Even after a year as miserable as this one, hope springs eternal in a gardener's heart. Some rain and we're ready to dive back in and revitalize our yards. Fortunately, there are super autumn-blooming plants -- some newly hybridized -- to add to the fall floral palette.
An exciting plant this fall is the majestic chelone 'Hotlips,' whose common name -- turtlehead -- describes the shape of the mauve-pink blossoms. A shade lover, it sends up dark green, three-foot spires topped with tousled blooms.
Helenium, too, is statuesque. "There's a strain of Helenium that has a bronzy-red flower that's three to four feet tall," says Tim Hays of Valley View Farms. "It's a sun lover that blooms from August to October."
For those looking for "big fat color," says Maggie Wiles, perennial manager at Homestead Gardens, there are asters. This year, several newer varieties are available -- the rosy purple 'Alice Haslem,' and softer purple 'Peter Harrison' -- and dwarf asters, which grow in either sun or partial shade.
"A lot of the good dwarf asters out now are called woods asters," says Wiles. "They're nice because they're compact. The plant stays together instead of growing up and spreading apart."
Another hot fall plant is aconitum, commonly called monkshood or wolfsbane. Three feet tall, with beautiful spires of hooded, richly colored flowers, it loves sun.
"Aconitum carmichaelii is a great plant," says Hays. "It blooms in September with pretty sapphire blue flowers, but it's poisonous, so we make sure customers don't have small children who might eat the plants."
To highlight plants that show best in fall, some growers are promoting a program called Fall Magic.
"It's a line of perennials for containers," says Barbara Parker, proprietor of Home Farm Nursery in Worton in Kent County. "They can be transplanted into the garden in springtime, or you can leave them in the container. It comprises a lot of foliage plants that have interest through the winter, including several ajugas, and carex, which is a leather-leaf grass."
Grasses -- tough, hardy and long-lived -- are gaining popularity because they are virtually maintenance free, and are extremely resistant to drought. They also add a wild elegance to the autumn garden.
"Grasses do their thing in fall," says Wiles, referring to the production of plumey seed heads that begins in late August. "The newest one is Muhlenburgia, a delicate grass with a light rose-colored flower head."
"We carry Cortaderia 'Pumila', a dwarf grass," says Hays. "It's just starting to show color and plume now."
Of course, the quintessential autumn plant is chrysanthemum. For decades, supermarkets have sold the potted mounds whose densely flowered bronzes and russets echo the bold colors of the autumn leaves. But the elegant 'Sheffield' mum breaks the blotch-of-color mold. A lush, hip-high bush, Sheffields are covered with shell-pink, daisylike flowers from mid-September through October. As a bonus, they thrive virtually unaided.
* Homestead Gardens, Central Avenue, Davidsonville,
* Valley View Farms, 11035 York Road, Cockeysville,
* Home Farm Nursery,
11351 St. James Road, Worton, 410-778-8140
hot fall plants
Common name: monkshood or wolfsbane. Flowers are shaped like a hood and run in small clumps up tall stems. Colors are yellow and a variety of blues. 3'-4' tall. Partial sun. Poisonous.
Common name: hyssop. Mint-scented foliage, very heat and drought tolerant. Blooms in shades of blue, pink, purple, peach, coral, red. Long-lasting blooms June-Oct. 2'-3' tall. Sun.
Common name: bugleweed. Low-growing creeper. Blue flowers. Variety of leaf color and shapes. Good ground cover. Foliage is beautiful throughout mild winters. Flower spikes rise 8"-1'. Sun to partial shade.
Common name: windflower. Some varieties bloom in spring, close to the ground. Fall-blooming is Japanese anemone (hupehensis). Small, cup-shaped flowers range from pink to white. Long-lasting blooms. 4' tall.
Flowers, which grow in mounds similar to chrysanthemum, are daisylike. Colors range from white and pink to violet, lavender and deep purple. Range from dwarfs 6"-12" to 6'-7' giants, but most are 2'-3' here. Long-blooming. Sun. Good for cutting.
The 'Snowbank' variety has a profusion of delicate, daisylike white flowers. White or pink. Great to cut. 3'-4' tall. Full sun to partial shade.
Common name: leather-leaf grass. Forms tussock of grass from gold to green, sometimes variegated, reedy leaf. Clustered flower heads consist of tiny blooms. 12"-16". Sun.
Common name: turtlehead -- this describes the shape of the blossoms. Colors are white, pink, rosy purple and hot pink. 2'-4' tall. Partial sun-shade. Good for cutting.
Wide variety of colors with flowers from dense, mounded "button" mums to daisylike 'Arctic Daisy' and 'Sheffield.' Colors from white through yellow, pinks, orange, red, russet, blood red, gold. 1'-2'. Sun. Good for cutting.
Common name: pampas grass. Very drought tolerant. The three-foot, gray-green 'Pumila' variety has creamy-white plumes that reach 6' tall. Sun.
Common name: spurge. Succulent-seeming stems break to ooze milky sap, which is poisonous and can cause severe skin rashes. Grows writhing stems with yellow flowers to erect 3' plant, depending on variety. Sun to shade.
Common name: sneezeweed. Daisylike flowers with drooping petals come in orange, crimson, bright yellow and bronze; grow in daisylike clumps. Grows 2'-5' tall, depending on variety. Long-blooming. Sun. Good for cutting.
Grass with feathery rose seed heads. Very drought resistant. 4'-5' tall. Sun. Dries well.
Common name: coneflower. Heat and drought tolerant. Prolific bloomer from mid-summer to frost. 5'-7' tall. Full sun.
Common name: Stonecrop. A succulent whose foliage ranges from emerald green to blue-gray to reddish purple. Flower color -- gold, red, russet, bright pink. Hardiness varies widely, as does blooming. 1'-1 1/2 ' tall. Full sun.