Don’t despair if your summer garden is well past its prime. You’ll find spectacular perennials and shrubs that thrive during the crisp, sweater-weather days of autumn. New variations of old standbys like chrysanthemums are anything but ordinary, and seed heads, stems, and foliage take on new prominence in the garden as the days get shorter.
With a little planning and foresight, you can still spend the weekends leaf-peeping or on a ski trip, then be welcomed home by a lovely landscape. Read on to learn which are the best fall and winter plants for your garden.
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CONTENTS: In this article, you will learn which are the best fall and winter plants that will add unexpected beauty to your garden.
- Chrysanthemums and Other Fall Bloomers
- Good Companion Plants for Mums
- Fall Foliage Color At Home
- Plants with Winter Berries
- Winter Silhouettes and Structure
- Winter Flowering Plants
- Final Thoughts on the Best Fall and Winter Plants
RELATED ARTICLE: Learn why you are seeing gardening content on this travel blog.
Chrysanthemums and Other Fall Bloomers
“New” Mums Among the Best Fall and Winter Plants
Autumn in New England brings to mind Chrysanthemums, or “Mums,” available in every color except blue and green. They are among the quintessential fall gardening plants, and especially popular as fall container plants.
It’s with good reason.
With 13 flower-forms designated by chrysanthemum hobbyists and counting, mums offer unequalled versatility. Maybe some of these might be new to you!
A sampling of flower forms includes:
- Thistle or Bush
Mums are an excellent choice for borders, fall and winter containers, and cutting. They can last late into the cooler seasons. This makes them among the best fall and winter plants for the garden, too.
Caring for Mums
Those Mums sold as “hardy” mums may return year after year. But they’ll require some tending through the gardening season for the best show.
Here’s what I mean.
For bushy, bloom covered mums, begin frequent pinching of leaf shoots when the foliage appears in spring until the middle of July. This encourages the branching growth habit required for prolific blooms.
If you prefer fewer, larger sized blooms, you’ll want to remove all but one or two flower buds from each cluster. This techique is called “disbudding.”
Because mums tend to get “leggy” after the first year if not well-tended, many gardeners treat them as annuals.
Either way, I think they are among the best fall blooming plants you can have.
Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’
Next, consider another autumn favorite, the the aptly named sedum known as ‘Autumn Joy’ (Sedum spectabile). It sports large, domed flower clusters atop thick succulent stems.
Their flower color matures over time from pale pink in late summer, then changing over to a vibrant red and then brownish maroon by autumn’s end.
As a bonus, ‘Autumn Joy’ develops seed heads on the stalks that maintain their shape throughout winter.
This staying power and changing interest makes Sedum one of the best fall and winter plants for your garden.
Tip: If you want to multiply your Sedum, you can take cuttings to can root in water and place it in a sunny window over the winter. When spring arrives, replant them in the garden. I’ve propagated many new Sedum plants this way! (Caution: bunnies love to eat these tender plants.)
Some Crocus species are autumn blooming, producing flowers just weeks or days after fall planting. Of the autum-blooming crocuses, crocus speciosus offers the showiest bloom, while the saffron crocus (C. sativus) is the culinary saffron.
Tip: You can harvest enough saffron from C. sativus to season an average sized paella by carefully plucking stigmas from about dozen flowers soon after they open.
Related to true crocus only by name, autumn crocus (Colchicum) produces flowers that are similarly shaped, but larger than the flowers of crocus.
Plant autumn crocus corms in late summer for autumn blooms in bursts of lilac, red-purple, pink, and white. Because flowers bloom in the absence of foliage that appears briefly in spring then dies back uneventfully, sometimes autumn crocuses go by the name, ”naked ladies.”
Besides Asters (Asteracea), Colchicum are are among the few purple fall-blooming plants you can plant.
Another fall favorite is Japanese anemone (Anemone japonica), which displays papery, semi-double flowers in white, rose, and silvery-pink. They bloom upon wiry stems that reach up to four feet tall.
Japanese anemone work well in partial shade gardens and beneath high branching trees as fall shade plants.
Tip: An extra layer of mulch helps protect Japanese anemone bulbs through winter. Since you don’t have to lift them when it gets cold, I consider them another one of the best outdoor winter plants.
Joe Pye Weed
Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium pupureum, E. maculatum) has experienced a resurgence in wild gardens and restored meadows–and also in the home garden.
This butterfly-attracting plant develops dome-shaped flower clusters in pale purple, pink, or white in late summer to early fall. It is a native plant to the eastern and central United states.
Goldenrods (Solidago spp.) bear unmistakable plumes of lemon yellow or golden flowers. Few perennials boast such a massive display of brilliant fall color.
