Just because temperatures are dipping in many parts of the United States doesn’t mean your garden has to die. Planting cold-tolerant foliage in your beds or containers can add months of color and interest to your yard, while also providing food for hungry insects and birds.
Use the Agriculture Department’s Plant Hardiness Zone Map to choose annuals and perennials for the fall. Hardy annual plants can extend your garden’s life a few months; if you live in a warmer climate, they may last well into winter. Cold-tolerant perennials can come back each year if you protect their roots when temperatures dip below around 20 degrees. Bring the pot into your garage, or, if you’re in a colder climate, bury the perennial’s pot underground.
We asked Steil and other plant experts for suggestions on plants that will add life to your yard this fall. Here are their recommendations.
Ornamental cabbage and kale. Decorative vegetables, readily available at garden centers, can lend interesting color and texture to your garden. “When you buy them, they may look pale or washed out, but the pinks, purples and whites tend to get deeper and brighter as the temperature gets cooler,” Steil says. If you prefer red plants, try ornamental beets and Swiss chard. These annual veggies can withstand temperatures slightly below freezing, but they will die over winter.
Ornamental peppers. Available in vibrant oranges, reds, greens and purples, these can add pizazz to pots and window boxes for the fall months, but don’t expect them to last until the first frost. “You’d buy them now and keep them in a container until Halloween or Thanksgiving, depending on your zone,” says Debra Prinzing, a gardening expert in Seattle who hosts the podcast “Slow Flowers.”
Annual stock. Like snapdragons, another flowering plant that prefers cooler temperatures, annual stock grows upward and flowers in colors such as pink, white and purple. It can tolerate one or two episodes of frost. “It’s a nice addition for a front-door container, because passersby will smell its perfumey sweetness,” Steil says. Consider planting it in a container as a vertical accent alongside smaller cool-tolerant flowers, such as sweet alyssum or nemesia.
Japanese anemone. Of all the anemones, the Japanese — which grow on long, stalk-like stems topped with small flowers — are the only ones that thrive in fall. Find cultivars in pink, white or purple, with petals surrounding a striking golden center. Prinzing says these will last until the first frost, or until their delicate petals succumb to wind and rain. Afterward, the yellow seed heads can make a statement in a pot or vase.
Coral bells. Melinda Myers, a gardening expert in Wisconsin, says that coral bells — considered hardy in Zones 4 to 9 — can thrive in containers in cooler climates. “They have great foliage, so we’re really growing them for the leaves,” she says. They are available in amber, purple and peachy leaf colors, and most varieties can withstand at least one frost. You can let them die off during winter, or you can protect the roots by burying the pot in the garden or storing it in the garage.
Specialty mums. Decorative florist mums, available in a variety of colors, are a common fall find. In milder climates, they can be transplanted into the landscape for future enjoyment. Specialty mums, though, are different from what you see at the grocery store. Whereas florist mums are usually groomed into compact orbs and planted in containers for “seasonal color,” many of the specialty mums have unique bloom shapes and subtler petal palettes, making them great late-season additions, either in a pot or garden bed. Many can withstand temperatures down to 20 degrees and, if they have established roots, will last well into winter. Prinzing likes these mums in autumnal colors, such as peach and soft orange.
Ornamental grasses. These plants can complement potted flowers in fall, but Jonathan Fargion, a New York-based landscape designer, says they can be a statement on their own. Many species — such as black mondo grass or Japanese sweet flag grass — can survive in cold weather, but they typically can’t withstand the weight of snow, according to Prinzing.
Bluestar. Some long-lasting perennials bring year-round enjoyment. This feathery perennial grows purple-blue flowers in the spring and early summer. In summer, enjoy it as a green shrub. Then, when the weather cools off, the green leaves and stems transform to a golden-copper color. “The willowy, drifty vibe looks great in a fall border,” Prinzing says.
Sweet alyssum. These may look light and airy, but they are surprisingly hardy and will tolerate light frost. If you can find sweet alyssum in fall — it’s commonly sold in early spring, weeks before the last frost — Myers recommends planting the dainty blooms in a container on your porch or near your door, so you can enjoy their honey-like fragrance when you go outdoors.
Asters. Potted asters are widely available in late summer and early fall, which is when they begin to bloom. These flowers typically lose their delicate blue or lavender blooms when it frosts, but Prinzing says you can preserve the roots by bringing them into your garage for the winter, then enjoy them in a bed or border next spring. “It’ll look like an ordinary green plant, and then you wait all summer for it to produce vivid flowers when very little else is blooming.”
Ashley Abramson is a freelance writer in Wisconsin.