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Decorate Your Fall Garden In New Colors, Textures, Shapes & Surprises

Though summer will probably always be the most enjoyable season for a critter-lover like me (bugs and birds and frogs, oh my!) I’m learning to appreciate fall more each year, the more I get out and experience it. And, let’s face it – after such a long warm season this year, we’re due for the change of pace. True, the weather’s fickle in autumn, and the mosquitoes are making a valiant last effort to convince you to go back inside, but the surprises you get when you get out and explore are worth it.

I love to see the various colors the native plants paint themselves, and the gardens of the human world tempt me with an even greater palette to play with. To me, a garden that is missing a fall change of clothes is seriously lacking in interest. I hope I never tire of roaming our more wild places; if you can find time to explore our untamed areas, nature will always give you new ideas for plant combinations to try.

I live to visit Great Falls often, and one such autumnal composition that stuck with me from a recent hike centered around a Baptisia, with its bluish leaves, that was growing next to some sapling Black Tupelo trees that had begun to turn glowing red; nearby was a Virginia Creeper, clinging to the rocks, that had also begun to echo that brilliant crimson, and scattered about were golden-yellow sunflowers (Helianthus) and lavender Asters. If only us gardeners could have such nice chunks of rock liberally sprinkled with lichen, then we could really have at it; it certainly helped make the combinations extra special here.


Many of us know several common standbys for fall interest, and who hasn’t been inundated lately with Asters and Chrysanthemums? They’re great fall accents to be sure, and I wouldn’t be without some myself, but there’s certainly a lot more to fall in love with, too (oh look, a fortuitous pun!). The list of deciduous shrubs alone with good autumn leaf color is a lengthy one, and deservedly so, but did you know that even some evergreen shrubs get fall color? It’s not uncommon for old or damaged leaves to shed in the fall, and I’ve seen many an evergreen azalea, for example, with a fantastic medley of scarlet, orange and amber leaves. [‘Blaauw’s Pink’ pictured.] Some of you already know Nandina can dress up in red for the winter (and actually stay dressed, unlike some of our other ladies-in-red who <gasp!> eventually become naked). [‘Firepower’ pictured.]


I personally like my fall interest from some unexpected places. Pink Coralberries and violet Beautyberries [both pictured] are a welcome change from your classic red-berried plants. And who would suspect a holly-like evergreen to have potently fragrant flowers in November? Holly-leaf Osmanthus does, a winter-hardy cousin to the indoor Fragrant Olive, and I always enjoy hearing passers-by puzzling over what they smell when all that surrounds them appears to be hollies. What’s more, they come in solid green [pictured], white-edged, purple-tipped, cream-splashed and solid-yellow foliage forms.

If you’re a fan of strong fragrances, you can also try Elaeagnus. Now, there are a couple species that are pretty weedy, but the well-behaved forms are just as fragrant in autumn, and there leaves are either silvery-gray or marked with yellow. I also enjoy the native shrub Groundsel-bush (Baccharis halimifolia, pictured) since it has silky white seed tufts on top of bluish-gray leaves. You can spot them on the roadsides this time of year due to those seed heads, and they do quite well in poor soil and harsh conditions. It can be quite hard to find in the nursery trade, but we have a handful now.


Some of our popular edibles have underused fall interest. You never forget your first view of a blueberry in full fall splendor. Wild lowbush blueberries become a carpet of screaming scarlet; highbush [pictured] are more common in gardens and orchards around here, but they too become brilliant red, orange and gold; both are native. Beach plum fruits, though they ripen closer to August than fall, are a rainbow of colors from plum-purple, rose, coral and gold…almost to pretty to harvest.

Several trees, such as Red Maple, are often recognized for their fall color, but there are other great options to choose from. Black Tupelo (a.k.a. Black Gum, pictured as a young tree) is always easy to spot in the woods, as you can see the neon red leaves start to pop up in early fall. Dogwoods and Sumacs are known for being among the first of our natives to start coloring up in the fall, and they too have nice burgundy and red shades. Redbud, Fringetree, Tulip Poplar, Birch, Elm, Linden and Pawpaw all have glorious yellows; most are native, too.


I’d be remiss if I didn’t include perennials in our fall color experience. Bluestar [pictured] is fantastic for both its pale blue spring flowers and feathery (or willowy, depending on species) leaf textures. To view an expanse of it with some ruby-plumed grasses and glowing red Sweetspire down at the columns at the U.S. National Arboretum is to miss a moment of optic bliss. Grasses are always a mainstay of fall, but when you can draw your attention away from the “oooh, shiny!” flamboyant Pampas and Maiden grasses, you can find some real temptresses in our native Bluestem and Purple Muhly grass [pictured]. It’s like some magical puff of purple smoke settled over the Muhly grass…poof! Fall is here!

Lastly, being the bug-lover that I am, I have to say that any Aster or its kin you can include in the garden is well worth the cloud of butterflies you could draw. Some are fueling up to fly south, while others are fattening up to either overwinter themselves or nourish their eggs that will tough out winter on their own. [Aster and perennial Sunflower (Helianthus) are pictured.] I visit the meadow surrounding the capitol columns at the Arboretum most years around Columbus Day weekend, and the number of Buckeye, Painted Lady, Sulphur and skipper butterflies out on the aster-family flowers is amazing…you walk down the path and butterflies swirl around you.


To me, fall gardening should be just like spring – the garden should re-decorate itself in new colors, textures, shapes and surprises. And just like interior decorating, some things need to stay constant to serve as a foil or backdrop to all this planned chaos. That’s where your evergreens should come in – be they needled or broadleaf – as every color goes with green! (And hey – several of those evergreens even change color, too, so you can really go to town.) You can think of it like using the evergreens as your sofa and your flowers as a throw blanket, changing patterns and colors with your fancy or with the seasons. And the decorating bonus…the décor looks great for company with no vacuuming or dusting! Throw in a few edibles and the hors d’oeuvres can be served outside.

By Miri Talabac, Behnke’s Woody Plant Buyer


Stephanie Fleming was raised at Behnke’s Nurseries in Beltsville. Her Mom, Sonja, was one of Albert & Rose Behnke’s four children. She was weeding from the moment she could walk and hiding as soon as she was old enough to run, so many weeds, so little time. Although she quickly learned how to pull out a perennial and get taken off of weed pulling duty.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Simply wonderful article, Stephanie and your photographs are dazzling. I have always loved the Arboretum but I never visited in the fall. Seems this will be my next day-trip (since I no longer live close by) to enjoy the fall colors..
    Thank you for your amazing insight.

    1. Glad you enjoy the article. It was a oldie but a goodie that was written by Miri Talabac. She is the photographer and really does take some amazing pictures!

  2. Correction to previous comment:
    Thank you for sharing this insightful article from Miri Talabac. The photographs are wonderful. I have always loved the Arboretum but never visited in the fall. Seems this will be my next day-trip (since I no longer live close by) to enjoy the amazing collection of native plants and their fall colors.

    1. LOL I just responded to your first comment. Day trips are so much fun!! Take some photos when you go and share!

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