Regardless of the forecast, autumn is nigh, and you would be forgiven for thinking that the gardening season is coming to a close. Instead, a lot of planning and planting time remains. If you want a garden pick-me-up, now is the time to install late-season color and harbingers of spring.
Early autumn opens the window for planting spring-blooming bulbs: tulips, daffodils, crocus and hyacinth plus lesser-used species like fritillary, alliums, camassia, and windflower. The cooling soil stimulates root growth and winter’s chill gives them the stimulus required for bloom. Shipments from abroad arrive around now and aren’t replenishable, so browse early for the best selection. Plant them soon after purchase so root growth can begin, and remember that most require excellent drainage. Mark where you bury them so you don’t accidentally cause damage when digging-in future plantings.
Several hardy shrubs and perennials bloom in autumn — some as late as early winter. This is in addition to those that began in summer and will continue until frost. In general, availability should improve now that they’re closer to peak season; plant these soon after acquiring too. Perennials include asters, goldenrod, dendranthema, eupatoriums, helianthus, hardy cyclamen, and aconitum. Hungry migrating birds and pollinators will thank you. Shrubs include camellias, osmanthus, bluebeard, and American witchhazel. Plenty of decorative berries are ripening too, like those of American beautyberry, winterberry holly, red chokeberry, gray and silky dogwoods, spicebush, American strawberry-bush, several viburnums, and native roses. All of these will be welcomed by wildlife; think of them as serving double-duty as attractive, living bird feeders.
As leaves drop, look for places you would like more screening in the winter months. Evergreens are a diverse group and offer a range of growth habits, foliage textures and colors, and mature sizes to fit most uses. They don’t necessarily have to block a view — specimens dotted around the landscape keep the dormant garden interesting and appealing. Keep in mind that deer are more willing to eat the unpalatable in winter, and while nothing is deer-proof, some plants they avoid more reliably than others.
Conifers rarely respond well to drastic trimming for size control, so choose varieties that will mature within your available space with little interference. You can add aesthetic fun with those that change color in winter, blushing colors of caramel-bronze, mocha-brown, reddish or purplish tones; they can be great foils for dried ornamental grasses. Looking ahead to climate change impacts, build in some resiliency by including broadleaf evergreens, since those common to higher elevations (fir, spruce, true cedars, true cypresses, some pines) struggle in our lowland heat.
We tend to view pansies and violas as spring annuals, but they perform beautifully in autumn, often riding-out winter well and continuing to bloom during mild periods. Snapdragon, calibrachoa, dianthus, diascia, lobelia, and nemesia all add color and fresh liveliness to the fall garden or container. Underused tropical shrubs like the late-flowering lion’s tail and several flowering sage species can be hard to find, but are well worth the novelty and added diversity of bloom. With the onset of cooler nights, decorative cabbage and kale flush a rich violet-pink or white, practically becoming blooms themselves.
University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center offers free gardening and pest information at extension.umd.edu/hgic. Click “Ask Extension” to send questions and photos.