Favorite Shade-Loving Flowering Shrubs and Perennials for Fall

Reblooming hydrangeas, yellow waxbells, and fuchsias are three reliable bloomers that flower into fall.

We’ve had a long hot and dry summer here in the Pacific Northwest, so those plants that relish the sun and take drought have performed beautifully. In turn, shade lovers, that thrive in cool, moist environments have needed extra care. In my garden, we have a mix of areas with blazing afternoon sun, almost total shade, and both sun and shade. I have banked on a large selection of shade plants to provide color in the form of foliage as well as flowers in my full and partially shady areas, and as summer wanes, I count on certain fall bloomers to keep my shade gardens looking sharp.

Reblooming Hydrangeas

Let’s Dance® Rhythmic Blue®is an excellent reblooming hydrangea. (Image thanks to Proven Winners)

Reblooming hydrangeas are the first group of plants that come to mind for late-summer and fall color in the shade garden. While many will tolerant some sun, I think they look their best, and the flowers last much longer if the plants are grown in afternoon shade. Bigleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea macrophylla, Zones 6-9) and mountain hydrangea (Hydrangea serrata, Zones 5-9) are some of the best adapted to shade, and rebloomers flower the most reliably into fall. One excellent selection to try is the large-panicled Let’s Dance® Rhythmic Blue® reblooming hydrangea, which reaches 4 feet by 4 feet and produces big violet-blue (or pink in more alkaline soils) flower clusters well from midsummer to fall. Another is the very compact 3-foot Tuff Stuff Ah-Ha®  reblooming mountain hydrangea with its lacy pale-blue flowers. It grows well in-ground or in well-drained containers filled with a quality mix, like Natural & Organic Black Gold Flower & Vegetable Soil.

Good water is essential. If the plants become stressed for moisture, often the flowers will turn crisp, especially when in the hot sun. Despite our tough summer, hydrangeas have thrived when given adequate moisture and some protection from the sun. When I walk around my neighborhood, I see gorgeous hydrangea flowers on those plants that have been given the right care. This is where a good mulch will also help keep the plants hydrated and happy. Black Gold Garden Compost Blend is an ideal water-holding soil amendment as well as mulch.


The flowers of ‘DebRon’s Smokey Blue’ are large and deep fuchsia and purple. (Image by Mike Darcy)

Another popular and well-known flower for partial shade is fuchsia (Fuchsia hybrids, Zones 9-11). ‘DebRon’s Smokey Blue‘, with its dark rose and purple flowers, is a personal favorite. Mine have been blooming all summer and will continue well into the fall. We have fuchsia plants in containers on our deck that are covered with flowers and have many buds yet to open. While the flowering will not be as prolific as it is now, they should continue to bloom until frost. Some fuchsias have the addition of colorful variegated foliage, so the plants can be colorful even without flowers. With their brightly colored flowers and foliage, fuchsias provide quite a show in the autumn shade garden.

Hardy fuchsia (Fuchsia magellanica, 6-10 feet, Zones 6-9) is an Argentinian shrub that blooms from summer to fall with many small, red and pink, pendulous flowers that feed migrating hummingbirds. While many of the hardy fuchsias will grow in the sun, I’ve found that they perform better without the hot afternoon summer sun. It is wise to place hardy fuchsia near the home or protective stone walls to provide it extra winter protection.

Palm-Leaf Begonia

The amazing palm-leaf begonia produces white and yellow flowers into fall and has spectacular leaves. Bring it indoors before the first frost of the season. (Image by Dedarot)

A new plant for me this year is palm leaf begonia (Begonia luxurians, Zones 9-11). The leaves are very tropical looking, and it has been in bloom during the past month with clusters of white and yellow flowers. I have my plant in a container with Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Mix. It’s in an area where it only gets filtered sunlight because of overhead trees. It was about 12 inches tall when I bought it in early June and has now grown to 4 feet. Technically a perennial, it would be treated as a summer annual here or could be brought indoors as a house plant in a sunroom or greenhouse. It would not survive our winters outdoors.

Yellow Wax Bells

My yellow wax bells are just coming into bloom.

Yellow wax bells (Kirengeshoma palmata, Zones 5-8) is a perennial in the hydrangea family that is native to eastern Asia. It is quite a mouthful to say in Latin as well as to remember. While the common name, yellow wax bells, is much easier to remember and say, it is not well known and would be hard to find in most garden centers under that name. I rarely see it in local gardens, and I don’t know why. It grows beautifully for me. A plant was gifted to me many years ago. I have it in a shady location, and it thrives.

The plant itself is about 4 ft tall and wide and is coming into bloom now. Its waxy yellow flowers are very pretty and look attractive against its large, bold, palm-shaped leaves. It likes shade and moisture and is winter hardy. I mulch it regularly with Black Gold Garden Compost Blend.

This is just a sampling of plants that give late summer color to shaded gardens. To add to the list, I have written about fall anemones (click here to read), dahlias, some other favorite fall-flower picks (click here to read). Check out your local garden center, and you may be surprised at the large selection of blooming plants that are still available.

Viburnums For Any Landscape

Right: bright red Viburnum opulus berries, do droop. They also feed hungry songbirds.

What exactly is a Viburnum? Viburnums are trees or shrubs, evergreen or deciduous, that may be diminutive three-foot globes or grow 60 feet tall. Their leaf texture varies from smoothly shiny to velvety, and, their leaf edges may be serrated, dentate, lobed, or not! Viburnum flowers are either round or flattish and range in color from white to pink. The blossoms are either deliciously fragrant, have absolutely no scent, or can be downright offensive. Just forget trying to determine what viburnum you are admiring by its fruit color alone since berries range from yellow to orange, red to black, and blue to purple.

