Autumn's gardens are beautiful and bittersweet.
Part of their charm is their transitory nature--overblown roses in their last stages, ornamental grasses swaying with the breeze, shrubs changing color, then quickly leaving a skeleton of bare branches.
The beauty of a fall garden comes as much from structure and foliage as from color. The best ones hold up even after a difficult summer like this one, with its unusual number of cloudy and rainy days that kept many plants from blooming their most colorfully.
"Fall gardens are one of a gardener's biggest challenges," says Jim McDaniel, head of gardens at Ladew Topiary Gardens in Monkton. "They are more affected by the weather than any other season."
Spring-blooming plants, of course, have it easiest -- they are dormant all winter. But those that flower in autumn have to make it through spring and summer, under conditions that can be as varied as last summer's drought or this summer's rains.
Fall gardens are also difficult because they take so much planning. McDaniel gives as an example a fall-blooming bulb like Colchicum, which has a lovely frail flower that resembles a tulip. You plant it now, and it sets its foliage in the spring --without the reward of a bloom until the end of summer. "You can forget it's there," he says, as you deal with your spring and summer gardens.
Gardeners also need to take into consideration how the summer annuals that are still around will work with fall plantings.
"We've been wowed with a lot of color all season," McDaniel says. "A fall garden needs a good strong structure," such as ornamental grasses and spiky perennials.
An example is the garden of Jean McCausland, a trustee of Ladew. This wasn't its best year, but it was still striking enough to be included in a recent tour of private gardens in Monkton.
"Normally fall is our [garden's] best season," she says. "But this year the weather was so peculiar, and the deer have been devastating."
True, some of her hostas no longer have leaves; deer find them a particular delicacy. And the tall asters that should be a mass of purple in her yard just didn't bloom much this year. But the McCauslands' garden is filled with intriguing structure and foliage, so it's still a showpiece -- and a good example of how you can hedge your bets against the vagaries of weather and the hunger of predators.
Rows of pear and apple trees, for instance, are espaliered against wire. Fall-blooming hostas -- no, the deer didn't get them all -- are planted in square beds around small statuary. As for foliage, juxtapositions such as citrusy green feverfew leaves with soft, furry green lamb's ears delight the eye.
And there is still color. The McCauslands' sedum 'Autumn Joy,' one of the most popular fall perennials, is at its best this year, in shades from dusty rose to soft red-brown. In some beds McCausland has planted chrysanthemums to add color, something she normally doesn't need to do.
But the most spectacular feature of the garden right now is the hyacinth bean entwined over several arbors, trailing purpley-pink ornamental beans and blooms. It looks as if it's been there forever, but she planted it in June for the first time.
"You've got to experiment to see what works," she says.
Some of the most beautiful late-flowering plants come in shades of pink and purple, once you eliminate the annuals that are sold everywhere this time of year.
Plants to consider
Ladew's McDaniel urges people to think beyond chrysanthemums and pansies.
"Private gardens shouldn't reflect what we find in shopping mall borders," he says.
He recommends in particular:
* New England aster (Aster novae-angliae), with tall, strong stems and violet and purple flowers. There are many cultivars.
* Sedum 'Autumn Joy.' "Even though it's overused," he says, "I still fall in love with it every year." He likes the way the seed heads add interest to a winter garden once autumn is over.
* Fall anemone (Anemone. x hybrida) , which begins to bloom in late August through September. "It's a good segue plant," he says.
If it's not a good year for flowering perennials, your late-season garden can still be striking if you've planted shrubs like winterberry that add color this time of year. Shrubs such as Japanese barberry offer brilliant leaf color. The deciduous shrub burning bush has wonderful red foliage in the fall.
"Shrubs with fall color add a color display down near the ground," says William Akehurst, a Joppa landscape designer. "Otherwise we spend all our time looking up."
He also recommends mixing evergreens such as taxus, with its dark green needles, and Japanese holly. Their contrasting leaf texture and shades of green add background interest to an autumn garden.
Texture, changing color
"Fall gardens have a definite place in the landscape," says Akehurst, who likes to create a late-season mix for his clients of shrubs, ornamental grasses, annuals and perennials.