It’s Spring, So Let’s Think About Fall

Plant Amarcrinum bulbs in the spring, wait until the third fall and blooms like these are the reward for advanced planning and patience. Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

Perennial gardeners fall into several separate categories: (1) Many are probably thinking about spring—after all, we’re just getting through winter; and (2) those who know enough to plan ahead, so they are already reflecting on fall. Of course, most gardeners fall somewhere in between this divide.

Typically, most of us concentrate upon spring because this is our most spectacular season. Temperatures are still manageable, and this is the time we want to dig in the soil. But some know that this is also the time to plan for the fall garden.

Gardening advisements, like hemlines, rise and fall.

When I first started gardening, we thought about planting the perennial border for each season; the reasoning behind this was that by spreading out the bloom time, the effect of the perennial border should be one in constant flower. The experts called for blazing color for at least three seasons of the year, taking a breather during winter, a season when it is difficult to produce any such intensity.

This was exhausting as once one perennial border was finished, it was time to scurry onto the next one. We forgot that for any peace of mind there should be a semi-permanence attached to that perennial border.

Many gardeners know that the trick to constructing a good perennial garden is to plant some good workhorses that offer quality foliage after their bloom times have expired. This helps the border to slide from spring into summer into fall. One such workhorse I have discovered is the non-showy Polygonatum that flowers in the spring. Several species have linear variegated leaves, adding a lovely accent to the border during the summer and into the late fall when it turns a nice color before disappearing for the winter.

Polygonatum has understated blooms in spring, but the lush variegated leaves of summer (top) and turns of color in fall (bottom) are the real stars of the show. Photos by Kit Flynn.

It’s easy to have a brilliant spring perennial border here in the South. To expand the border into the following seasons, the trick is to find plants that can suffer through the eight weeks of July and August—those months are not only hot and humid, but can often be discouragingly dry—before they burst into flower in September and October. Do not fall for the everblooming plants, such as several varieties of daylilies; by September, “Happy Returns” and “Stella d’Oro” not only are boring, they are out of place in the fall sun that is lower in the sky.

No, the trick is to find those plants that genuinely want to bloom in the fall, plants such as Sedum (remember that S. “Autumn Joy” is now reclassified as Hylotelephium spectabile “Autumn Joy”), Chrysanthemum (not those pathetic, sad mounds that we toss onto the compost pile after a couple of weeks—no, the real thing), Solidago (goldenrod will not give you a case of hay fever), and Muhlenbergia capillaris (muhley grass).

Muhley grass has always reminded me a bit of Jane Eyre, who suddenly blossoms when Mr. Rochester falls in love with her; this grass is downright homely until it begins to do its own thing in the early fall. Wind it through the garden and for four weeks you’ll have a delightful pink haze shimmering among your perennials. My advice is to plant it in the spring, forgetting about it until it decides to reward you in the fall.

Pictured at the start of this column is a delightful bulb that requires some advance planning.

Amarcrinums, a result of that spectacular marriage between Amaryllis belladonna and a crinum, should be planted in the spring. The first two years you will be rewarded with linear leaves. However, by that third fall, beautiful amaryllis-like flowers will appear, proving that the three-year wait was well worth it. An added bonus is that the flowering period can last a good four-five weeks—and deer leave them alone. You’ll find them in the spring catalogs, not the fall ones.

One of the Gallery series of Dahlias blooms with the cooler fall nights after the plant makes it through summer. Spring is the time to buy them. Photo by Kit Flynn.

I find that the smaller echinaceas, “Pica Bella” and “Delicious Candy” bloom throughout the fall. However, the true stars of my perennial fall border are the various Gallery series of Dahlias that are found at Brent and Becky’s Bulbs (here). These natives of Mexico limp along through the summer, looking somewhat respectable until they burst forth when the night temperatures begin to dip. Buy them in the spring because they’re not available in the fall catalogs.

Many perennials turn into great colors in the fall, thereby enhancing the autumn garden. Plant Amsonia hubrichtii in the spring for its lacy foliage and blue flowers—and watch it turn into a brilliant yellow in the fall. Just be aware that Amsonia, as with many perennials, can be slow to take off, sometimes demanding more than one growing season before making its statement.

One of the great things about gardening in the Carolina Piedmont is that we can show off the garden four seasons of the year. It’s easy to get into what I call the “spring rut” because, after winter, we are so joyful that it’s spring. My suggestion is that with a little research you can prepare for the other seasons if you remember that many plants should meet the soil in the spring if they are going to perform during the late summer and fall.

Otherwise, you’ll end up with a one-season garden—and that doesn’t sound very inspiring.

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at

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