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Yes, Virginia, gardens can bloom in the fall


Think of September as the beginning of the gardening season. After this severe summer, people are actually enjoying being out in the yard again. Days can still be summer-hot and dry, but the end is in sight and gardeners are perking up.

Autumn is traditionally the time to look ahead to spring by planting daffodil, tulip and crocus bulbs. But don't be so farsighted. Pull out your bedraggled impatiens and put in the annuals and perennials that will provide glorious fall color well into winter.

You may find that your choices are somewhat limited. In this area chrysanthemums, pansies and ornamental kale and cabbage are popular for fall color that you may have to hunt to come up with something more unusual. But even if these are all you can find, you can combine them to create a striking display.

Chrysanthemums are everywhere right now, from your local garden center to Kmart. Ray Bosmans, a horticulturist with the Cooperative Extension Service, recommends planting mums immediately if you're interested in having them as a perennial.

Here in Maryland, according to Mary Ruble, assistant manager of the greenhouse at Watson's, mums are considered tender perennials. Many of them do come back in spring, but you should mulch them. Mums actually do better in Pennsylvania and points north, she says, because our winter's frequent freeze-thaw cycles are very hard on their root systems. Mulch will insulate plants from the "heaving" that fluctuations in ground temperature cause.

Mums may need extra attention if you plant them in warmer weather, but it's worth taking the trouble. That may mean a soaking watering every day or every other day if necessary, because the root ball of a new plant will always dry out faster than the ground around it. (To encourage the roots, spread them out gently with your fingers before you plant them.) If your plants don't have time to become established before hard frost, they might not survive the winter.

Chrysanthemums come in traditional fall colors like russet, gold and yellow. But there is also plenty of new varieties to choose from. Lavender mums are one of the most popular, according to Wendy Scott at Valley View Farms, because people love pastels so much. Buy plants with buds rather than in full flower to ensure having color into late November.

The whites and pastels will coordinate prettily with ornamental, or flowering, cabbage and kale. Varieties with inner leaves of pink, red, white, lavender or purple are available. (The color doesn't come from blooms but is actually part of the leaves.) As temperatures drop, the colors become more vivid through early January. Ornamental kale works particularly well in a fall garden because it adds texture as well as color with its wavy, serrated-edge leaves.

Plant a border of these with pansies, which are now available in almost every shade imaginable: purple, a deep purple that's almost black, yellow, gold, white, blue and a popular new pink (new as of a couple of years ago). The blotches of color on their blooms make pansies look as if they have little faces.

These sweet little flowers are actually amazingly sturdy, blooming through frost and even in the snow. If our winter isn't too harsh, they'll go dormant in January and February and flower again in March. Pansies don't, however, like the heat, so even if the plants are available now, you should wait to put them in your garden.

"Last year we got our pansies in in September," says Ms. Scott of Valley View, "and they didn't do well. This year we're waiting until October."

Besides these three favorites, you can add line and texture to your garden by planting some of the 150 varieties or so of ornamental grasses available. These grasses are at their best in the fall, and they add scenic interest all through the winter.

You can get them in a variety of heights. Ray Bosmans suggests that you put miscanthus, which grows to about 5 feet tall, in back and a shorter fountain grass in front of it. Then plant your pansies in front of them.

Most ornamental grasses are perennials, but he also recommends one striking variety that won't winter over in Maryland, the subtropical purple fountain grass. (The most common one around here is Burgundy Giant.)

Autumn Joy sedum, an annual that's gaining in popularity, is frequently used with ornamental grasses. In partial shade sedum stays shorter and won't fall over, as it may if it gets too tall in full sun. Autumn Joy, which thrives in dry weather, produces flat clusters of flowers that become a deep bronze. Another popular variety is Brilliant, which provides a pinkish color. Around Christmas, sedum turns brown.

Some local garden centers also have in stock dianthus, an annual that thrives in cold and has round, flat flowers like carnations. Look for colors such as strawberry or raspberry parfait, crimson, pink and purple. Dianthus works very well with cold-tolerant snapdragons in the background.

While you may have trouble finding snapdragon plants this time of year, Valley View does have Tahiti Mix, with yellows, whites and apricots.

Other cold-tolerant late bloomers that you may have to search for are boltonia, a daisy-like flower that will flourish until hard frost, and anemones in pink and white.

Asters, which come in blues, yellows and golds, aren't as popular a perennial as mums, which they resemble. They have smaller flowers, and like mums are very hardy.

All in all, there's plenty out there for delightful fall color in your garden. "Now that it's cooling down," says Nona Koivula of the National Garden Bureau, "gardeners can redecorate their outdoor living spaces when people are ready to enjoy it."

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