According to the great Georgia plantsman, Dr. Michael Dirr, their characteristics are simply too varied to make a definitive identification without a very good reference guide. In his 2007 guidebook, Viburnums, Flowering Shrubs for Every Season, by Timber Press, Dirr admits that even taxonomists can’t agree on how many species presently exist in the genus Viburnum with the true number probably falling somewhere between 160 to 250.

What makes a Viburnum a Viburnum?

V. Carlesii - Photo by Pam Beck
The Koreanspice bush, V. carlesii, provides a perfect example of a viburnum’s opposite leave arrangement.

Famed tree and shrub specialist Michael Dirr’s definition is:

  1. The fruit is a drupe, generally ellipsoidal, flattened, ovoid to rounded, with a fleshy coat, hard bony endocarp, and a single seed within; and
  2. The leaves are always arranged opposite; a few species, occasionally, have three leaves at a node.

Growing Viburnum

Viburnum diltatum (Image by KENPEI)

Besides their exquisite beauty, the main reason why we embrace viburnums in our home landscapes is their extreme hardiness. Many varieties can be very drought tolerant (once established) as some of our best Southeastern native viburnum hail from dry woodlands. A few, such as our native Arrowwood, will also tolerate wet feet. Most will grow well in full sun to part shade, can take a variety of soil types, and still thrive.

Planting Viburnum

In the absence of good soil, you could amend the planting hole fill dirt with Black Gold Garden Soil for improved drainage that will still provide enough moisture retention essential for a newly transplanted viburnum. Otherwise, mulch the base of your new addition with Black Gold’s Garden Compost Blend in order to help hold moisture, keep developing roots cool in summer and warmer in winter, and to suppress weeds.

Great Viburnum

In my home landscape, I have found several species of viburnum grow well under the canopy of a large Black Walnut tree, where it is very dry. Here I have planted Koreanspice bush (V. carlesii) and Cranberry viburnum (V. opulus), and they both perform beautifully.

Viburnums have also been evaluated for their resistance to deer grazing. The toughest survivors of deer predation are our native Arrowwood (V. dentatum); Blackhaw (V. prunifolium); Smooth witherod (V. nudum), which is sometimes erroneously called “possum haw” and, the Maple-leaf arrowwood (V. acerfolium).

Koreanspice Viburnum

The flowers of Koreanspice viburnum are so fragrant. (Image by Bouba)

Koreanspice viburnum (V. carlesii, Zones 4-7) is one of our most popular, old-fashioned, pass-along southern shrubs. Grown for its intensely sweet springtime fragrance, the late March to early April flowers of Koreanspice begin pale pink, turning white with age, grow 2-3 inches across, and are rounded. This 8-10 foot tall shrub has dull green leaves that turn reddish in the fall, and red to black fruits.

Cranberry Viburnum

Cranberry viburnum is named for its brilliant cherry-red fruit clusters that begin coloring in late summer. The popular double-flowered variety ‘Roseum’ is sterile and bears no fruit.

The Cranberry viburnum is named for its brilliant cherry-red fruit clusters that begin coloring in late summer. Its famous leaf fall color is much more dramatic in cooler regions where leaves turn gold, red, and burgundy. A very good cultivar is V. opulus ‘Compactum’, which should top out at just 5-6 feet.

Chinese Snowball

For sheer drama, nothing compares to the Chinese Snowball (V. macrocephalum). This multi-trunked small tree can reach 12-feet or more in height and grow just as wide. Sometimes semi-evergreen in mild winters, this very dark-leafed viburnum is beloved for its 6-8 inch, rounded, springtime flowers that begin pale chartreuse and age to purest white. They are so beautiful that we can forgive it for not bearing any scent. A significant bonus is that it also flowers again from late summer into fall. Since the Chinese Snowball’s hydrangea-like flowers are sterile, there is no fruit, therefore no unwanted seedlings.

Bodnant Viburnum

Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ is an early bloomer with lovely fragrant pink flowers. (Image by Magnus Manske)

Your winter landscape could be delightful including a Bodnant viburnum in it. Viburnum x bodnantense ‘Dawn’ has bright pink, strongly perfumed flowers in late February to early March in my Wake Forest, North Carolina, Zone 7-8 garden. The small, rounded, sweetly fragrant flowers are borne on bare branches on a rather rangy shrub, but ‘Dawn’ blends nicely into the mixed border the rest of the year.

Viburnum Tinus

Garden centers offer V. tinus ‘Spring Bouquet’ in autumn, which is the right time to plant them. During the late fall months ‘Spring Bouquet’ forms tight rose-colored clusters of buds that will start popping open during the first months of the new year. These viburnum flowers are only slightly fragrant, but they will cover the small shrub. This evergreen viburnum will need part shade in summer, winter protection from sun, plus they benefit from being shielded from desiccating winds.

Doublefile Viburnum

Doublefile viburnum (Viburnum plicatum) has lovely tiered branching and should not be pruned.

Since they bloom in early April, Doublefile viburnums, V. plicatum f. tomentosum, are great substitutes for ailing native dogwoods. Named for its flowering habit of doily-flat flowers positioned side-by-side along the top of long horizontal branches, this is a stunning small tree. These viburnum are deciduous in winter, have dark green foliage in summer, and bright red berries in late fall. A cultivar named ‘Summer Snowflake’ will bloom well in early spring, then sporadically repeat off-and-on throughout the summer.

