The Autumn garden


Above: Billowing perennials and ornamental grasses take center stage against a forested curtain of green under brooding autumnal skies at Westwind Farm Studio in Portland, the garden of Maryellen Hockensmith and Michael McCulloch. Below: Panicum ‘Shenandoah,’ characterized by orange, gold and purple blades, envelops a witch hazel and Joe Pye weed at Oakwood Gardens in Hillsboro, the home and garden of Julie and Mike Safley. // Photos by Joshua McCullough

My reward for living through the dog days of August is September — the gateway to autumn. Fall is my season. The equinox signals a shift in the rhythm of the seasons as plants begin preparing for their winter hiatus. Under sunny skies overlaid with amber the garden assumes a golden glow. As day length shortens and nighttime temperatures moderate, Mother Nature turns up the wattage for her seasonal finale.

This is the time of year plants dominate hardscape, dripping and spilling onto walkways and terraces. The outlines of pergolas, trellises and gates are disguised under ruffles of vines and climbers. Containers on terraces and porches overflow with foliage and flower — their last hurrah. By autumn, the garden has filled in, living up to the scale of its surroundings: big and bold, ebullient and joyful, lush and loud.

The full effect of a well executed autumn garden appears effortless. Trees and shrubs clothed in every shade of green assume star quality as they change into their autumnal attire. Arrayed in vermilion, plum, cordovan, crimson, russet, bronze and butterscotch, they play out the last act of the year. Perennials chime in with flowers resembling daisies, spears and trumpets in every color imaginable, while ornamental grasses dance in the winds of autumn waving delicate panicles. 

I seldom encounter a plant I don’t like or covet. However the constraints of gardening in a small space force me to limit my acquisitions to those that enhance the overall design of the garden. Creating a garden that feels cohesive in every season is all about layering the garden with plants that stand out, each in its turn.

For most of us, trees are the most memorable and breathtaking sight in the fall garden. Who hasn’t gasped at the foliage of a purple-leafed Japanese maple igniting into fiery red-orange. Twenty years ago I planted two beautifully proportioned Japanese maples with green foliage. One died and the other, while coloring a rich burgundy, still disappoints because the color isn’t a flaming red. A little research into the fall color of specific named cultivars would have allowed me to make a better choice. Planting a tree is a long-time commitment. The right tree in the right place adds value to the house while it creates a canopy that provides shade and ornamental interest. 

Shrubs are the main characters in the garden understory; they bridge the gap between smaller shrubs, perennials, grasses and the tree canopy. Deciduous shrubs with fabulous fall foliage or berries are threaded throughout my garden, linking all the layers of the garden together. The neon magenta-purple berries of Callicarpa ‘Early Amethyst’ (purple beautyberry) steal the show when paired with dusky black leaves and white flowers of Aster ‘Prince.’

Ornamental grasses add verticality and movement to the garden, contrasting with the more solid and staid forms of many shrubs and perennials. A stand of moor grass, Molinia ‘Moorflamme,’ is impossible to ignore when its mundane green blades turn into flames of purple topped by a haze of wheat-colored inflorescences. Moor grass is compact and a good companion for sedum and Itea ‘Little Henry.’

Perennials seduce me with their huge range of flower shapes, colors, fragrance, forms and textures. Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’, a perennial sunflower, is a stalwart in my garden, blooming from August to the first frost. Standing tall at the back of a hot, south-facing border, it shines a light on surrounding grasses and shorter perennials and shrubs. The clear blue stems and flowers of Russian sage, another perennial with a long flowering season, reach up into the H. ‘Lemon Queen.’

As the leaves begin to fall, I savor the pleasures of autumn and anticipate seasons to come.


A few fall favorites

The white bark of Betula utilis var. jacquemontii, Himalayan birch, and the deep greens of dwarf and full-sized conifers contrast with fall’s fiery reds and oranges in Portland’s iconic Platt Garden. // Photo by Joshua McCullough


Aster ‘Prince’—deep purple foliage paired with tiny, starry, white flowers

Cimicifuga ‘Black Negligee’—inky-black foliage, white wand

Dahlias—great performers—can’t have too many

Eupatorium ‘Little Joe’—great mid-border, purple-lavender flowers

Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’—covered for months with lemon-yellow blooms

Perovskia atriplicifolia—Russian sage is a garden stalwart for full sun 

Salvia ‘Black and Blue’—true blue spires and bright green foliage

Sedum ‘Postman’s Pride’—dusky foliage pairs with tight red-wine broccoli-like flower heads

Solidago ‘Crown of Rays’—this goldenrod produces an explosion of arching yellow rays

Ornamental Grasses

Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’—white variegated blades and flower heads from creamy-pink to bronze 

Molinia caerulea ‘Moorflamme’—foliage morphs from green to burgundy 

Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’—by autumn foliage is the color of merlot brandishing red flower heads


Callicarpa dichotoma ‘Early Amethyst’—clusters of bold purple-pink berries are a standout

Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Syke’s Dwarf’—brilliant fall foliage is burnished copper-red, burgundy, yellow and orange

Itea ‘Little Henry’—foliage turns from green to shimmering claret and purple 

Leycesteria Formosa ‘Golden Lanterns’— golden foliage coupled with deep beet-red bracts and berries 

Nandina domestica—sprays of crimson berries and rusty-red foliage 


Acer palmatum—color ranges from yellow-gold through crimson and eggplant

Cornus kousa—Asian dogwood displays red, orange and yellow leaves

Hamamelis— fall foliage color of witch hazels echoes the bloom color

Oxydendron arboretum—vivid red fall foliage