “globes” of globe amaranth are actually dense clusters of colorful, papery bracts, which are a rich red to scarlet on ‘Strawberry Fields’, above. The flowers are super-easy to dry as well; just hang them in small bundles in an airy, shaded spot for several weeks, then use them in bouquets, arrangements or holiday crafts.

Type Annual Blooms Red 1-in.-wide, globe-shaped to oblong heads from early or midsummer into fall  Light Full sun Soil Average to dry, well-drained  Size 18 to 24 in. tall, 12 in. wide 

Yellow waxbells (Kirengeshoma palmata)

With broad, lobed leaves on sturdy, upright stems, yellow waxbells has a substantial, almost shrublike form. It’s terrific as a contrast to many finer-textured shade-garden plants, such as astilbes (Astilbe spp. and hybrids) and ferns. By late summer, sprays of marblelike green buds open to elegant yellow blooms through early fall. This uncommon perennial takes a few seasons to settle in and really look its best, but it’s worth the wait.

Type Perennial Blooms Yellow, 1-in.-wide, narrow bells from late spring to early summer Light: Part to full shade Soil Average to moist, well-drained, humus-rich Size 3 to 4 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 5 to 8 

Karma Series dahlias (Dahlia hybrid)

The darlings of the fall flower garden, dahlias offer a wealth of glorious colors, bloom sizes, flower forms and heights. Look for the Karma Series, which has been bred for sturdy stems. Pictured above is ‘Karma Choc’, with near-black centers opening to velvety, deep red petals on dark stems over purple-shaded leaves.

Type Tender perennial Blooms Red, orange, pink, purple, yellow, white and bicolors in a variety of sizes from midsummer to frost Light Full sun Soil Average, well-drained Size 36 to 48 in. tall, 18 to 24 in. wide  Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 8 to 11; elsewhere, store indoors for the winter

Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans)

Pineapple sage's spikes of vivid red flowers are sure to catch your eye, as well as the attention of late-season hummingbirds and butterflies. Bright, showy foliage stuns all season and releases a fresh pineapple aroma when crushed.

Type Tender perennial Blooms Red tubular flowers in late summer to fall Light Full sun to part shade Soil Well-drained Size 3 to 4 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 8 to 10

‘Black Pearl’ ornamental pepper (Capsicum annuum)

Plant ‘Black Pearl’ pepper in a sun-drenched spot and it will produce bushy clumps of lustrous, jet-black leaves. (The foliage is more of a purple-blushed green if shaded, so give it the very brightest site you can.) Small purple flowers are followed by clusters of glossy peppers that turn from black to red as they ripen. Though it’s normally used as an ornamental, you can eat this pepper, too: just be prepared, because it’s a hot one!

Type Tender perennial Fruit Black to red 1-in.-wide, rounded to pointed peppers from late summer to frost Light Full sun Soil Average, well-drained Size 14 to 18 in. tall, 12 to 16 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 9 to 11 

Hyacinth bean (Lablab purpureus)

This heat-loving vine is perennial in tropical areas but easy to grow as an annual pretty much anywhere. Hyacinth bean is a magnificent sight in its full fall glory, twining up a trellis, arch, arbor or other vertical surface with purple-blushed foliage, clusters of pink-purple flowers and showy magenta-purple seedpods, too.

Type Tender perennial Blooms Purple-pink, 1-in. pealike flowers from mid- or late summer to frost Light Full sun Soil Average, well-drained Size 10 to 20 ft. tall, width depends on support Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 10 to 11 

Autumn crocus (Colchicum spp.)

Turn the seasons upside down with the lavender-pink or white blooms of this fall-blooming flower. Like many true crocuses, autumn crocus does have a spring presence, but only bold, strappy green leaves that rise early in the growing season and die back to the ground by midsummer. Slender buds emerge and open in early autumn, making a surprising seasonal accent. Autumn crocus is toxic if eaten, so it is not a good choice in sites where it may be nibbled on by pets or unwary garden visitors.

Type Perennial Blooms Lavender-pink or white, 4- to 6-in.-tall blooms in early fall Light Full sun to part shade Soil Average, well-drained Size 6 to 10 in. tall, 3 to 4 in. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 4 to 9

‘Pink Zebra’ ornamental corn (Zea mays)

Dwarf ‘Pink Zebra’ ornamental corn typically reaches just 3 to 5 feet tall, so it fits easily into small gardens or even large containers. Its long, strappy leaves are showily striped with white and green, then blushed with pink as well, and the stems are topped with purple tassels later in summer. Plants produce beautiful ears of deep purple kernels you can use to enhance your outdoor fall displays.

Type Annual Blooms Dark purple, 6- to 10-in.-tall tassels from midsummer to fall Light Full sun Soil Average, well-drained Size 36 to 60 in. tall, 18 to 24 in. wide

‘Carnival’ winter squash (Cucurbita pepo)

‘Carnival’ winter squash produces chunky, ribbed fruits that start out with heavy green and white speckling, turning more orange and yellow as the weather cools. Tuck them into or around containers, pile them along steps or around posts for decorative fall accents. ‘Carnival’ is edible as well as decorative, so bring the fruits into a cool, dark place for storage once you’re done with them outdoors, and enjoy eating them later.

Type Annual Fruit Speckled, 5- to 7-in.-wide “acorns” from late summer into fall Light Full sun Soil Average, well-drained, fertile Size 24 to 30 in. tall, 48 to 60 in. wide 

‘Strawberry Fields’ globe amaranth (Gomphrena haageana)

Echoing the brilliant leaf colors of autumn trees and shrubs, the “globes” of globe amaranth are actually dense clusters of colorful, papery bracts, which are a rich red to scarlet on ‘Strawberry Fields’, above. The flowers are super-easy to dry as well; just hang them in small bundles in an airy, shaded spot for several weeks, then use them in bouquets, arrangements or holiday crafts.

Type Annual Blooms Red 1-in.-wide, globe-shaped to oblong heads from early or midsummer into fall  Light Full sun Soil Average to dry, well-drained  Size 18 to 24 in. tall, 12 in. wide 

‘Snow Fairy’ bluebeard (Caryopteris divaricata)

‘Snow Fairy’ bluebeard emerges in spring, with medium green to gray-green leaves that are showily edged in creamy to bright white, forming dense clumps of fine-textured foliage. But unlike some variegated plants, ‘Snow Fairy’ looks as fresh in fall as it does in spring. The arrival of autumn brings out masses of wispy flowers that create a purple-blue haze around the tops of the plants.

Type Perennial Blooms Purple-blue, 1-in. flowers in early to midfall, green and white variegated foliage Light Full sun to part shade Soil Average, well-drained Size 2 to 3 ft. tall and wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 6 to 9 

Yellow waxbells (Kirengeshoma palmata)

With broad, lobed leaves on sturdy, upright stems, yellow waxbells has a substantial, almost shrublike form. It’s terrific as a contrast to many finer-textured shade-garden plants, such as astilbes (Astilbe spp. and hybrids) and ferns. By late summer, sprays of marblelike green buds open to elegant yellow blooms through early fall. This uncommon perennial takes a few seasons to settle in and really look its best, but it’s worth the wait.

Type Perennial Blooms Yellow, 1-in.-wide, narrow bells from late spring to early summer Light: Part to full shade Soil Average to moist, well-drained, humus-rich Size 3 to 4 ft. tall, 2 to 3 ft. wide Hardiness Cold hardy in USDA zones 5 to 8 

Published: Nov. 10, 2021
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