Chindo Viburnum

Chindo viburnum is another popular viburnum that isn’t grown for its flowers at all. Promoted by the late Dr. J C Raulston of North Carolina State University, V. awabuki ‘Chindo’, is a loosely pyramidal-shaped, shiny-leafed, evergreen shrub that can reach 15-20 feet. It grows in sun or shade and is shaped reminiscent of a large-leafed holly, so it makes an ideal screening plant. One warning is that a Chindo viburnum won’t like winter temperatures that drop below zero; so, if it does get that cold you may have to trim your plant back severely in springtime to encourage new growth to flush.

There is probably a perfect viburnum for just about any location in your landscape, so how do you go about narrowing your selections? Ask your garden center professional for their recommendations, check with your local Cooperative Extension Service, and find a copy of Dirr’s Viburnums book.


V. awabuki ‘Chindo’ - Photo by Pam Beck
The ‘Chindo’ viburnum is an outstanding evergreen screening shrub. (Photo by Pam Beck)

Fall Garden Flowers of the Prairies

The golden strands of the prairie native, wrinkleleaf goldenrod, look right at home in a fall flower garden.

So many favorite summer garden flowers were originally natives of the American prairies–purple coneflowers, black-eyed-Susans, and blazing star among them. Fall is no exception. Whether you plant wild forms or garden varieties, flowers of the prairie are generally easy, tough landscape plants. (If they could withstand trampling and grazing by elk and buffalo, they surely can grow well in your garden!) Some can be planted now, while others can be added to your plant list for next spring.

It’s never too late or early to start thinking about next year’s flower garden, and late summer and fall is the time to see what’s looking beautiful or not-so-great in your garden. Look for holes where a little more color and interest could do some good. You might also make space by removing or thinning out any disappointing or overcrowded plants. Once space has been made, plant now or plan for next spring.

Fall Garden Flowers with Prairie Origins

Native prairie in Lake County, Illinois looks almost planted with its colorful New England asters and Canada goldenrod.

All of these stellar garden plants have their origins from native prairie wildflowers of North America and grow best in full sun and fertile to average soil with good drainage. Feed beds with organic matter yearly to keep your garden soil and plants happy. Black Gold Garden Soil or Flower & Vegetable Soil are excellent amendments for tired beds in need of a boost.

Fall Asters

Alma Potschke New England aster has brilliant reddish-pink, semi-double flowers

Perennial asters are favorite fall flowers, and most originate from American grass and prairie lands.  Their little daisies can be single, double, or even puffed and come in purple, violet-blue, white, reddish-purple, or shades of pink and lavender. There are many notable species. Of these, I like the tall New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae, 2-6 feet, USDA Hardiness Zones 3-8) with its bright purple daisies and ability to grow in both moist and dry soils. Aromatic aster (Aster oblongifolius, 2-6 feet, USDA Hardiness Zones 5-8), which is tolerant of poorer soil, is another winner with its fragrant foliage and lavender-blue flowers with golden centers.

Exceptional varieties include the classic Purple Dome New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae ‘Purple Dome’, 18 inches x 12-24 inches), which is compact and has the deepest purple flowers that bloom in midfall. The taller Alma Potschke New England aster ( Symphyotrichum novae-angliae ‘Alma Potschke’, 3-4 feet) has a wealth of semi-double flowers of reddish-pink. The cool October Skies aromatic aster (18 inches x 18 inches) bears a dense display of lavender-blue flowers with yellow centers on compact plants. Butterflies, birds, and bees love asters, but deer don’t.


Fireworks wrinkleleaf goldenrod shines alongside a planting of mums and ornamental peppers at Longwood Gardens. (Image by Jessie Keith)

Most associate the name Goldenrod with tall field weeds, but they are not weeds at all. (And, forget the old wive’s tale that they cause seasonal allergies; goldenrods bloom at the same time as allergy-causing ragweed, hence the confusion.) Nurseries have developed some beautiful varieties, worth planting in your garden for fall color. One of these is Golden Fleece goldenrod (Solidago sphacelata ‘Golden Fleece’, 2 feet x 3 feet, Zones 4-9), which becomes heavily adorned with cascading streamers of bright golden flowers from the middle of September through October. Plant it in full sun and average to dry soil, then sit back and enjoy the butterflies. Trim off old flowers to encourage new ones. ‘Golden Fleece’ is deer resistant.

For a bolder statement try the Fireworks wrinkleleaf goldenrod (Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks’, 3-4 feet, Zones 4-9) with its impressive sprays of golden flowers that explode in mid-fall. Plant it towards the back of a border beside tall ornamental grasses, tall mums, and Joe-Pye weed.

Sunflowers and Oxeye Daisies

‘Tuscan Sun’ oxeye daisy is very pretty and heavy flowering. (Image by Jessie Keith)

Perennial sunflowers (Helianthus spp.) and oxeye daisies (Heliopsis spp.) look similar, but oxeyes often bloom earlier and continue flowering into fall. One of my favorites is Burning Hearts oxeye daisy (Heliopsis helianthoides var. scabra ‘Burning Hearts’, 3-4 feet, Zones 3-9), a particularly colorful and long-blooming variety that flowers from midsummer to mid-fall. It has purplish leaves and black stems that hold 3-inch flowers of gold with fire-red centers that fade to bronze.  Another excellent choice is Proven Winners’ all-gold ‘Tuscan Sun’ (2-3 feet, Zones 3-9). Be sure to water oxeyes during dry periods, and plant them in full sun. Bees and butterflies cannot get enough of these flowers.

The compact Autumn Gold willowleaf sunflower (Helianthus salicifolius ‘Autumn Gold’, 2-3 feet, Zones 5-10) has a mounding, mum-like habit and becomes covered with sunny, yellow flowers in mid to late fall. Leave the nutritious seed heads for foraging birds.  Once established, ‘Autumn Gold’ will tolerate wet or dry soil conditions, likes full sun, and is deer resistant.


