It’s Time to Think About Fall Planting

Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

It’s that time of year when we can again start thinking about installing plants in our garden, a time that gladdens a gardener’s heart. I have a totally unscientific method in choosing plants, dividing them into the showstoppers and the supporting cast – sometimes I call the latter “accent” plants.

There comes a time when, alas, you have to pass over the showstoppers because you either no longer have room or your garden, with age, is now shadier than it once was – and showstoppers typically require sun. In the second place, you can have only so many showstoppers in the garden; you want to show them off rather than have them compete for attention.

Photo by Kit Flynn.

Among my showstoppers are the crinum ‘Super Ellen’, the Korean sweetheart tree, Euscaphus japonica and the roses ‘Peggy Martin’ and Lady Banks. I adore them, one and all, but my garden can only encompass a few specimens as they all take up room, a lot of room. Like the Mona Lisa, these showpieces are meant to be admired and set off so all can see.

I now find that the longer I garden, the more attracted I am to the secondary cast, those plants that help set the scene for the showstoppers. The thing about the prima donnas is that they don’t bloom for the whole summer. If you get six weeks out of them, you’re ahead of the game. And this is where the accent plants play a role.

I have a superb rose, ‘Dark Desire’ that is classified as a grandiflora. Now she’s suppose to grow 4’x3’ but my ‘Dark Desire’ now looms twelve feet in height. At first, I cut her back, causing her to respond by growing to new heights. After fighting her growth patterns for several growing seasons, I acquiesced – and now she’s a happy camper.

I found that this twelve-foot-high rose needed something at her feet – she was meant to be part of the perennial border instead of soaring high above it. Consequently, I planted daylilies and Allium millenium at her feet, giving her a softness that I hope she relishes. Alliums and roses appear to like one another while daylilies are like Basset Hounds, desirous of getting along with everyone.

I had the same problem with the very large rambling rose ‘Peggy Martin’: I had to cover her bare feet. Because ‘Peggy’s feet are heavily shaded, I planted ferns beneath her. Now ferns rarely command attention on their own but grouped together they give off a lovely feathery-like appearance that is quite pleasing – and the lady has demonstrated no adverse reaction.

Sedges can offer a lovely softness to the perennial border, one that I welcome. Perennial borders periodically offer gaps either because plants haven’t yet achieved their estimated size or have called it a day. Plant Delights offers a wonderful sedge, Carex lanceolata ‘Silk Tassel’, that I shall order to fill in vacant spots in a perennial border that offers some spots with shade. Again, viewers will not stop in front of them but these Carex will add a softness and continuity this particular border requires.

One caveat to remember about fall planting is this: Be sure that the plant you are selecting is happy in our 7a gardening zone. Winter, hard as it to believe, will reclaim its right to exist so a plant designed for 7b or 8a is better off starting life out in the spring.

Photo by Kit Flynn.

I’m all for pushing the envelope, but not in the fall. We plant in the fall to give the plant time to establish a good, healthy root system. Yet, with a plant, such as Lady Banks rose, classified as a zone 8 plant, it’s far safer to push that envelope in the spring rather than the fall. Just because a certain plant is advertised in a catalogue doesn’t mean it’s optimal in your garden in the fall with winter not far behind.

Another consideration to think about is this: When do you need blooms in the garden? I have realized that I could use more color during the month of August so I am now revaluating all those plants I have marked in the catalogue as I want to emphasize August bloomers. The clumping monardas I’d noted flower in May and June, months that already have plenty of color.

Salvias might be the answer to my August problem. I notice that Salvia x Sylvestris ‘Violet Riot’ is hardy to zones 4a-8a whereas Salvia x jamensis ‘Blast’ is hardy in zones 7a-9b. Consequently, I’ll order the former for this fall and the latter for the next spring.

Not all the plants I have checked are feasible, however. There is one showstopper I yearn for but will have to forgo, despite my marking it for my order. The ornamental grass, Tridens stricta ‘Buffalo Feathers’, gorgeous in the catalogue, is hardy down to zone 6a, flowers in October – and grows to 72 inches, producing a very large clump. Described in the catalogue as an “architectural structure,” it cannot join the garden; I simply have to shake my head back to reality as I cannot accommodate another showstopper. I have run out of room.

In a good garden catalogue, plants suitable for fall planting are featured. This is the reason for example Lantana doesn’t appear in the fall edition put out by Plant Delights. Chosen wisely, fall plants can thrive – just hold off on some of those impulse buys until the spring.

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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