Top plants for your fall garden
Our picks for the very best bulbs, greens, trees, and more to set out now for a vibrant garden come spring
Traditional lawns need lots of water to stay lush-looking. But if you’re getting serious about slashing your water bill, now’s a good time to plant or replace the usual lawn with a low-water grass such as blue grama or a fescue blend such as Eco-Lawn (pictured; wildflowerfarm.com). In warm-winter areas, start seed in fall; where winters are cool, wait until spring. Prep the soil by tilling it 8 inches deep. Top with a 3- to 4-inch layer of organic compost. Till again; rake the area smooth. Water thoroughly, let the soil settle for a few days, then sow seed.
Beyond their obvious charm, Cool Wave pansies are the most vigorous we’ve ever seen. The pretty mounds cover themselves with rich purple, white, and yellow flowers from fall into early summer. Plant in full sun; they’ll grow up to 8 inches tall and 30 inches wide.
Pop these easy-to-grow bulbs into the ground now for showy flowers come spring. Our picks are below; unlike tulips, they’ll return every year in the West’s mild climates. At the nursery, choose firm bulbs without soft or moldy spots. Plant them pointy end up in a site that gets full sun; once planted, keep the soil moist but not soggy. Find a wide variety at brentandbeckysbulbs.com
Freesia. Fragrant blossoms come in white, yellow, red, lavender, and orange. Set corms 2 inches deep and 2 inches apart. Plants disappear in summer (don’t water then). Sunset climate zones 8, 9, 12–24.
Narcissus. These bloom in many sizes and shapes, mainly in shades of white to yellow. Try ‘Inbal’ and ‘Ziva’ for fragrance, ‘Gigantic Star’ for impact, or ‘Minnow’ for tiny blooms. Plant 6 to 8 inches apart. Zones A2, A3, 1–24.
Of all the deciduous trees out there, we’re especially smitten with those whose leaves turn vivid fall hues, from rich red and gold to fiery orange and deep burgundy. At nurseries in early autumn, you can see them sporting their true fall colors before you buy. Our picks range from a dwarf container-size tree (Japanese maple) to a whopper that needs space to show it off best (ginkgo).
Japanese maple. Choices include ‘Shaina’ (5 ft. tall; red foliage) and ‘Sango Kaku’ (25 ft. tall; yellow leaves).
Gingko. Fan-shaped leaves of this shapely tree (to 35 ft. tall or more) turn brilliant buttery yellow.
Chinese pistache (pictured). A good patio tree; 30 to 60 ft. tall, with luminous leaflets of orange and yellow to scarlet in fall.
Redbud. Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ grows 25 to 35 ft. tall; autumn leaves are yellow to red.
Many are rich in nectar or seeds that attract birds and butterflies, and some smell like the aromatic wild shrubs fringing your favorite hiking trails. All give the garden a sense of place. Use them to create an all-native backyard ecosystem mimicking your region’s indigenous plant communities, or mix natives with compatible plants that take the same conditions.
Start with young container-grown plants that aren’t rootbound; they may not be much to look at when first planted, but they’ll adapt more successfully than larger plants. Water thoroughly after planting, then carefully and steadily for the first summer or two. After that, many should do well with little or no supplemental water.
Here are some of our favorite natives from around the West:
- Wake robin (Trillium ovatum), Oregon
- Rocky Mountain columbine (Aquilegia coerulea, pictured on previous slide), Wyoming
- Yellow bells (Tecoma stans, pictured), Arizona
- Matilija poppy (Romneya coulteri), Southern California
- California wild lilac (Ceanothus), Northern California
The leaves of perennial foliage plants range from green to colorful enough to brighten any garden. One of our favorite foliage workhorses is heuchera, which comes in a variety of leaf shapes, from rounded to ruffled to scalloped, with colors ranging from burgundy, caramel, apricot, and bronze to vibrant chartreuse. The low perennials—about 1 to 3 feet tall and wide—are perfect in containers and borders. Give them full to part sun and regular water.
Pictured are some more favorites, clockwise from top left: 'Encore,' 'Lime Marmalade,' 'Neptune,' 'Kassandra,' 'Can Can,' and 'Crème Brûlée.’
The best perennials to plant now, after a dry summer, are unthirsty bloomers such as salvia, gaura, and yarrow (pictured). All pump out striking flower clusters over a long season (from summer well into fall); many attract pollinators such as bees and hummingbirds. Grow the plants in a sunny spot where they’ll have enough room to reach full size, and water regularly for the first year or two, until the plants mature.
It’s easy to buy garlic at markets. But there’s good reason to grow your own: You can’t beat the spicy flavor of homegrown hardneck varieties such as ‘Spanish Roja’. In spring, hardnecks send up a center flower stalk that you can use like scallions in cooking. (You need to snip it off anyway, to make the bulb grow larger.) Once the leaves die back next June, dig up the plants, brush off the soil, and store the bulbs until you’re ready to cook. Sources: Territorial Seed Company (territorialseed.com), Hood River Garlic (hoodrivergarlic.com)
In much of the West in spring, wildflowers carpet whole hillsides with brilliant blooms of yellow, orange, pink, blue, and white—especially after a rainy winter. You see annuals with willowy stems and crepe paper–thin petals that glow in sunlight. And you see tough perennials that have thick petals saturated with color. But you don’t need a roadtrip to find wildflowers—they grow in garden beds and even in containers. Buy a seed mix designed for your climate; an ounce of seed can cover 100 square feet. Broadcast the seeds over weed-free soil in a sunny spot, following package instructions. Lightly rake the soil to cover the seeds. Oh, and pray for rain!
12 garden-friendly wildflowers:
- Blackfoot daisy (Melampodium leucanthum),
- California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
- Corn cockle (Agrostemma githago)
- Baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii)
- Perennial blue flax (Linum perenne),
- Clarkia (Clarkia unguiculata)
- California desert bluebells (Phacelia campanularia)
- Desert marigold (Baileya multiradiata)
- Godetia (Clarkia amoena)
- Lupine (Lupinus succulentus)
- Tidytips (Layia platyglossa),
- Wine cups (Callirhoe involucrata)
Don’t forget to plant seeds of sweet peas now or, come spring, you’ll be sorry! Among our favorites for fragrance: ‘Cupani’, a deep purple bicolor heirloom, and ‘April in Paris’, with wavy petals of creamy pale primrose yellow with a lilac flush. reneesgarden.com