Joe-Pye-weed is an excellent garden flower for feeding migrating Monarchs.

Spotted Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium maculatum, 3-7 feet, Zones 4-8) is a bold garden perennial that flowers from late summer to fall and commonly inhabits moist prairies. The wild form is useful in big garden borders alongside ornamental grasses, hardy hibiscus, and tall perennial sunflowers. Tamer options also exist. ‘Phantom’ is a maculatum hybrid that only reaches 4 feet tall and produces lots of puffy purplish-pink flowers on tidy, well-branched plants. They grow well in average to moist soil, full sun, and are a favorite of butterflies but not deer.

Muhly Grass

Beautiful pink Muhlenbergia capillaris has magnificent fall grass plumes.

The prairie-native muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris, 2-3 feet, Zones 6-9) is a tough, fall-blooming grass, with cloud-like puffy seed heads or rose or pink. An excellent variety is Regal Mist® with its ruby-pink clouds of grass plumes in fall that are still showy into winter.  It reaches 4-feet tall, does well in any well-drained soil, and is drought tolerant.  Plant muhly grass in full sun. Even though it is a grass, it is deer resistant.

Another fall grass for prairie gardens is Proven Winners’ Prairie Winds® ‘Blue Paradise’ little bluestem. The neat, upright bunch grass just reaches 3-4 feet and has steely blue blades that turn purple in fall. Leave it uncut for winter interest.


Rock ‘N Round™ ‘Popstar’ Sedum looks pretty along the edge of any fall bed.

There are some prairie sedums, though few to none are commonly available to gardeners, so I am improvising with a favorite garden variety.  Rock ‘N Round ‘Popstar’ (10-12 inches, Zones 3-9) is an excellent mounding stonecrop with loads of pink flowers late in the season, and purplish-gray leaves the rest of the growing season. Low-growing, fall-blooming stonecrops like Rock ‘N Round look beautiful when planted along the margins of a prairie-inspired garden.  The succulents have thick leaves that hold water and are tolerant of hot, dry spells. Most new varieties have fancy leaves that are beautiful all season long. Sedums are generally deer resistant.

When planting any of these fall beauties, dig a hole twice as large as the roots, incorporate a few handfuls Black Gold Garden Soil into the backfill.  Then plant your perennial. Follow up by adding a quality slow-release fertilizer.

Adding just a couple of these pretty fall flowers to your late-season display will give it a boost. Hardier varieties can be planted in the garden now, or save a few for your need-to-get spring list.

Bountiful Fall Berries for Gardens

Bountiful Fall Berries for Gardens

As a child, we had golden raspberries in our woods in southern Indiana. Each fall, as I passed them in the morning to meet the school bus, I would see how many were ready to pick and pop the ripened fruits in my mouth. The lingering memory of their warm, sweet, raspberry taste makes them my ultimate autumnal berry, but there are many others to be grown and enjoyed in the garden. After doing a little research, I discovered that our woodland raspberry was likely an escaped golden-fruited Rubus ideaus, or cultivated raspberry, which makes finding it at nurseries easier.

Late-season berries come in all forms—from grapes to cranberries to raspberries. In this piece, I am also bending the definition of “berries” a bit to include figs, another fall favorite. (Botany lesson: fig fruits are technically aggregate or collective fruits called “syconia” (singular syconium) made up of multiple tiny fruits from multiple tiny flowers folded inward to form a single fig. The resulting fruit has a berry-like appearance.) Fall and figs go hand-in-hand. And, my figs are going gangbusters on this early September day, so I want to include them. They should keep producing into mid- to late-fall.

Garden Berries for Fall

Cranberries grow best in boggy soils that are peaty and sandy.

American Cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon, USDA Hardiness Zones 2-7): Ripening by late September to October, no berry says fall quite like the tart snap of an American cranberry. Cranberries are fully evergreen and grow in bogs with moist, sandy, acid soils. If you lack a bog (most of us do), it’s smart to create special beds for the best yields. Rows of low-set, broad nursery pots partially sunk in the ground and filled with sand and Black Gold Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss work well. Keep the pots moist and supply fertilizer for acid-loving plants. Lots of pink, bell-shaped flowers will appear in springtime (bees pollinate the blooms) followed by ripe red cranberries in fall. Full to partial sunlight is needed–that’s at least 6 hours per day. The variety ‘Pilgrim‘ is especially attractive and spreads to form a tidy groundcover with plenty of flavorful berries.

Cape gooseberries are easy summer fruits you can grow from seed.

Cape gooseberry or Peruvian groundcherry (Physalis peruviana, Zones 10-12): Imagine growing golden fall fruits that taste of tart pineapple, which can be grown like tomatoes or tomatillos. These are Cape gooseberries, close tomato relatives from subtropical regions in Peru. The husked berries are golden when ripe and mature from August until mid-fall when nights grow cool. Tender Cape gooseberries produce fruit the first year from seed, which is why they are grown as annuals. Eat them fresh or use them to make jam for canning or pie.

Concord grapes need time and training, but the fresh fall fruits make them worth the work.

Concord or Fox Grapes (Vitis labrusca hybrids, Zones 4-8): Sweet, aromatic Concord grapes are a late-season treat that taste of grape jelly and purple grape juice. The twining, woody vines need a strong fence or trellis for best production and begin to produce fruit by late September. Seasonal pruning in spring will keep vines productive and in control. (Click here for some grape-pruning tips.) Try the popular Seedless Concord. It has all of the great flavor and vigor of the traditional type but it lacks the seeds–making them easier to process into jelly, juice, and pies.

Many figs ripen in late summer or fall for fresh eating or drying.

