“I love fall plants, fall temperatures, fall colors, fall sounds. I think it’s the best time of the year for gardening,” enthuses Suzanne Baron, a Master Gardener with University of Delaware Cooperative Extension.
The “third season” is ramping up for Delaware gardeners and many, like Baron, consider it the very best season. It’s starting to get cooler, especially early and late in the day, making it easier to accomplish garden chores. It also happens to be an excellent time of year to get plants in the ground, notes Sue Barton, ornamental horticulture specialist with UD Cooperative Extension.
“Fall’s cooler temperatures and typically higher rainfalls help plant roots become well-established. The soil is still warm and allows roots to grow until the ground freezes,” says Barton. “In contrast, plants may get off to a slower start in spring because the soil is cooler and in summer new plantings can become stressed from heat and drought.”
Planting for fall interest is easy because there’s a wide range of perennials and shrubs that exhibit good color, in addition to the dramatic foliage of many deciduous trees.
At the Teaching Garden at the county Extension office in Newark, Baron and her fellow Master Gardeners have planted thread-leaf irownweed, which already displays bright purple flower tufts that will continue through early fall. Another purple bloomer, Joe Pye weed, also is in flower. And while the pale blue flowers of Bluestar are long gone, its leaves will soon turn bright yellow. Later in the season, the black gum trees will turn bright red and the aromatic sumac shrubs will display brilliant orange, red and yellow leaves. Plus, the Teaching Garden features one of Baron’s fall favorites, goldenrod.
Baron has planted many varieties of goldenrod — ranging in color from vivid yellow to deep gold — at her farmette outside of Middletown. “I keep adding different ones to fill different needs in my gardens,” says Baron. “The flower lasts a long time and even in late October bees visit it.”
“Goldenrod is a great source for nectar in the fall,” notes J.W. Wistermayer, a Master Gardener who strives for a “riot of color” in his Newark-area yard.
Goldenrod and other fall blooms don’t just add pizzazz to the landscape, they also help out bees and other insects. “Fall is an incredibly important time to think about flowering plants in the garden so that insects have a supply of nectar and can make it through the winter,” says Wistermayer. “A lot of people think about planting for the pollinators in the spring and summer but tend to forget about it in the fall.”
In addition to goldenrod, pollinator-friendly choices include asters, spicebush and Joe Pye weed. “Joe Pye Weed is awesome as a nectar source and the hollow stems can be used by native bees when they lay their eggs,” says Wistermayer.
Carrie Murphy, horticulture agent for New Castle County Cooperative Extension, says that her home garden in North Wilmington starts out strong in spring but can be iffy in summer. She says the garden invariably “comes back to life” in the fall.
Murphy designed her garden with fall interest in mind, including such colorful choices as Virginia sweetspire, viburnum, blueberry and oakleaf hydrangea. “The oakleaf hydrangea never disappoints with its exfoliating bark, beautiful blooms that dry and hang on through winter and great fall color — reds, yellows, oranges,” says Murphy.
Asters, goldenrod and thoroughwort are the primary fall bloomers on Barton’s 11-acre property in Landenberg, Pa. They are complemented by the foliage of sourgum (brilliant red), sassafras (bright oranges and yellows), sourwood (red), sugar maple (yellowish orange) and red maple (bright red) trees. She also has planted lots of sweet gums, which turn purple and orange all on the same plant. Most of these trees are at their peak color in October.
Barton also takes a long-range view on fall gardening. “Everyone focuses on fall color — foliage or flower — but bark, branch structure and remaining flower heads can provide a lot of interest,” she says, “especially late in the fall when most of the leaves are gone.”
Article by Margo McDonough
Photo by Danielle Quigley