But they get a bad rap.
Goldenrods, falsely attributed with causing hay fever, have been historically eschewed in the perennial garden.
You might like to know that the pollen from Goldenrod is not airborne as originally thought.
Instead, Goldenrod is insect-pollinated. That means, goldenrod does not release its pollen into the wind and does not aggravate allergies, according to Rodale’s “Illustrated Encyclopedia of Perennials,” by Ellen Phillips and C. Colston Burrel.
Even once the vibrant color fades, the brushy plumes remain, making them another of the best fall and winter plants in the home landscape.
Tip: Every perennial gardener should have this Rodal book in their garden reference library.
Good Fall Companions for Mums
Let’s recap and expand on the list of some excellent options for adding fall interest to the garden. Remember, you’ll want to combine a variety of shrubs, perennials, and ground covers with chrysanthemums for an interesting fall garden.
- Aster (Aster spp.)
- Burning Bush (Kochia)
- Chinese Lantern (Physalis alkekengi)
- Cotoneaster (Cotoneasater spp.)
- Late blooming Dahlia
- Dogwoods (Cornus spp.)
- Golden aster (Chrysopsis)
- Japanese Barberry (Berberis thunbergii)
- Obedient Plant (Physotegia)
- Peony (Paeonia)
- PJM Rhododendron (Rhododendron ‘PJM’_
- Sedum (Sedum spectabile ‘Autumn Joy’)
- Smoke Tree (Cotinus coggygria)
Fall Foliage Color at Home
You can enjoy leaf peeping at home without the travel by incorporating fall perennial plants, shrubs, and trees that offer fall foliage color to the garden as the air cools.
Among showy perennials less-known for their fall foliage are Peonies (Paeonia), which turn a rich bronze or red wine before dying back. The same is true of Evening Primrose (Oenothera spp.) with foliage color ranging from hot pink to maroon.
Additionally, the perennial groundcover, Carpet Bugle (Ajuga reptans) turns a deep purple that remains colorful until new spring growth.
Shrubs also provide needed color in the fall. PJM Rhododendron, an evergreen shrub that blooms alongside daffodils in spring, turns a deep mahogany as winter nears.
Another colorful shrub is the ever-popular Burning Bush (Kochia) that flames a brilliant red before dropping its leaves. (Warning: in some areas, Burning Bush is an invasive species that you’ll want to keep out of your garden or limit its use as a fall potted plant.)
Foliage Trees for Home Landscapes
Maple trees (Acer species) are most often noted for brightly colored fall foliage displays in New England. But other deciduous trees (those that drop their leaves for the winter) reward homeowners with rich autumnal color.
For instance, Dogwoods (Cornus spp.) showcase foliage that ranges from red purple to yellow orange, and produce spectacular red “berries.” The Red Twig Dogwood (C. stolonifre) offers especially striking color with its red bark.
Similarly, the streaked white and gray bark of Birch Trees (Betula) add a textural element to gardens long after bright yellow leaves have fallen.
Ornamental fruit trees, like the pyramidal Bradford Pear (Pyrus calleryana ‘Bradford’), brighten autumn scenery in red and yellow tones. Other pear varieties such as ‘Chanticleer’ offer orange to reddish purple foliage.
Hardly Nectarine (Prunus nucipersica ‘Mericrest’) yields colorful fall foliage and ripening fruit as valuable additions to both landscape and pantry.
Tip: One of my favorite ways to get foliage saplings at a fraction of the cost is to buy saplings from the Arbor Day Foundation. Sometimes, they run fundraising campaigns where you can donate a small amount and receive ten trees, which always arrive at the perfect time to plant in your USDA Plant Hardiness Zone.
Best Plants for Fall and Winter With Winter Berries
Winter plants with berries accent the landscape while providing sustenance for wildlife through the winter months. You’ll find festive reds, oranges, and yellows among these winter gardening plants that add brilliant color pops. Plus, they are often found on plants that stay green for the winter.
Holly (Ilex spp.) is a traditional favorite, boasting bright red berries against glossy deep evergreen foliage. Tip: For the female holly to produce its red fruit, you must plant both a male and female shrub near to one another.
Winterberry (Ilex verticillato) bears enormous crops of bright red fruit on leaf-bare stems in fall and winter. So stunning!
Firethorn’s (Pyrecanthus) prolific clusters of orange berries develop at summer’s end and look almost like tiny little oranges. Their brilliant display continues through late winter until the birds have cleared out all the fruit. They are among the most colourful winter plants!
Roses (Rosa) also have berries or “hips,” with a red color that deepens as the season progresses. The hips of many Rugosa Roses (R. rugosa) are about one inch in diameter, making a bold statement.
