Your canary-yellow day lilies are fading and the brilliant purple coneflowers have seen better days, but you don't have to give up the idea of color in your garden just because it's the end of summer. Fall blooms can be every bit as spectacular, particularly if you look beyond the chrysanthemum (although some new varieties of mums come in wonderful lavenders and other unexpected colors).
By the beginning of next month, a new crop of bedding plants will start appearing in garden centers. Fall-blooming annuals that you buy and plant during the next few weeks will brighten darkening days well past the first frost.
And while spring is the most popular season to plant perennials, fall is also fine as long as they have time to get established before winter. A perennial garden that you plant in early autumn can give you immediate fall color with the promise of more to come for many years.
This year it may be harder than usual to pull up your impatiens to make room for fall bloomers. Unlike the summer of '95, when plants were suffering from heat and drought by mid-July, this year's summer annuals are still looking great. But the mums and pansies you plant now will be a blaze of color long after those impatiens are a distant memory.
When you shop for fall-blooming annuals, look for plants that are tolerant of light frost and a shortening day length. (The amount of light can be as important to a plant as the temperature.)
There are many choices, says Nona Koivula, executive director of the National Garden Bureau. She lists alyssum, dianthus, flowering cabbage and kale, lobelia, pansies, snapdragons, stock, winter-flowering sweet peas and viola. If we're lucky, most of these will be available in our area, but you may have to do some hunting. That's because growers don't give as much space to the variety of annuals that bloom only in the fall.
But almost anywhere you shop for your annuals, you're going to find three that are as popular in the fall as impatiens is in the spring: chrysanthemums, ornamental cabbage or kale, and pansies.
Each has its own particular charm.
Chrysanthemums come in traditional autumn colors, bringing yellows, bronzes, russets and golds to the fall garden. New varieties offer unexpected shades.
Ornamental kale gives texture as well as color to a fall display, with the pinks, lavenders, reds and whites of its wavy-edged leaves becoming more vivid as it gets colder.
Pansies in bright purples, yellow and golds will bloom cheerfully through frost and even light snow. And they'll probably survive the winter to flower again in early spring before succumbing to summer's heat.
But don't give up on harder-to-find fall-blooming annuals. It wasn't that long ago that pansies were considered just an early spring bedding plant. They "worked their way up from the South" as a popular fall annual, says Paul Babicow of Babicow Greenhouses, which supplies Valley View Farm and Garland's Garden Center with bedding plants. This is happening more and more as growers experiment with what can survive in colder climates. Now snapdragons, long used in the South, are becoming more widely available in Maryland for fall gardens. They add spiky vertical accents and a wide range of colors, and they bloom well past first frost.
When you think of fall color, don't limit yourself to blooms. For instance, plumbago (also called leadwort) has little blue flowers from August into October; later in autumn its foliage turns a gorgeous red.
Ornamental grasses are good for accent or background. Miscanthus (a popular choice in this area) has silvery foliage and pinkish plume-like flowers in the fall. Flame grass turns purple. Many others are available at local nurseries.
If you're shopping for perennials for fall color, you'll have a good if not great selection to choose from this time of year. Along with the real fall bloomers, you should consider including "bridge" plants -- those that produce color in early fall when most of the garden is looking bedraggled. A couple of examples are helenium, with daisy-like flowers that produce big drifts of autumnal colors, and helianthus, sunflowers with a bright yellow disc the size of a coffee cup.
These will tide your garden over until the serious fall bloomers take over, like late sedum (the coppery red Autumn Joy is a popular variety around here) and asters.
As the craze for wildflowers has grown, so has the popularity of the aster (also known as Michaelmas daisy) in the fall garden. Its profusion of blooms in lavender, pink, violet and white can last until hard frost. Gardeners often combine asters with chrysanthemums or anemones for good effect.
The biggest hit
Fall-blooming anemones are "our biggest hit" for autumn color, says Jill Gonzalez of Behnke Nurseries in Beltsville. Japanese anemones can be found at garden centers like Garland's, with single and double flowers in pink and white.
It's true that you'll find a wider selection of perennials for sale in the spring, because that's when more people do their planting. But gardeners will still have plenty to choose from this time of year. And they can count on finding plants in a blaze of autumnal hues because, as Babicow says, "Color is what sells."
Top 10 perennials
We asked two local nursery managers what their top 10 perennials for fall color would be. Here are their picks.
Lisa Parlin, perennials manager, Homestead Gardens, Davidsonville:
2. Anemones (windflower)
3. Chelone (turtlehead)
4. Chrysanthemum varieties with silvery foliage
5. Clematis "paniculata" (sweet autumn clematis)
6. Perovskia (Russian sage)
7. Rudbeckia (coneflowers, black-eyed susans)
8. Scabiosa (pincushion flower)
Bob Salmond, greengoods general manager, Watson's GardeCenter, Lutherville:
1. Sedum "Autumn Joy"
3. Ornamental grasses
6. Black-eyed susans
7. Hardy hibiscus
Pub Date: 8/25/96