Figs (Ficus carica, hardiness varies) grow very large (6 to 15 feet by 8 to 20 feet), even compact varieties, so plant them in an area with space. My Zone 7 garden requires that I choose hardier varieties. I have found that some hardy varieties taste better than others. My top choice is the small-fruited, super sweet sugar fig ‘Celeste’ (USDA Hardiness Zone 6-10) with its copious small, squat, purplish-brown fruits that produce most on second-year wood. This year mine is producing beautifully. Another that I want to try is the Louisiana State introduction ‘LSU Gold’ (Zones 7-9), which produces very flavorful, sweet green figs with pinkish flesh. Expect this more southern fig to be more cold-sensitive. When plants die back to the ground, they do not always set fruits on new wood. One means of protecting plants through winter is mounding mulch around the crown in late fall and then removing it in spring after the threat of frost has passed.  (Click here for a full overview of figs.)

Golden raspberries ready for the picking.

Golden Raspberries (Rubus ideaus hybrids, USDA Hardiness Zones ): Some late raspberries are red and others are black, but I like the gold ones for their delicate, sunny flavor and unique beauty. There are several from which to choose. The large berries of  ‘Anne Yellow‘ are deep gold with almost a hint of orange. Berries appear July and again in fall on tall, upright plants with thorned stems. Double Gold Yellow is a patented berry with thimble-shaped gold fruits blushed with pink. Thorned fruiting canes produce berries both in summer and again in fall. Pull and prune back new suckers to keep rows tidy.

Sink a few of these sweet berried plants in your garden next spring, and you will be rewarded with a wealth of fall berries. In the meantime, look for them at your local farmers market or roadside fruit stand.

When is the Best Time to Plant Lettuce in California?

When is the Best Time to Plant Lettuce in California?

“When generally is the best month to start lettuce planting [in California]?” Question from Rebekah of Clovis, California

Answer: Lettuce is a cool-season crop, which means that it thrives in cool weather and can even take a light frost but not hard freezes. When the weather becomes hot, most lettuce varieties quickly become bitter-tasting and set seed (bolt).

Based on the Clovis climate summary, your weather remains cool enough for lettuce from October through to April or May. Within this time, you should be able to grow more than one crop. Just be sure to grow it in fertile soil and keep the beds well irrigated during dry weather. We recommend drip irrigation for dry California climates. (Click here to learn about adding drip irrigation to raised beds.)  If you anticipate an unexpected frost, cover your plants with frost cloth.

Clovis, California Climate Summary

I encourage you to watch the following video about the 10 best lettuce varieties and how to grow them from seed.


Happy lettuce growing,

Jessie Keith

Black Gold Horticulturist

Bold Grasses for the Fall Garden

Pennisetum ‘Jade Princess’ is a spectacular variety with huge, showy plumes.

With many summer-flowering annuals beginning to fade, autumn is the season when many ornamental grasses take center stage. I do not want to dismiss those ornamental grasses that look quite good in the garden during the summer, and some that look good all year round, but by careful selection, a gardener can pick certain grasses that are at their prime in the fall season. In my neighborhood, I see ornamental grasses being used much more frequently than in years past. Nowadays, there is such a large assortment available that I will highlight favorites that have consistently performed well in my Pacific Northwest garden.

Keep in mind that most grasses, these included, grow best in full sun and require well-drained soil with average to good fertility. Hardiness varies among the perennial species. Adding a little Canadian sphagnum peat moss at planting time is always welcome.

Ornamental Millet

The bold ‘Purple Majesty’ ornamental millet stands out in the garden.

An annual grass that I regularly see in garden centers is the bold purple ornamental millet (Pennisetum glaucum ‘Purple Majesty’), which reaches up to 4 feet. It provides purple foliage, which can be quite striking from summer into fall. If planted in a full sun location, the blades will be the darkest. Upright purple flower spikes appear above the foliage, usually in mid to late summer. More compact ‘Jade Princess’, which reaches 2-2.5 feet, is another exceptional variety with lush green blades and large, puffy purple-red spikes that curve at the tips. Ornamental millet spikes are often cut when fresh and dried for Halloween or Thanksgiving arrangements. If the seed heads are left on, they are an excellent source of food for wild birds.

Chinese Feather Reed Grass

The striped Chinese feather reed grass ‘Gold Bar’ is a real stand out all season long.

If I had a favorite Chinese feather reed grass, Miscanthus sinensis ‘Gold Bar’ would be top on my list. It is an introduction by Joy Creek Nursery in Scappoose, Oregon as well as a Great Plant Picks selection. As the name indicates, ‘Gold Bar’ has golden, zebra-stripe bars that begin at the base of the green blades and continue to the tips. It is ideal for large containers or planted in a garden in need of striking foliage throughout the season. ‘Gold Bar’ is more compact and upright for feather reed grass, with a maximum height of 4-5 feet. It is also hardy, surviving in USDA Hardiness Zones 5-8. The foliage turns tawny brown in winter and has nice structure, so wait to cut it back to the ground in late winter.

Purple Moor Grass

Variegated purple moor grass has attractive variegated foliage. (Image by Daderot)

For an easy-to-grow, small, clumping grass, variegated purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea subsp. caerulea ‘Variegata’, Zones 4-9) is an outstanding choice. The yellow and green variegated foliage grows 1-2 feet tall and works well as a border plant along a flower bed. In late summer and early fall, clusters of airy yellow to purple flower spikes appear about 2-3 feet above the clump.  The purple flower spikes contrast well with the variegated foliage, and as they age, they turn yellow and look quite attractive into the autumn season.  Cut the plant to the ground once the flower stems have faded. During the growing months, moor grass needs additional water when it is dry.

