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Your Guide to Fall Planting in Northwest Arkansas

As cooler temperatures and shorter days arrive, our gardens can start to look weary. Most flower petals have dropped, foliage starts to wither in the late summer heat, and, let’s be honest, gardeners are getting tired, too! But with a little planning, your fall and winter garden can look great and energize you for that last push of garden glory.

There are many plants that shine in the fall, providing bursts of color, food for birds and pollinators, and structural interest to the garden for months to come.

On the Autumnal Equinox, let’s take a look at some of the fall plants and trees you can see around Crystal Bridges or plant in your home garden:

 

Perennials and Ornamental Grasses

Symphyotrichum novae-angliae

Asters (Symphyotrichum)

A staple of the fall garden, asters can be found in varying shades of blue, violet, and even white. Most are best suited to the mid to back of the garden as they can be tall and get leggy at the bottom. Asters attract butterflies and are a nectar source for monarchs.

Stonecrop (Sedum)

Fitting in perfectly with asters, stonecrop or sedums are low-maintenance plants that thrive in the heat of late summer and early fall. Clusters of tiny, star-shaped, pink flowers sit atop succulent-like stems. All upright varieties are fall-blooming and make great cut flowers. Flower seed heads also look great in the winter garden if left upright.

Sedum ‘Autumn Delight’
Chelone lyonii ‘Hot Lips’

Turtlehead (Chelone)

Who can resist a plant called turtlehead? Not only is the name accurate to the shape of the flower, but this pink-flowered plant puts on a great show in late summer to early fall. Commonly found in wet areas, it is very adaptable and can tolerate some drought once established. Its rich green foliage is a bonus and the seed heads look great in the winter garden if left upright.

Goldenrod (Solidago)

Sometimes blamed as the culprit for fall allergies (the villain is actually ragweed), goldenrod is a native perennial that explodes with clusters of dangling, yellow flowers. Since it’s on the taller side, place this plant towards the back of your garden and watch with delight as native pollinators dive in for their meals. This plant does tend to spread but is easy to control. Just dig it out wherever it’s not wanted! It also makes a stunning cut flower.

Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’
Tricyrtis formosana ‘Gilt Edge’

Toad Lily (Tricyrtis)

Perhaps lesser known but no less stunning in the fall garden is toad lily. This unique plant produces orchid-like flowers along its upright stems. Blooming in October, it is best placed near the edge of a planting area where its pale purple to mauve, spotted flowers can be admired up close. When toad lily is well-sited, you can expect it to form large clumps which look spectacular in bloom.

Little Blue Stem (Schizachyrium scoparium)

Ornamental grasses are the backbone of the fall garden and a favorite is our native little blue stem. A classic prairie grass, this plant provides great structure to any full-sun garden. Starting off with blue-green blades in early summer, by late summer it shows streaks of maroon until finally turning a rust color which it maintains through the winter months.

Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Standing Ovation’
Carex laxiculmis ‘Hobb’

Bunny Blue Sedge (Carex laxiculmis)

This short, groundcover grass looks good any time of the year, but its blue-green foliage is a great contrast to the rich colors of fall foliage and fall-blooming plants. With its small stature, it also makes a great addition to fall-themed planted pots.

Shrubs

Arrowwood Viburnum and Cranberry Viburnum

Almost all viburnums have showy fall leaf color, but two favorites, arrowwood viburnum (below left) and cranberry viburnum (below right) have the added benefit of producing berries that provide much-needed sources of food for birds in late fall/early winter. True to its name, cranberry viburnums produce bunches of dangling red, cranberry-like berries which persist into early winter.  If you are looking for something on the bluer side, arrowwood viburnums are known for their deep, blue clusters of small berries.

Viburnum dentatum ‘Blue Muffin’
Viburnum trilobum ‘Bailey’s Compact’
Callicarpa americana

Purple Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana)

The name says it all! In late summer into early fall, you’ll find clusters of violet berries dancing down the weeping stems of this medium-sized shrub. The berries contrast beautifully with the light green foliage. Once the foliage falls, the berries steal the show and you can be sure it won’t be long before the birds munch them away.

Sweetspire (Itea virginica)

If you are looking for a deep, maroon fall color in your garden, then this is the plant for you. Although this shrub is loaded with weeping white flowers in early summer that disappear in a few weeks, the seeds heads persist, giving this semi-evergreen plant additional interest in the winter garden. This plant gets bonus points for being adaptable to many landscape situations, from dry areas to wet conditions.

Itea virginica ‘Little Henry’
Rhus aromatica ‘Gro-Low’

Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica)

Although a part of the poison ivy family, think of this plant as the much nicer cousin. A particularly useful cultivar is called Gro-Low which grows to about 24 feet tall and is incredibly useful for erosion control. Its leaves turn shades of yellow, orange, and red in the fall, and its red berries provide food for several types of birds.

Oakleaf Hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia)

Best known for its large panicle-shaped flowers, this plant is sometimes overlooked for its great fall color. When given a part-shade situation, its maroon-colored leaves are sure to delight the fall gardener. Oftentimes, its large, white flowers will dry, keeping their form, right on the plant. These make for great fall accents in outdoor autumn or winter pots.

Hydrangea quercifolia 'Alice'

Trees

Nyssa sylvatica

Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica)

Black gum tree will truly “wow” you with its fire-engine red fall foliage. These leaves sit in beautiful contrast to the deep blueberries which are loved by the birds. Once black gum drops its leaves, its horizontal branching pattern forms a striking pattern in the winter sky.

Katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum)

Is that cotton candy growing in that tree? No! It’s just the amazing smell that comes with the change in leaf color from a katsura tree. Katsura trees are known for their heart-shaped leaves, densely branched forms, and shaggy bark. In spring, new leaves emerge with a red tint before transitioning to light green. By fall, the leaves on this tree boast colors in shades of yellows and apricot.

Cercidiphyllum japonicum
Malus sp.

Crab Apple (Malus sp.)

Although crab apples are most often thought of as trees for spring interest, don’t overlook their value for the fall/winter garden. Most commercially grown crab apples boast “tea-sized apples,” which look like cherries hanging from the tree. This fruit comes in shades of yellows and reds and looks stunning with the yellow/orange/red tones that the leaves turn in autumn. Once the leaves have fallen, the fruit tends to hang on for few months until the birds find it, giving it a festive look for the holidays.

River Birch (Betula nigra)

River birches look great at any time of the year, but they really shine in late fall and winter after their fallen leaves reveal layers of cream and pink, paper-thin bark. Although most happy in moist areas (hence the name river birch), this tree is incredibly adaptable making it a great specimen tree for the home landscape.

Betula nigra

Helpful Tips for Your Autumn and Winter Garden:

  1. Don’t cut down your ornamental grasses until the spring. Many ornamental grasses hold their form throughout the winter months providing visual interest in those bleak winter months.
  2. Don’t cut down every perennial in your garden. Insects need places to spend the winter too and the spent leaves of perennials provide a cozy home. Remember, not all insects are bad to have around!
  3. Leave up flower stalks of seed-producing perennials like coneflower and black-eyed Susan for seed-eating birds.
  4. Remove and dispose of any fruit that may have fallen from fruiting trees.
  5. Leaving some leaf cover on the ground is OK! This can be a great insulator for plants and, if allowed to break down, it can add to the quality of your soil.

Written by Samantha Best, outdoor interpretation specialist.