Most people think of autumn as a season when the garden begins to shut down, but this is not true in a “Four Seasons” garden.
With the right plant choices, your garden will continue to offer something of interest right into winter.
Perennials that bloom in late summer and fall include colors of purple, red, orange, and gold that echo the fall color on deciduous trees and shrubs. These flower colors look great against the evergreen foliage of junipers, false cypress, pines and spruce trees.
Variegated foliage continues to brighten up the shady areas and plants with burgundy, gold, blue, and gray foliage continue to add emphasis to the garden.
The real “stars” of the fall garden are the ornamental grasses with their glorious plumes that create movement in the garden with the slightest breeze! If you have not experimented with one of the ornamental grasses in your garden, then you are missing something BIG right now. (I will talk about these magnificent grasses in my next article because there is so much information to share with you.)
For now, I offer you a sampling of low maintenance shrubs and perennial flowers for fall and winter interest that should be included in your four-season garden.
Colorful Autumn Foliage
For vivid fall color from an ornamental tree or shrub, I would recommend two of my favorite four-season plants:
Acer palmatum dissectum (Cutleaf Japanese Maple) has brilliant fall colors of red or orange depending on the cultivar.
‘Crimson Queen’ is a popular cultivar with burgundy foliage that turns a brilliant red color in fall. Its weeping branch pattern can be enhanced by installing a landscape spotlight underneath the tree so its branches will be “up lighted” for a dramatic evening look.
Enkianthus campanulatus (Redvein Enkianthus) is a little known shrub but it’s worth searching for it in the garden center. Spring and summer foliage is a blue-green color, then the cool autumn temperature will change it into a kaleidoscope mix of orange, red and gold. Clusters of creamy white, bell-shaped flowers with a red vein dangle from the delicate stems in late spring.
The shrub grows 8-10′ tall and has a narrow upright habit. It does best in part shade, but will tolerate sun if given plenty of moisture.
Does Your Garden Need A WOW Factor?
If you are looking for fruit that adds color to the garden, you might want to look for Callicarpa dichotomas (Purple Beautyberry). This delicate shrub becomes a conversation piece due to the clusters of shocking purple berries lining the stems!
Initially the branches will be lined with clusters of delicate pale pink flowers. The flowers quickly mature into green berries, which then transform into these brilliant purple berries. Each one is small but as a whole, it packs a wallop of color and interest in your garden.
Persistent Fruit Takes Your Garden Into Winter
My three favorite shrubs with persistent red fruit include the following:
Ilex verticillata (Winterberry) is a tall shrub that takes a back seat in the garden display until September, when the branches will be lined with deep red berries.
When the leaves drop in October, you will be able to appreciate the glossy black stems that complement the red berries perfectly.
The Viburnum family is diverse but the two best species for persistent fruit are listed here. Viburnum opulus ‘Compactum’ (Dwarf European Cranberrybush) and Viburnum wrightii ‘Cardinal Candy’ (Wright Viburnum) both have abundant red fruit from fall and into winter. The fruit will be green on the shrub all summer, until it ripens to a brilliant red color in late summer and autumn.
Cotoneaster apiculatus (Cranberry Cotoneaster) has bright red fruit along its low spreading branches. This is a perfect shrub if you are looking for a creeping woody groundcover.
The slender branches twist and turn to create an interesting winter pattern. Rosy pink flowers can be enjoyed in late spring and the red fruit will last from August to early winter.
Leaf removal in spring can be a bit tricky due to the branching pattern. I use my hand to pull most of the leaves out, then I wait for the shrub to leaf out to hide anything remaining. Remember, leaf litter is nature’s compost and that’s a good thing!
Evergreen Shrubs Provide The Backdrop
All of this colorful autumn display will be nicely shown off by using a fence or evergreen shrubs for a backdrop.
I like the colorful evergreens, as they create a nice contrast to the bright autumn colors.
Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Nana Gracillis’ (Dwarf Hinoki False Cypress) is one of my favorite small evergreens. The frond-like foliage is dark green with white markings underneath and offers a “rippled” texture. It blends effortlessly with anything in the garden.
Its cousin, Chamaecyparis pisifera ‘Filifera Aurea’ (Gold Threadleaf False Cypress), offers gold color to break up the rest of your green plants. Prune this shrub tightly for best results.
Picea pungens ‘Montgomery’ (Dwarf Blue Spruce) has excellent silvery blue foliage and can mature at 6′ tall and 6′ wide after many years.
An interesting evergreen subshrub with late summer blooms would be Calluna vulgaris (Scotch Heather). It has small delicate foliage that is green or gold in the summer and will change to silver, red, or dark green in the color months. Bloom time depending on cultivar is from July to September.
Perennials for Late Summer and Autumn
Anemone japonica ‘Prince Henry’ (Japanese Anemone) is just one of many cultivars available in the anemone family.
Pearl-like buds sit atop long, wiry, purple stems and open into pink or white flowers depending on the cultivar.
‘Prince Henry’ is a semi-double flower on 36″-tall stems. This perennial can be aggressive in the garden and spreads by underground roots. Control its root system by planting it in a bottomless container sunk into the soil or plant it a large area to spread out and naturalize.
Japanese Anemone, also known as Windflower, grows in sun or part shade.
Cimicifuga racemosa ‘Brunette’ (Bugbane) has lacy burgundy colored foliage and 48″ tall wiry spikes of honey scented white flowers. The foliage is similar looking to Astilbe and there are cultivars with green foliage. This perennial does best in part shade and moist soil.
Liriope muscari ‘Variegata’ (Variegated Lilyturf) has grass-like green leaves with gold margins and purple spiky flowers produced in September-October. It makes a great groundcover in sun or shade.
Perovskia atriplicifolia (Russian Sage) is a strong, semi-woody perennial with grayish green scented foliage and hazy purple flower spikes on tall silver stems that add color from late summer into fall. I like to pair it with the next two flowers.
Rudbeckia fulgida ‘Goldstrum’ (Black Eyed Susan) cannot be beat for late season color in the garden. It is low maintenance and a sturdy reliable perennial from year-to-year. The bloom starts in mid July and will continue beyond the first frost. The brown cone-shaped seedhead will persist into the winter months.
Hylotelephium x ‘Autumn Joy’ (Sedum or Stonecrop) also offers a long season of bloom as the flower color changes from green to pale pink to deep russet red.
Don’t cut the flowers back until spring, as it will carry the garden through winter. I love how this all purpose perennial complements anything you plant it with.
If you are looking for something unusual, look no further than Trycirtus hirta (Toad Lily); it will certainly get a mention in your garden.
Small orchid-like flowers bloom in late summer to early fall in shades of white, purple and mauve. Many cultivars have spots on the flowers and some have variegated foliage.
Chelone obliqua (Turtlehead) is a native flower well suited for moist, shaded gardens. It has pale pink flower clusters that resemble a turtle’s head. It grows 2-3′ tall and blooms from August to September.
Seedheads Create Interest, Too
A variety of summer blooming perennials will carry over to autumn with their interesting seedheads, so remember this before you deadhead the spent flowers.
Some examples include the seed pods on Siberian Iris and Daylilies. Coneflower seeds are a major source of food for Goldfinch and other small birds. I also keep the spent flowers on Astilbe, as their seedheads will last right through winter until you cut them back in early spring. They look a bit brown after the bloom is finished, but be patient and you will be rewarded with late season interest.
Don’t be afraid to experiment in your garden. If you decide you don’t like something, you can cut it back. Give it a try and see what your garden offers for autumn and winter interest. Happy Gardening!