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Fall Color in the Flower Garden

15 October 2013
Fall Color in the Flower Garden

At this time of year, we are used to looking up to see the changing pageantry of tree leaves as they put on their autumnal hues. Here in Vermont in October the hillsides and valleys are a blaze of vivid reds, yellows and oranges as maples, birches, oaks and other trees put on their yearly show. Not to be outdone, shrubs like viburnums, dogwoods and fothergilla dazzle the eye in the middle ground.

But if we take a moment to look down, we can also see lovely fall color developing on the leaves of some of the herbaceous perennials in the flower garden. Mixed in with late bloomers like goldenrod, asters and anemones, the perennials with colorful fall foliage continue to add interest to the garden long after their flowers have passed by.

One of my favorites for its fall foliage display is a plant that has much to recommend it in other seasons as well. The tongue-twistingly named hardy geranium Geranium wlassovianum has velvety foliage that emerges in spring with burgundy tints, changing to a soft gray-green as it matures. Against the leaves, the one-inch, five-petaled, violet flowers stand out over a long season of bloom from mid-summer to fall. The foliage remains attractive throughout the growing season, ending with a display of fiery red as the weather cools.

Hardy in zones 3-8 and growing about 18 inches tall and 24 inches wide, this geranium makes a great ground cover planting in full sun and reasonably moist soil. I grow mine in a bed along with lady's mantle, Alchemilla mollis, whose leaves are similar in color and texture. As the lady's mantle's airy sprays of chartreuse flowers begin to fade, the geranium adds color from blossom and leaf for the remainder of the season.

Other plants that add to the fall garden with their changing leaf colors include herbaceous peonies, whose leaves take on tints of burgundy and gold, and bluestars (Amsonia spp.), which turn an eye-catching clear gold. Many others in the hardy geranium clan also turn shades of red and orange, including the hybrid 'Rozanne,' bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum), whose common name reflects the bright hue of its fall foliage, and Geranium x cantabrigiense 'Biokovo,' another great groundcover with pink-tinged white flowers in early summer over semi-evergreen foliage. Cushion spurge (Euphorbia polychroma) turns from green to a dramatic, smoldering purplish red with hints of orange, the perfect foil for the blue or purple flowers of the low growing Wood's aster.

So take a moment to pull your eyes away from the sight of vivid tree leaves against a blue October sky and enjoy the changing colors at your feet as well!