"All the leaves are brown, and the sky is gray..." So sang The Mamas & the Papas, which dates me. But we had a very good run this year, didn't we? A long, measured fall with lots of bright color and a real Indian Summer (another song, but that one's from my parents' generation).
The slow pace of the season gave us quite a few days to do fall gardening (hope you all got those bulbs planted!) and an opportunity to observe some of the lesser sources of foliage color that are easily overlooked while the Maples, Hickories and Oaks are blazing away.
One of the first splashes of brilliant color comes from a vine that I would never recommend planting, but there's so much of it around that it can be enjoyed from a safe distance. That's Toxicodendron radicans, aka Poison Ivy, pictured above climbing an old Catalpa tree near Kinderhook. Although I've never heard of anyone growing it as an ornamental, it's known to have been sent back to England by some of the early plant explorers and grown there by John Parkinson, who included it in his 1640 herbal.
Another early color splash, and far less toxic, is Purple Love Grass, Eragrostis spectabilis. It's native to the eastern US from Maine to Texas, and tolerant of dry, sandy and infertile soils. Not very prepossessing until it comes into flower in late summer, when the cloudlike bloom can often be noticed along highways or in unmown fields. It's used to great effect (above) in the Spencertown garden of artist Linda Horn, who's assisted by garden designer Heather Grimes.
A terrific companion for grasses, and another American native, is Amsonia hubrichtii, the Arkansas Blue Star. Pale blue flowers in late spring are followed by mounds of deer-proof foliage, whose delicate texture complements bolder plant forms. Come fall, it morphs through greeny-gold into shades of buttery yellow, sometimes quite brilliantly.
Euphorbia polychroma 'Bonfire' is always colorful, from the moment it emerges in spring until it's covered by snow, but it looked particularly nice this fall contrasting with the leaden hue of this Rue plant, Ruta graveolens 'Jackman's Blue'.
Many of the hardy Geraniums color up nicely in the fall... this is Geranium macrorhizzum 'Ingwersen's Variety', an indispensable groundcover plant for me, and some of the smaller ones, like Geranium x cantabrigiense 'Biokovo' become brilliant little mounds of red in October.
All the Hakone Grasses, also known as Japanese Forest Grass, are beautiful and graceful plants, useful for providing a linear texture in shade, but there are some that have striking autumn color as an added bonus, like Hakonechloa macra 'Nicolas'. A slow grower, but worth the wait.
Almost everyone grows some Hostas, and many of them turn bright shades of yellow after frost. This unidentified variety in my garden pleased me with its lurid, almost iridescent demise.
I don't grow many Astilbes but I'm partial to this one, 'Delft Lace'. The flowers are a good solid shade of pink, not timid or washed-out, but it's the foliage I really like. It emerges tinted reddish bronze and matures to a deep glossy green, then takes on some good color in the fall. Trend conscious, it varies from year to year... last fall it chose shades of yellow and pink and this year, red was apparently the thing!
Tan, brown and beige are colors too, and can serve as foils and complements to all the fiery shades of the trees and shrubs. Left to right: the late-blooming Aster umbellatus (here in garden designer Betty Grindrod's sunny border) has white daisies followed by these fluffy seed heads. Miscanthus giganteus, the tallest grass we can grow hereabouts, takes on silvery-gold tones before bleaching to pale tan. And cumulus clouds of seedheads are the climax of the season for the fine-textured native Boneset, Eupatorium hyssopifolium.
I love these bobbles in beige, the seed heads of one of the native Bee Balms, Monarda fistulosa or Wild Bergamot, again in Linda Horn's garden of almost entirely native plants. Also featured prominently among the tall grass plantings on the High Line.
The fall rains and cool temps always prompt many interesting fungi to emerge. This velvety brown beauty popped up under one of my White Pines and I have no idea what it's called... any mycologists out there who can help?
Three more perennials that were show-offs in my garden this season: Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomeum), pink-flowered Epimedium (Epimedium rubrum), and Dwarf Crested Iris (Iris cristata 'Tennessee White')
Even the lowliest plants can be eye-catching as the seasons change, like this ground-hugging Sedum 'Angelina'. Lime green through the warm months, she bronzes beautifully in the cooler temperatures of fall and early spring.
There are many more colorful small plants that can be appreciated for their autumn tints, we just need to keep our eyes open for them, and savor their often vivid progression towards dormancy.
Welcome to Sempervivum, an opinionated, sometimes informed and completely unqualified journal of gardens, plants and plantings by artist-gardener Robert Clyde Anderson.