Finding Fall’s Showstoppers

[__From our Zonal Horticulturist Kellen Goodell__](

While fall is arguably many people’s favorite time of the year, it has more to do with the crisp air, shorter days, comfort cuisine, and increasingly important matchups in the sports world than it does with the compelling things occurring in our gardens.

Fall is a very underrated and exciting time in the garden for many reasons, and there are a lot of things to observe. Plants have had all spring and the long summer days to grow through their cycle and do what they do. Some have already had their show of flowers and now offer their seedheads, structure and a changing of color to the garden. These are spring and summer perennials like Tickseed (Coreopsis), Coneflowers (Echinacea, Rudbeckia), and ornamental grasses like Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), and Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium).

Other plants can bloom all summer and into the fall and some, if pruned at the right time, can have second and third flushes–at a higher level and with a denser backdrop of vegetation from neighbors to offer a completely different experience than the first bloom. These are plants such as Crinums, Roses, certain Salvias, Cannas and more.

Still, there are some real fall showstoppers, the plants that grow bashfully, slowly but surely all year long, until their crescendo with a jaw-dropping peak. A few of these plants featured in our parks right now are Mexican Sage (Salvia leucantha ‘Santa Barbara’), Firespike (Odontonema strictum), and Swamp Sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius). The highest concentration and biggest showcase of some of these plants can be seen right now at Tiedemann Park and Nature Center.

The Conservancy installed this project at Tiedemann in phases in 2012 and 2013. Since then, it has had much to offer: a shade and sun palette and a bioswale, which peaks in October with the blooms of Swamp Sunflower. This native sunflower has rigid stems and lush, hairy, narrow leaves. We prune it in June or July to control the height before it begins to bud in September and bloom in October. Even with pruning the plant in half over the summer, it reaches heights that it cannot support itself, especially when it becomes loaded with countless showers of bright golden daisies. Garden staff and volunteers construct armatures with stakes in late summer to support the often 10-to 12-foot tall clumps throughout the swale.

The bioswale is the long, low, contoured ditch in the center of the park and garden. It serves as the point where water collects and is distributed horizontally, rather than just inefficiently percolating immediately down into the water table. The swale is loaded with marshy and water-loving bulbs, shrubs, and perennials for year-round interest.

The seasons of a garden are an emotive thing to observe over the year. The first signs of life and bright-colored flowers in spring after a long winter are welcomed and exciting. Then summer’s unrelenting 15 hours of daylight bring extensive lush growth and blooms and many possibilities. Still, there is something to be said and not overlooked about a well-designed garden in the fall. Not only for the fall-flowering thrillers, or the fact that there is a last eruption of life before the short days of winter arrive. It is the harmonious intermingling of so many different species, at different stages of their life cycles, at the end of a long season of growth that brings immense satisfaction. A once-barren landscape is now bursting at every seam. Bright, lively blooms dance in the breeze among decaying deadheads and skeletons of what once were, while the airy, fine-textured grasses and seedheads tickle the bare branches of trees and shrubs as their fading leaves begin to drop. It’s the final curtain call of a well-cast play before the slate is wiped clean and begins all over again.

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