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Grand finale: What’s doing in the autumn garden

Does your garden finish the year with a beautiful glorious bang, or does it just fade away with a whimper?
Summer’s exuberance may be over but, in its own way, the autumn garden can be every bit as lovely. At this time of year the gardener’s palette includes yellows and bronze, lavender and purple, dusky pinks and whites. There are colorful shrubs and beautiful grasses, plus some easily grown perennials, which all harmonize together to complete the gardening season with a flourish.
Late season perennials
In my garden perennials like black-eyed Susans, sedum, asters, anemones, bugbane, bush clover, chrysanthemums, ligularia and hibiscus seem to bloom so late that the time remaining for them to be fertilized and set seed before the onset of cold weather seems impossibly short. But right now everything is abuzz with late season bees, so clearly pollination is happening.
Here, from the ubiquitous to the unfamiliar, are half a dozen perennials to brighten our gardens into October.
Everyone is familiar with the cheery yellow black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia fulgida). They are hassle-free and they flourish in both sun and part-shade. What more could one ask? Twenty years ago I started with a couple of plants, and now, as testament to their longevity, they have gradually expanded to create eye-catching pools of gold all around the place.
However, since their color is a bit brash, I like to pair them with plants of contrasting color and texture, perhaps a blue-colored ornamental grass or, as shown in the photo, with the creamy white blooms of the panicle hydrangea.
I also love their six-foot high cousin, Rudbeckia “Herbstronne.” This is one tall plant that makes a bold statement. But it is well behaved in the border so, even in the smallest garden, there is probably a spot for it.
Try to resist the temptation to cut back either Rudbeckia during your late fall cleanup. Left standing until spring, their skeletons catch the snow and their seed-heads feed the chickadees and goldfinch.
The tried-and-true Sedum “Autumn Joy” is also a delightful plant, and every garden could surely use some. All summer long its fleshy leaves look nice among other perennials, and by autumn the flat rosy-pink flower heads, which eventually morph to bronze, are a real standout. And even in winter, the spent flower heads are especially charming when topped with little snow hats.
We all love the wild asters — white, lilac and lavender — that grow at the edge of open fields and in the woods of Vermont. Unfortunately many of our native asters spread by underground rhizomes and also prolifically self-seed, traits that make them less than satisfactory as garden plants.
However the drought-tolerant aromatic asters (Aster oblongifolius) are clump-forming and drought-tolerant. Starting in mid-September, the cultivars “Raydon’s Favorite” and the taller “October Skies” create lavender-blue clouds, which are an excellent foil alongside the black-eyed Susans.
Grape-leaved Japanese anemones (Anemone tomentosa) thrive in partial shade and have an endearing way of weaving themselves among shrubs, occasionally popping up in unexpected places. Their small pink flowers dance on slender three-foot stems, and look marvelous among the purple leaves of my smokebush “Grace.”
If you get a chance, may I suggest a visit to Rocky Dale gardens in Bristol this fall to see their huge specimen of bush clover (Lespedeza thunbergii). Its hot pink flowers that dangling all along the delicate stems absolutely light up the autumn garden. Here in my garden Bush Clover starts flowering in mid-September, blooming alongside the late-flowering lavender geranium “Rozanne,” and both keep going strong well into October.
Colorful shrubs
At the mention of colorful shrubs, thoughts often turn either to the burning bush (Euonymus alatus) or to the Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergii), seen in both gardens and public places around Vermont. However both of these plants, originally from China and Japan, have proven to be highly invasive over here, and for that reason are not even permitted to be sold here anymore.
But there are several native alternatives that work really well in our gardens, with fall foliage that mirrors the colors of our forests. Each October my summersweet (Clethra alnifolia), winterberries (Ilex verticillata) and witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) turn a beautiful yellow, and my highbush blueberry bushes (Vaccinium corymbosum), which not only gave me fruit in the summer, become a lovely bronze.
I also grow four purple-leaved shrubs that are colorful from spring until fall: Smokebush Cotinus “Grace” and its cousin C. “Royal Velvet,” the purple-leaved sandcherry (Prunus cistensa) plus the elderberry Sambucus nigra “Blacklace.” And they all mix beautifully with the mellow-hued perennials of fall.
Most of us are familiar with the panicle hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata) with its huge round creamy heads of flowers; at Vermont Technical College we dubbed panicle hydrangeas as “cemetery flowers” since these venerable shrubs survive in old cemeteries across New England. There is also a grand display in bloom right now in Middlebury at the Folklife Center garden, created by Joan Lynch of the Inner Garden.
And many of you would probably recognize the cultivar “Tardiva,” which has conical-shaped flower heads that are very pretty.
However, if you like the general idea of a panicle hydrangea but want something a little different, the plant breeders have been busy at work. For starters they developed varieties with flower heads that begin white and then turn various shades of pink in the fall. I have one in my garden with the improbable name of “Pinky Winky,” which is actually quite eye catching, and I plan on planting one called “Quick Fire,” which should start flowering in July. And if you need a dwarf version look for varieties called Little Lime, Bombshell or Bobo.
Great grasses
And finally, in the autumn garden nothing beats the huge ornamental garden grasses, such as switch grass, blue stem and maiden grass. And they all look splendid among the colorful shrubs and perennials of fall. Garden grasses were the subject of my previous article; if you missed it you can see it at http://northcountryreflections.com/writings/plant-a-picture/dancing-grasses or on addisonindependent.com.
It ain’t over ’til it’s over!
By the time October arrives my garden will take on that late-fall look … the blueberry bushes turn bronze and tall ornamental grasses dance in the wind. And the Japanese anemones, aromatic asters, and “Rozanne” geranium will still be flowering like there is no tomorrow.
Fall is indeed a special yet fleeting time, reason enough for us to slow down and savor the ever-changing scene.
“Even if something is left undone, everyone must take time to sit still and watch the leaves turn.”
— Elizabeth Lawrence
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Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a Vermont Certified Horticulturist and teaches sustainable home landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. You can subscribe to her blog about her Vermont gardening life at www.northcountryreflections.com. Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at www.northcountryimpressions.

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