Tall Moor Grass

Another worthy garden grass of the same species is tall moor grass (Molinia caerulea subsp. arundinacea).  This one has broader gray-green leaves that can form a clump about 3 feet tall with blooming stems up to 8 feet.  One of its most popular, best forms is ‘Karl Foerster’ (to be distinguished from the more common feather reed-grass, ‘Karl Foerster (Calamagrostis × acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’), which has 2-3 foot leaves and feathery stems that can reach up to 7 feet.  The form ‘Skyracer’ has plum-colored plumes that reach straight into the air. Tall moor grass survives in Zones 5-8.

Giant Feather Grass

Giant feather grass looks like a glistening cloud when in full bloom.

Native to Spain and Portugal, the tall flower spikes of giant feather grass (Stipa gigantea) rise high above the foliage and can reach up to 6 feet in height from clumps that are 2-3 feet high. It is drought-resistant and hardy in Zones 6-10. Be sure to plant it where it can be appreciated as a specimen plant.  It makes a very bold statement in a gravel garden.  Airy stems of yellow flowers appear in summer, and a large plant in full bloom almost looks like a glistening cloud.  It is a real attention-getter when in full bloom. Cut it to the ground in late fall or when the leaves begin to fade.

This listing presents a small sampling of some of the ornamental grasses that are available at local garden centers.  If there is a particular public garden in your area that features perennial grasses, fall is an ideal time to visit to get an idea of what they look like at the end of summer in your area.  Fall is also a good planting time.

What Can I Plant in Midsummer For Fall in New Jersey?

“What can I plant now – mid-July – to avoid having empty sections in my garden?” Question from Glenda of Sewell, New Jersey.

Answer: Choose cool-season vegetables and flowers that look good until frost. These perform the best as fall temperatures drop. Most even withstand frost. You probably won’t start to see frosts until mid to late October, depending on the year, so these should color your garden for a while. Here are my suggestions.


There are quite a few high-performing flowers that shine fall. Some are commonly known, like pansies, chrysanthemums, and other common nursery fare. But, there are others that you can plant now to fill open spaces now for fall.

Dahlias are a great choice. They can tolerate hot summers but really bloom gangbusters in fall. Plant a few tall or compact specimens in empy garden areas now, and you will be rewarded.

Spike celosia: These colorful, upright bloomers will look beautiful until frost.

Marigolds: Most marigolds will continue flowering until fall.

Salvias: Lots of salvias bloom and continue to feed hummingbirds until frost.

Annual cut flowers are lovely fall garden additions and include sweet peas, love-in-a-mist, and others. (Click here to learn more about seed-starting flowers for fall.)

Perennial fall sedums are also great choices that will fill spaces year after year and offer big color late in the season. (Here’s a great piece on tall flowering sedums.)


Rotate cool-season vegetables into your garden now. These should be planted in midsummer or late summer for fall harvest. Here is the standard list.

Cole crops: cabbage, cauliflower, collards, broccoli, broccoli rabe, kohlrabi, and kale.

Greens: arugula, endive, lettuce, mustard greens, radicchio, and spinach.

Root crops: radishes, scallions, carrots, turnips, leeks, parsnips, and rutabagas.

Peas are another good option. For ornamental fall edibles, choose colorful swiss chard, kales, cabbages, and ornamental hot peppers. (Click here to learn more about seasonal rotation of vegetables.) (Click here for beautiful container designs with ornamental hot peppers.)

Growing Tips

All of the flowers and vegetables mentioned prefer full sun and fertile soil. Good yields and successful flowers will grow best in beds amended with Black Gold Garden Compost Blend and good, all-purpose fertilizer. Container plants really thrive in Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Mix.

I hope that these tips help!

Happy fall gardening,

Jessie Keith

Black Gold Horticulturist

Mike Darcy’s Favorite Fall Trees and Flowers

This Stewartia pseudocamellia is in fall color.

The fall season is upon us and what a glorious time of year it is. As I walk around my neighborhood and drive around Portland, the many deciduous trees are turning brilliant shades of color. The more brilliant they are, the better.

Favorite Fall Trees

Stewartia pseudocamellia seed pods, L Foltz 2014
Stewartia pseudocamellia seed pods

Many maples are turning red, some are orange, and others are shades of yellow.  The Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) trees are turning golden yellow, and our summer annuals are telling us that their time is almost over.  Sometimes we can have a tree that gives us scarlet fall foliage as well as beautiful seed pods.  Stewartia pseudocamellia is just such a tree. Mine is planted in my front yard where it takes center stage.



Salvia splendens Saucy™ Red
Salvia splendens Saucy™ Red looks great well into fall.

Yet, there is still much color in the garden, not only from foliage but from flowers as well.  In my own garden, I am quite a Salvia fan and always willing to try new varieties.  This past spring I purchased Salvia splendens Saucy™ Red, and I was rather disappointed with it in summer.  It did not flower well compared to my Salvia guaranitica ‘Black & Blue’.  Well, I had a very pleasant surprise this September. Evidently, Saucy™ Red likes cooler weather, shorter day-length, or maybe both, because it burst into full bloom and has continued ever since.  It is mid-October, and the 7-foot-tall plant has burnished scarlet flowers on almost every stem. Sadly, the tender plants are only hardy to USDA Zones 9-10, so I will have to replant if I want to enjoy this Salvia again.

Impatiens tinctoria

Impatiens tinctoria
Impatiens tinctoria is an unusual garden flower that looks great in fall.

