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The One Thing Your Fall Garden Might Be Missing

Planting just a single seasonal flower or grass can gracefully transition your garden beds from summer to autumn.

Imagine the impact of a pot of brightly blooming flowers set on your doorstep. The eye is immediately drawn to the color, skimming over other areas of the porch, perhaps not noticing details like peeling paint or steps in need of a sweep. In the same way, adding just one colorful perennial or a shimmering ornamental grass can rejuvenate a worn-out late-summer garden bed.

In need of an end-of-season boost? Take a look at how planting a single fall favorite, such as gold-petaled black-eyed Susan or purple fountain grass, can gracefully transition beds from summer to fall.

Related: Pest Control Pros to Bid Bad Bugs Out of Your Yard Once and For All

Autumn Joy’ Stonecrop
(Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’)

This easy-care plant is a popular choice for fall gardens, with good reason. Its standout blooms come into their own in September, turning from pale green to rosy pink and then to deep pomegranate, just as many other summer flowers are beginning to fade. Sticking just one of these clumping perennials into a garden bed will immediately draw the eye and the attention of butterflies and other pollinators.

Pair it with: Ornamental grasses and fine-leaved perennials, such as artemisia or thyme. The contrast in textures between stonecrop’s succulent leaves and chunky flowers and feathery grasses or small-leaved plants makes for a standout combination.

Where it will grow: Hardy to minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 37.2 degrees Celsius (USDA zones 3 to 10; find your zone)
Water requirement: Moderate; low once established
Light requirement: Full sun to partial shade
Mature size: 1½ to 2 feet tall and wide

Black-Eyed Susan
(Rudbeckia hirta)

The cheerful golden-petaled and dark-centered blooms of black-eyed Susan, also called gloriosa daisy, enliven late-summer and fall borders. The plants, native to prairies of the central United States, are much beloved by butterflies. Cultivars may be available at your local nursery, producing flowers in shades of red, bronze and orange and with bicolored petals.

Pair it with: For a fall bouquet garden, pair black-eyed Susan with other late-summer blooms that work well as cut flowers, such as shasta daisy (Leucanthemum x superbum), annual sunflowers, chrysanthemums and coneflowers (Echinacea spp.).

Where it will grow: Hardy to minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 37.2 degrees Celsius (zones 3 to 7)
Water requirement: Moderate; low once established
Light requirement: Full sun
Mature size: 2 to 3 feet tall and 1 foot to 2 feet wide

(Helenium spp.)

Look past the unattractive common name for what is a gorgeous late-summer bloomer. Flowers bloom from August to October, with petals in yellow, orange, red and striped variations that grow from the center like rays of the sun.

The plants grow in clumps that can mature to be about 3 to 5 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide. To refresh borders this season, remove tired-looking summer annuals and fill in the gaps with budding sneezeweed.

Pair it with: The chocolate centers of sneezeweed flowers play well with plants that have brown or deep bronze hues. In this border in the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, sneezeweed is combined with the brown seed heads of a rush (<em>Juncus</em> sp.), purple-bronze leaves of ‘Grace’ smoke tree (<em>Cotinus</em> ‘Grace’) and dark-centered black-eyed Susans to make a stunning quartet.

Where it will grow: Hardy to minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 37.2 degrees Celsius (zones 3 to 9)
Water requirement: Moderate
Light requirement: Full sun
Mature size: 3 to 5 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide, depending on variety

Purple Fountain Grass
(Pennisetum setaceum ‘Rubrum’)

The grande dame of ornamental grasses, purple fountain grass can grow up to 4 feet tall and 2 feet wide in a single season, with arching purple leaves and fuzzy, caterpillar-like seed heads. The commonly available ‘Rubrum’ cultivar does not reseed as other Pennisetums do, making it a good variety to plant in the home garden.

Pair it with: While purple fountain grass is often added to planting beds studded with other deeply saturated hues of red, orange and gold, it can be paired with silver and blue-green foliage to create a subtle, elegant vignette that looks particularly fresh in fall.

A few silver-leaved plants to consider: Chamaecyparis lawsoniana ‘Blue Surprise’ and dusty miller (Senecio cineraria), as pictured in this combination, varieties of stonecrop (Sedum spp.) or variegated ‘Marjorie Channon’ kōhūhū (Pittosporum tenuifolium ‘Marjorie Channon’).

Where it will grow: Hardy to 25 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 3.9 degrees Celsius (zones 9 to 10)
Water requirement: Moderate
Light requirement: Full sun to partial shade
Mature size: 3 to 4 feet tall and 1½ to 2 feet wide

(Echinacea spp.)

Another fall garden favorite, coneflower is easy to grow, drought-tolerant once established and consistently in bloom from June to late August or September. Pollinators adore the blooms, which can be left to go to seed, providing a food source for birds and seeding new plants in garden beds.

Pair it with: For a naturalistic meadow look, plant coneflowers blooming in shades of pink, white and pale yellow in beds with mixed ornamental grasses or lavender-blue-flowering Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia).

Where it will grow: Hardy to minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 37.2degrees Celsius (zones 3 to 8)
Water requirement: Moderate; low once established
Light requirement: Full sun to partial shade
Mature size: 2 to 5 feet tall and 1½ to 2 feet wide

Related: Enjoy the Wonders of Fall from an Outdoor Bench

New Zealand Wind Grass
(Anemanthele lessoniana)

This cool-season grass is a medium olive green for much of the year, but come fall the wiry blades turn a brilliant orange. Once the color change occurs, the grass appears to burn like a fire in planting beds —particularly when backlit. New Zealand wind grass has the added benefit of being resistant to deer and tolerant of difficult growing conditions, like rocky and windy slopes. It does, however, need excellent drainage; if you have clay soil, amend heavily before planting.

Pair it with: Given its fiery golden orange color and distinctive texture, New Zealand wind grass stands out next to most other plants. Play with subtle combinations of it and plants with gray-green and silver foliage, such as silver carpet (Dymondia margaretae), or low-growing stonecrop. For more drama, combine it with purple-leaved plants, such as spurge (Euphorbia ‘Blackbird’) or dark purple smoke tree (Cotinus spp.).

Where it will grow: Hardy to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, or minus 6.7 degrees Celsius (zones 8 to 10)
Water requirement: Moderate
Light requirement: Full sun to partial shade
Mature size: 3 feet tall and wide

Planting Tips

For instant results, look for semi-mature to mature plants at the nursery. For perennials, pick plants that look vigorous and are in bud; for ornamental grasses, choose ones that look full in their containers.

As always, pay attention to the growing conditions each plant needs to thrive: Does it need full sun or partial shade? How much water? Choose the placement in your garden accordingly.

Once you bring the plants home, get them in the ground as soon as you can. More mature plants run the risk of being root-bound in their nursery containers, so it’s best to carefully loosen roots before planting and to plant your choices relatively quickly.

Bonus: While you may be planting now to refresh your late-summer garden, you’re actually getting a jump-start on next year’s spring garden as well. Perennials and ornamental grasses planted in fall make use of the cool winter months to establish their root systems. Come spring, they’ll be ready to burst into growth, giving your garden a head start.


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