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Plant Colorful Fall Ornamentals

P. Allen Smith
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P Allen Smith holiding camellias

Now, I love a classic mum in fall as much as the next person, but there’s a whole world of plants out there that can really make a stunning autumn garden. The cool season offers gardeners a chance to play with a bold color palette, flowering shrubs, evergreens and perennials. I’ll pass on a list of my best plant suggestions for fall.

First, accentuate your garden with colors from fall flowering shrubs in addition to perennials. Flowering shrubs can get overlooked, but they really are a valuable addition to the garden. Camellia sasanqua produces single or double blooms on its broad-leafed, evergreen shrubs. When everything else is gray, these beauties provide fall and winter color putting out white, red or pink blooms. The plant’s mature height ranges from 6 to 10 feet and it’s a densely branched shrub.

Add the sweet olive (Osmanthus fragrans) to your fall garden for the smell alone. This evergreen shrub displays miniature cream flowers with a citrus-like scent. Another solid choice for a flowering shrub is the Invincibelle® Spirit hydrangea. This shrub puts out its characteristic pink blooms from mid-summer to first-frost. Can you beat that? I think not.

Fall foliage shrubs are one of the showiest aspects of the late garden. Euonymus, an ornamental deciduous shrub, possess variegated foliage and many exhibit bright colors in autumn. Sometimes called the spindle tree, euonymus is made up of around 130 species, giving you plenty of options.

P Allen Smith, burning bush

The dwarf burning bush variety turns red in fall and can be trimmed to the shape and height you desire. Iteas are ornamental shrubs. They grow long, graceful flower heads in spring and the foliage turns bright yellow in fall. Blueberries are one of the easiest fruits to grow and after the medium-sized shrubs have produced their fruit, the foliage will turn red. They produce summer fruit and fall color.  

Don’t forget your fall perennials. Try Arkansas blue star (Amsonia hubrichtii) and goldenrod for a burst of yellow. Include ‘Cheyenne Sky’ Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum) as an ornamental ground cover.

P. Allen Smith, ornamental grass

Sedum serves as an interesting addition to the garden also and Japanese anemone produces lovely flowers and is a hardy plant.

Worried about not having these plants? Don’t worry. Fall, not spring, is the ideal time to plant shrubs and trees. The cooler temperatures and plentiful rain typical of autumn allow your newly planted trees and shrubs to build a strong root system before they hit a growth spurt in the spring. They don’t expend energy growing leaves; they direct it below the surface.

Northern gardeners who experience long dormant seasons should plant balled and burlapped material and transplant shrubs in late summer or early fall. This allows roots cut during the process to regenerate before a hard freeze. However, plants purchased in containers have a full root system, so they can be planted later in the fall.

Images courtesy P. Allen Smith

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