Late bloomers put the flash into fall gardens. Just when summer's show is coming to a close, asters, Japanese anemones, sedums and other fall bloomers begin to light up the garden. While daylilies and daisies performed all summer long, these late bloomers were simply waiting their turn. When the time finally comes, they dazzle until frost arrives.
Summer gardens are giddy and glorious, but fall flowers have a different character. They're somehow richer. They're more precious, too -- you waited a long time for them, nurturing the plants through the summer, so they're deeply rewarding. Like the bright, fresh weather, they're invigorating: Change is in the air.
Lots of well-known perennial flowers are among the most steadfast and sparkling fall bloomers. Chrysanthemums, of course, are traditional fall favorites. Sedums, which are extremely drought-tolerant, soldier through the summer and come into vigorous bloom in fall, attracting butterflies to their large flower heads. Monarch butterflies, in particular, visit sedums on their migration path to Mexico.
Early fall is also the season of asters of all kinds and colors, with flowers like clouds of beautiful blues and pinks. Toad lilies produce their freckled, orchidlike blooms on long, arching stems in fall, lighting up shade gardens. Ornamental grasses send up their spectacular inflorescences, shimmering in the autumn light as the days grow shorter.
Fall flowers deserve special consideration in a garden's design. It's nice to grow them along paths or in flower beds close to the house, where you can't miss them -- or you can plant them around the perimeter of the garden, where you'll be drawn outside in the crisp fall days to appreciate their contribution to the new season. Make room for them among summer-blooming annuals and perennials, where they'll provide structure and texture all summer and then extend the season -- giving your flower beds plenty of color and interest all the way to frost.
Garden shops stock good supplies of mums and asters, as well as an increasingly interesting selection of other fall bloomers, perfect for flowerpots for the front porch or patio. They're typically sold in larger containers than spring flowers, so they make a big impact as soon as you plant them. Plants in quart-size nursery pots, or larger, can also be planted right in flower beds to fill in bare spots where summer flowers have faded. They will need a little attention to watering if it doesn't rain, but in fall, cooler temperatures reduce evaporation of moisture from the soil, and even newly planted flowers really shouldn't need much pampering.
A well-designed and nicely situated garden has layers of color and texture, from the flower beds to the treetops. In fall, the blazing reds, rich russets and intense yellow colors of changing leaves on trees get much of the attention, but the trees actually tend to produce their show quite late in the season. Shrubs with great fall flowers fill the middle layer, and they start their show in September. Panicle hydrangeas, with their cone-shaped flower heads, look like living bouquets in a garden. Caryopteris, a small shrub (sometimes called blue mist or bluebeard), is covered with flowers in fall: It seems to glow in the light. Early fall is a perfect time to walk around a garden shop looking for shrubs with autumn interest. You might spot Bloomerang lilacs, Encore azaleas, or Bloomstruck hydrangeas, which all produce a fresh round of showy flowers in early fall. Roses usually put on a strong fall display, too. Their colors are brighter in cooler fall weather, their fragrance is more intense and the blooms last longer.
Don't forget the details. A few pansies or violas here and there in the garden bloom reliably through the fall, and even weather the winter in many areas. Their bright, charming faces will draw you outdoors in all kinds of weather. Fall-blooming crocus, tucked into a spot along the front walk, will greet you and your guests with an unexpected and welcome flash of purple. The charming, reflexed petals of hardy cyclamen flowers in a shade garden look like exotic little butterflies.
Early fall is way too soon to give up on the garden. The days are growing shorter, and summer's flowers are fading, but autumn has its own colors and cadence. Make sure some of the season's fireworks go off in your backyard.