Another new garden flower this year is the 8-foot-tall, large-flowered, Impatiens tinctoria, which comes from the rain forests of East Africa.  I had first seen it growing in a friend’s garden three years ago and was surprised to learn that it is a winter hardy perennial, surviving USDA Zones 7-11.  This is my second year to grow it, and I learned that it likes grows best in shade with protection from the hot afternoon sun. In the spring, I worked lots of humus into the soil around it and mixed in Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Soil. Today my plants are over 6 feet tall and blooming with a flower that does not look anything like a garden impatiens.  These flowers are fragrant at night and attract much attention from garden visitors.

Cover Crops

Now is the time of year to put the summer vegetable garden to bed.  The tomatoes are finished, as well as the beans, squash, peppers, etc.  Once these plants are removed, it is an ideal time to prepare the soil for next season.  Mix Black Gold® Garden Soil 0.05 – 0.02 -0.05 into the beds and plant a cover crop. Cover crops are broadcast legumes, or grasses such as buckwheat, that are planted to cover the garden in winter and are tilled under in spring.

BG_GRDNSOIL_1CF-FRONTLegumes are plants in the Pea Family (Fabaceae) and include clovers and vetches. With the help of symbiotic bacteria called Rhizobium, they “fix” nitrogen from the air back into the soil, making it available to other plants.  Thus, by planting a cover crop, you increase the nitrogen level of your soil while also protecting your beds from erosion and aggressive winter weeds. The added organic matter from the spring-tilled cover crop with also benefit your garden soil.

We always get some “sunny windows” during this season.  These windows give us a wonderful opportunity to get out in the garden and do fall chores.  Fall is also a great time to “edit” your garden.  We all have plants that have gotten too big, are in the wrong place, or maybe we are tired of them.  Walk around your garden with a note pad and make notes on garden editing that you can do throughout winter.  But, most importantly, enjoy the season and its many colors.

Heirloom Vegetable Seed Saving

These ripe heirloom vegetables contain seeds that are ready to harvest and store for the next year.

Seed saving is easy, saves money, and ensures that your seeds have come from a reliable source (your garden!). Smart seed saving requires that you (1) allow your seeds to fully mature, (2) clean your seeds properly, (3) store your seeds correctly, and (4) know exactly what you are saving and storing. Step 4 is probably the most essential and least understood.

Seed-saving gardeners want to collect true-to-parent seed that performs like the parent plants, but this requires a basic understanding of heirlooms, hybrids, and pollination. Will the tomato seed you are saving be a true-to-parent heirloom, or are you saving the anomalous, mystery progeny of a hybrid? To answer these questions, you must know your vegetable varieties and their hybrid statuses.

Hybrid Seeds

Lycopersicon esculentum 'Early Girl' JaKMPM
Hybrids, such as this F1 hybrid ‘Early Girl’ tomato, do not produce true-to-parent seed.

If you bought any F1 hybrids, then these vegetables were hybrid crosses between two carefully selected, known parents. Hybrids are more vigorous and have desirable traits that make them special—such as added disease and pest resistance and great fruit production. With F1 hybrids, crop performance wins, but seed saving doesn’t because they don’t yield true-to-parent seeds. The only way to grow a given hybrid each year is to purchase new seed from a vendor. Hybrid seed is also more expensive because the hybridization process takes more time and money.

So, what if you did collect F1 hybrid seed? What do open-pollinated hybrids yield? Their seed would produce unstable variations of the parent plants. For example, take the slicing tomato ‘Big Red’, which is a disease-resistant F1 cross between the two tomato varieties, ‘Pritchard’ x ‘Jubilee’. An open-pollinated ‘Big Red’ may cross with other garden tomatoes, which will introduce variation. In addition, the saved seed would also yield plants with a mix of traits representing the original parents, ‘Pritchard’ and ‘Jubilee’. What a mess! There is no way to know what you might get.

Heirloom Seeds

Heirlooms, such as these ‘Brandywine’ tomatoes, are reliable in producing true-to-parent seed.

Open-pollinated heirloom varieties are more stable. This means that you can collect them from year to year, and the collected seed will be like the parents, with few exceptions. For example, if you save seed from ‘Brandywine’ (1889), ‘Black Krim’ or ‘Gold Medal’ (1921) tomatoes, the seed will produce plants much like the parents.

On occasion, an unexpected variant might arise in saved heirloom seed. It is up to the gardener to assess whether new variant should be maintained. If a mystery plant appears with desirable traits, then maybe you have found something special, and selection is in order. Selection means carefully choosing variants over generations for desirable traits, such as large and tasty fruit, good growth habit, and productivity.

There are many seed vendors that specialize in open-pollinated heirlooms that can be saved with confidence. The Seed Savers Exchange is one of the oldest and most reliable sources of old, heirloom varieties.

Collecting, Cleaning, and Storing Seeds

Packets of seeds ready to store. (Note that the dill seed contains some chaff.)

On average, seeds cost around $3.00 a packet, so you can save money by collecting your own. Good, viable seed can only come from fully mature fruits. This means that bean or okra pods, husks of corn, or tomato and pepper fruits must be fully dry, colored, and ripe before collection.  You might also consider leaving a few herbs, carrots, lettuce, beets, and radishes to flower and set seed for collection, in addition to the more obvious fruiting crops.

Dry Seed Cleaning

This Indonesian winnowing basket, called a Nyiru, was created for rice.
This Indonesian winnowing basket, called a Nyiru, was created for cleaning rice seed.

It is easy to collect seeds from dry or open fruits. For example, pepper seeds can be lightly scraped from cavities (beware of spicy fingers from hot peppers!), poppy seeds shake out of dry capsules, and corn kernels pop off of dry ears. This process, called threshing, may be clean or messy, depending on the seeds and their fruits.

