Glorious Fall When Warm Season Plants Thrive

Leaves cover my lawn. Most have fallen, leaving bare stems and branches.

The first leaves filter down the dense canopy as the stems let go their grip in early October. The vivid green expanses below become dotted here and there with color and shapes that just days before cast shadows on them. By early November, the wind has swirled piles into the corners, catching in shrubs and woody perennials in beds and borders. Maybe this is what comes to mind when one thinks of fall – the fall and swirl of leaves and the need to do something about it.

To me, fall is such a glorious time; greens fading to yellows, golds and russets. More yellows than russets – after all this is Amarillo – accompanied with brilliant canary, ochre, sienna, both raw and burnt, oranges, burgundy, mahogany and crimson reds against the shiny blue skies. Our green umbrellas fade into the fall palette; the colors of sunflowers, chamisa, mums, asters, liatris, gourds, pumpkins, sumac red and the wispy and alluring tawny grasses draw attention now. Where spring is the season of soft pastel shades of lemon, violet and pink, summer boldly shows yellow, indigo and red, fall explodes with gold, purple and crimson and winter cleanses the senses with whites, tans and grays. Each season's color displays a subtlety only nature could provide.

People base personalities on the seasonal color palettes. I'm an autumn. In color preference and season. To me, there is no season more glorious than fall. Spring is volatile and not to be trusted. Though we look forward to summer signaling idleness and leisure, it's a season of heat and dryness to be endured. I welcome fall with it's pleasant cooler temperatures and exuberance of life and robust color, blooms tapering off their peak of summer. A happy time of harvest and abundance. And though winter's cold, ice and snow is objectionable, it's expected. Winter's bleakness projects a beauty of it's own in a peaceful and simple landscape.

Autumn's color eruption is to be reveled in. It's more than just the last gasp from plants that endured summer's brutal heat. Fall is the time where warm season plants thrive. Temperatures cool both day and night, evening lengthens and fall rains return to renew growth. Leaf and flower combine to brighten the landscape with a double color treat. Although I greatly admire and appreciate the change of color trees provide, I find great delight in the appearance of the height and mass the autumn garden offers from the flowers at their peak in September and early October through to seed production and leaf color change. A harvest of a different sort – of color, texture, shape and size that displays the mature glory of each plant.

Warm Season Plants, Natural Fall Bloomers

As a novice gardener, my efforts were concentrated in the spring and summer garden. Fall was a time for planting spring blooming bulbs, harvesting fruits and vegetables, cleaning and preparing beds and borders. I don't think I was even aware that there was such a concept as planting for the fall garden until I was encouraged to "pay attention to the neglected but glorious possibilities of the fall garden" by Alan Lacy in The Garden in Autumn. Lacy's ideas for planting for a brilliant fall garden revolutionized my thinking, and subsequent gardening choices.

Alan Lacy, who wrote for the New York Times, gardened in New Jersey. But his advise is spot on for states below the Mason Dixon line, including the Texas Panhandle, where a preponderance of warm season plants thrive.

I am sure the autumnal blind spot within my gardening brain was there due to my early English gardening book education. Indeed, English gardening tomes were the standard we learned by. Sadly, Great Britain doesn't do autumn well, but enjoyed splendid spring and summer gardens whose grandeur owes much to spring bulbs, summer perennial and annual beds. Once September came, the sky grayed, the air misted up, temperatures chilled and the plants limped into mush.

While we await the relief of heat and welcome our Indian Summer, Britain had no such thing. There wasn't enough fire (so to speak) to whip up a decent autumn. Although the sun hangs lower, too, in the British autumn sky, it lacks the burnishing effect upon the golds and russets of late season flowers and grasses that we experience.

Back here in the New World, we have plenty of heat and heat loving plants whose life is dedicated to September, October and November. They're not late bloomers – they bloom right on time, in the third season, fall. You may read in plant description “loves heat and full sun, in some areas do not plant in the fall” in various catalogs. We can plant them in the spring or anytime from September 15 - October 15th. But if one gardens where it snows or freezes by September's end or when the ground freezes before Christmas, it's best to plant them in the spring.

After reading The Garden in Autumn and thinking back to the Texas Panhandle's past unpredictable springs, I decided to focus on summer and fall blooming flowers and shrubs instead of spring bloomers. I'm not sure if it was the snobbishness of Lacy's attitude captured in a statement that alluded “any gardener could have a great looking spring garden, but only a real gardener would have a great fall garden” (paraphrased) that put me on that path. Or it might have been the years in which one or more of the early, mid or late season tulips and daffodil blooms were frozen, the years the iris didn't bloom, or the lilac or wisteria blooms froze.

Then I tried to think of late summer and fall flowers that were done in by early winters – couldn't come up with any. Was it ever too cold for the crepe myrtle to bloom, the Flame Anisacanthus, Black Dalea, rabbitbush, goldenrod, agastaches, gaillardias and other daisy-like plants, paperflower, pavonia, sedums, tall purple vervain, sunflowers, asters, mums, Zauschnerias, sages, reblooming roses, broomweed, or liatris to bloom? – never. Has not Autumn Sage looked glorious in the fall? Have grasses failed to wave their stunning plumes?

My goal became to create a landscape filled with interest spring to fall, and if color bled into winter, so much the better. I even added a few reliable late season bulbs to add that extra bit of pop and sparkle. Zephranthes candida, the rain lily, “the flower of the west wind” from Argentina for September flowers, and Sternbergia lutea, called the autumn or winter daffodil, and the autumn crocus, two of which are Crocus speciosus var. alba and Crocus sativus, the saffron crocus for October delights. Of these three bulbs, the longest blooming are the rain lily, blooming on and off again for about 4-5 weeks. (Photo at left is of Sternbergia lutea.)


Warm Season Plants Good Fit for a Warm Region

Additionally, when making choices that favored warm season plants, I found I could use less water and spend less time on maintenance. Warm season plants take longer in the spring to break dormancy, but they finish well at the end of our gardening year. I can see how they came to be called late bloomers. When tried in more northern climes, they are the risky proposition with cold coming before their bloom. And in the case of Britain, not enough heat and sun to trigger flowering.

Fortunately for the Texas Panhandle, in a three season garden, leaf color change can last eight to ten weeks as chlorophyll in plants disappear and true color shows. Cool season leaves change and fall first with the warm season plants hanging on to prolong the color and season, often an awe-inspiring benefit of our place on earth. Some years, the fall season is extended into December where blooms persist through successive mild freezes. Before you know it, the new season begins again with the first crocus up and blooming under sunny January skies.

In a three to four season climate, gardening can be hectic even in the fall. The brilliance of the landscape and mild weather makes the work go easy. I delight in each season, but to me, it is at its glorious height in autumn.

(Leaves in transition on the right are from Saskatoon serviceberry, Amelanchier alnifolia, native to western North American forests.)

Angie Hanna, November 23, 2013