Fall Gardening

Mary Ann Ryan
Adams County Master Gardener

Every spring I have a long to-do list. So many things to do in the garden after a winter of being indoors, things like visiting garden centers and nurseries to find those new plants I was reading about in a gardening magazine, or preparing a new bed, not to mention mulching, mowing, weeding, planting a vegetable garden......

Then summer hits. Dead-heading perennials and harvesting vegetables begins, weeding never ceases and enjoying evenings with the kids while watching the purple martins flying and singing become the highlights of summer gardening.

Fall sets in. The temperatures cool, sweaters and sweatshirts come out of the closets, making s'mores by the outdoor fire on Saturday nights become even more enjoyable. And what about gardening? Is it over for the season? Not a chance. Dividing spring and blooming perennials, moving plants, and re-designing gardens are all activities that can be accomplished this fall before winter sets in.

Fall becomes a great time to see your garden's structure. As leaves turn colors and drop, a plant's bark and branching become dominant in the landscape. Not only should you be looking at tree and shrub branching structure, but also remnants of perennials and grasses. Echinaceas, rudbeckia, and native grasses come to life.

Rudbeckia maxima
Rudbeckia maxima

Yes, echinaceas (purple coneflowers) and rudbeckia (black-eyed susan) are loved by birds before and after the flower petals drop. Our stand of plants stays alive with bird activity during the fall and winter months. We come home at the end of the school and work day, and see the finches feeding on the seeds of these flower heads. Any variety will attract attention, but here are some in my garden that are real winners.

Rudbeckia maxima, great coneflower, grow to about 6 feet tall. The foliage is a gray-green color and quite large. Each leaf can get as long as 12 inches. The flowers have yellow petals with a dark center, typical colors of rudbeckia. But the petals droop, like an Echinacea. The center of the flower elongates as the flower seeds ripen, and that is what the birds really go for! Its big bloom time in my garden is July-August, but it often will send up a flower spike or two in late September.

There's tons of breeding work being done on Echinaceas. Most of us know Echinacea purpurea ' Magnus' and 'White Swan'. But the Big Sky series has hit the markets big time this past season. I tried 'Sunset' in my garden this year and was pleased with its performance. It opens a buttery-yellow then fades to a creamy color. The petals are only slightly droopy, unlike White Swan and Magnus, which are very droopy. It handled the wet spring and dry summer very well, not appearing to be at all affected, unlike some other perennials in the garden. Next year I'll be planting E. x 'Sunset', also part of the Big Sky Series. This coneflower boasts of orange flower petals, one I'm anxious to try.

Another Echinacea I've had great luck with, and is giving structure and life in the fall and winter garden, is E. tennesseensis 'Rocky Top'. This coneflower has a large, dark brown seed center with purple petals that are flat, not drooping. The flower petals are somewhat narrow and not as long as E. purpurea. The leaves are narrow as well. It reaches about 2 feet and blooms from July through August. I had placed this grouping of plants in the middle of my garden, and will be transplanting it in the spring towards the front. Since the foliage is narrow and not too tall, it has gotten lost, so bringing it to the foreground should show it off a bit more.

A grouping of plants for fall and winter interest is the grasses. Many people are unaware of the many kinds of native grasses that are showy.

Indian grass and switch grass are two native grasses that are underused in the landscape. Indian grass, Sorghastrum nutans, is 3'-7' tall, very erect, bunch type grass. The seed heads are brown, flowering in July-September. It has a lovely rust fall color.

Switchgrass, Panicum virgatam, is a great native grass that provides not only cover for wildlife but also food. The showy seed heads have an "open" appearance, making them more interesting. There are many cultivars of this particular native species. 'Dallas Blues' has blue foliage, very showy. Another more common blue cultivar is 'Heavy Metal'.

So don't give up on your garden for the year. Plan for fall and winter interest and keep on gardening!

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Read other articles by Mary Ann Ryan