Threshed  seeds often contain chaff (unwanted bits of dry plant material, dirt, and insects), which can be picked out by hand, sifted off, or removed by winnowing. Winnowing is the process of removing the lighter chaff from the heavier seed by tossing it in the air and allowing the wind to carry the chaff away.

Winnowing baskets were created across cultures to assist with this process. These can still be purchased today and used for home seed cleaning.

Water winnowing is another option for dry seeds. Here, very small seeds are placed in a bowl of water. The seeds will settle to the bottom, and the chaff will float to the top. Then the water can be gently poured away until the seeds are left at the bottom. The seeds can be gently picked up with a paper towel to dry.

Wet Seed Cleaning

Fermenting ‘Red Currant’ tomato seeds

The seeds of fleshy, wet fruits require more elaborate cleaning steps. Tomato seeds are the messiest to save. The juicy fruits have seeds with a slimy membrane that should be removed to ensure good storage and germination.

In nature, the fruits are eaten by animals and the seeds pass through and out, membrane free, but this is hardly helpful for the seed collector. Two-day fermentation is the easiest way to naturally remove the seed membranes.

Start by cutting open the tomatoes and scraping out seeds from the fruits. Place them in a clear, lidded glass or jar. Add 2 to 3 inches of clean tap water. Lightly cover and allow the seeds to sit for one to two days, or until the contents become frothy on top. Pour the contents through a sieve and rinse the seeds in water until clean. Allow them to dry completely on a clean, dry towel.

BG-Seedling-1.5cuPumpkin, melon, and cucumber seeds can simply be scooped and cleaned in a fine colander under warm running water. Pieces of membrane may need to be picked away from the pumpkin or squash seeds. The clean seeds will be a little slippery, but that is okay. Dry the seeds on a light colored towel before packaging.

Package and label the seeds before storage. Plain paper packets are best. Number 1 coin envelopes are the perfect size and shape. Be sure to label each with the plant name and date, for consistency. Store the packets in a lidded paper box kept in a cool, dry place.

Then, towards winter’s end, break out the Black Gold Seedling Mix, plant up your seeds, and start your vegetable garden planning anew.

Shrubs with Fall Color

This late-season Pacific Northwest landscape shows the bountiful blooms of a pink-flowered crape myrtle.

In the spring, gardens come alive with tulips and other spring-flowering bulbs, and the peonies and many other herbaceous perennials emerge from the soil.  It is a time of much BG-Peat-Moss-8qtanticipation for gardeners.  We often visit our local garden centers to see what is new, in bloom, and what we must have. In the fall season, however, gardeners are less apt to visit garden centers or other gardens. As a result, many late-blooming trees and shrubs are overlooked when there are so many trees and shrubs with fall color to consider.

I began to seek out trees and shrubs that provide good fall color some time ago. Whether the color comes from flowers, berries, bark, or foliage, there is a surprising assortment to chose from. My plants of choice were selected for Pacific Northwest gardeners, but they can also be cultivated in other parts of the country.


Hydrangea quercifolia fall color JaKMPM
Hydrangea quercifolia fall color. (Photo by Jessie Keith)

While hydrangeas are noted for their spectacular flowers in late spring and summer, some varieties provide great fall color.  One is Hydrangea paniculata ‘Fire and Ice’.  The cream-colored spring flowers change to pink as the season progresses, and by the end of summer the papery blooms turn dark to medium pink.

Oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia) put on a great fall show with both colorful flowers and foliage. Not only do their pinkish-tan flowers remain attractive into winter, but their leaves turn brilliant shades of red. ‘Snow Queen’ is a large, carefree oakleaf hydrangea with rich mahogany red fall leaves and very large flowers.

Hydrangeas grow best in humus-rich, moderately moist soil.  Before planting amend with Black Gold Peat Moss Plus. It contains an organic wetting agent and helps hold soil moisture during the hot days of summer.

Crape Myrtle

There are so many selections of crape myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) that it can be difficult to make a decision if one only has space for a single plant.  Older varieties were traditionally late blooming and prone to powdery mildew here in the Pacific Northwest, but most new selections are resistant to powdery mildew and will flower from July to September.  An added bonus is that crape myrtles bloom on new growth, so they can be pruned to size in winter or spring if space is a consideration.  The flower colors range from white to lavender to shades of pink and red.  Some varieties even have red, bronze, or dark purple foliage, which can provide a nice contrast against a home or large border.

Peanut Butter Shrub

Clerodendron trichotomum fruits look almost like flowers and remain colorful on the shrubs until early fall.
Clerodendron trichotomum fruits look almost like flowers and remain colorful on the shrubs until early fall.

Clerodendron trichotomum, often referred to as the “peanut butter shrub” due to its leaf and stem fragrance, is a mid- to late-summer bloomer that produces brilliant clusters of fall fruits.  Each fruit has four fuchsia calyces that surround a metallic turquoise drupe. The showy fruits remain on the tree into the early fall.

European Spindle Tree

Euonymus europaeus 'Aldenhamensis'
Euonymus europaeus ‘Aldenhamensis’ has cheerful pink and orange fruits.

Euonymus europaeus ‘Aldenhamensis’, (European spindle tree) produces a comparable display of brilliant fruits.  In spring, rather nondescript clusters of small white flowers appear. In fall, fruits appear that are brilliant pink outside and open to show orange berries.  If that is not enough, the leaves turn brilliant fuchsia before dropping.

There is much to be seen in the garden at this time of year.  Not only are summer annuals still going strong and dahlias at their prime, but many trees and shrubs are putting on quite a show that should not be missed.  It is a good time to visit your local garden center to discover these and other fall-blooming trees and shrubs for autumn. (Click here to discover more fabulous fall-blooming shrubs.)