Tip: You can make an old-fashioned rose hip jam after the first frost by simmering (chemically untreated) rose hips in water until tender, then mixing the strained fruit with an equal amount of sugar. (Adding pectin is optional.)
Knock Out Roses® are favorite fall garden plants that are on trend. The plants are especially long-blooming makign them one of the best flowering plants for fall.
Chinese Lantern Plant (Physalis alkekengi), an inedible relative of the vegetable Tomatillo (Physalis ixocarpa), forms a paper-like, orange-red covering that resembles lanterns around ripened berries. The dry, leafless stalks strewn with “lanterns“ make wonderful arrangements and fall colorful plants. They’re another one of the best fall and winter plants for the garden.
Winter Silhouettes and Structure
The garden in winter is less about color and more about structures and texture. The underlying hardscape “bones,” accented by tree silhouettes, and the occasional glimpse of an evergreen bough is often all that remains visible beneath freshly fallen snow. And it’s so pretty!
First, hardscaping, like stonewalls and fences, provide form and structure to the winter garden.
Next, you can envision other skeletal structures in the form of deciduous trees and shrubs. They lay the foundation of the winter garden.
Consider an especially interesting winter feature like the contorted limbs of Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick (Corylus avellana ‘Controrta’). They twist and bend artistically.
Or, the upward reaching limbs of common shrubs like Forsythia, can provide expression to the winter landscape.
Then there’s evergreens, like the Dwarf Mugu Pine (Pinus mugu ‘Mugo’) and Boxwood (Buxus), to add some needed texture along with hints of color amidst snow.
Ornamental grasses, like Fountain Grass (Pennisetum orientale) topped by pinkish plumes in summer, blanch to light brown in autumn and continue to add drama to the garden through winter. This makes them excellent winter garden plants.
Pernenials like Columbine (Auquilega) and Poppy (Papaver), after scattering their seeds, produce decorative seed pods best left intact for winter interest.
Dried flower stalks, like those of Yarrow and Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) become silhouettes in the winter garden reminiscent of summer months. An added benefit is the seeds will attract visits from birds during the winter.
Best Winter Plants for Structure and Texture
So, to recap and expand on the best plants for a winter garden that lend structure and texture, consider:
- Birch (Betula spp.)
- Chinese elm (Ulmus parviflora)
- Cranberry bush (Viburnum trilovum)
- Fountain grass (Pennisetum orietnale)
- Harry Lauder’s Walking Stick (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’)
- Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum)
- Quaking Aspen (Populus Termuliodes)
- Redtwig Dogwood (Corus stolonifera)
- Ruguso Rose (Rosa Rugosa)
- Shagbark Hickory (Carya ovata)
- Winged Euonymus (Euonymus alata)
- Winterberry (Ilex verticillata)
Winter Flowering Plants
Finally, be sure to add a few late winter flowering plants to your landscape, or even as potted winter plants. Some of my favorite hardy winter plants include:
- Ornamental Kale and Fall Cabbage Plants (which technically do not flower, instead look like flowers)
- Lenten Rose (Helleborus)
- Snow Drops (Galanthus)
- Witch Hazel (Hamamelis)
- Winter blooming Heaths (Erica) and Heathers (Calluna)
- Winter Aconite Plants
Some of these winter flowering plants are known to emerge right from the snow–and are arguably among the earliest spring flowering plants, depending on how you look at it. 😉
(Tip: They also make great winter window box plants and winter plants for pots, too, provided you use weather hardy containers.)
Final Thoughts on the Best Fall and Winter Plants
As temperatures drop and the snowflakes fall, your time in your garden may be limited to the occasional walk to relieve cabin fever on milder days so you can dream of the garden’s next incarnation. But, it may help to know your garden truly can be a source of year-round enjoyment, alive with beauty and winter flowering plants.
By adding these elements that provide late season interest, and including the best fall and winter plants in your gardens, the view from indoors is one you won’t want to miss.
And don’t forget to add some winter container plants by your doorstep for a fall or winter “welcome home.”
Did you find some new suggestions from what we think are the best fall or winter plants for the garden? Are your favorite winter bedding plants included in this roundup? Let us know in the comments below!
This article was originally published as “Add Fall and Winter Interest to the Garden” by Jackie Gately in the Fall Home Improvement section of Community Newspapers (October 2000). It includes Zone 5 winter plants, which are suitable to many other hardiness zones, too.
Photo credits: Dahlias – Alexas_Fotos, Spider Mums – Shirley Hirst, Colchicum – Goran Horvat, Japanese Lantern – Mabel Amber (Pixabay); Pyracantha – Artem Beliaikin (Pexels)
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