Allen Lacy, the late and venerated garden writer, once called fall “the neglected season.” But it has become a prime focus for many American gardeners.
“We like the way the different textures come to the fore,” says Ann Friedman, a retired Montgomery County teacher, who with husband Tom, author and New York Times foreign affairs columnist, gardens on seven acres in Bethesda, Md. “For instance,” she explains, “the plumes of our perennial grasses wave in the wind, or droop, or change color.”
Sophisticated gardeners have always incorporated plantings to showcase the richness of the fall garden, says John Fitzpatrick, former president of the Horticultural Society of Maryland. “But the 1980s rediscovery of perennials, beyond bearded irises and peonies, extended the ability among gardeners to focus on the fall.”
Simultaneously, the New American Garden, a style pioneered by Kurt Bluemel, Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden, took hold. It emphasized dramatic use of grasses and swaths of perennials to further four-season interest in the garden, with fall as a highlight.
As delineated by Lacy in his 1990 book “The Garden in Autumn,” the key elements include perennials that linger past summer, as well as annuals, woody plants, grasses and perennials that are specific to fall. In addition to the incandescent foliage of North American deciduous shade trees (“unmatched elsewhere on earth,” wrote Lacy), these gardens include ornamental trees, shrubs, grasses and plants with subtler hues, varied textures, fall blooms and bird-attracting berries to create rich, autumnal layers.
A looser feeling, with swaying grasses, prodigious seed heads and falling leaves, adds a new dynamic. Even the most manicured spaces relax. Migrating birds arrive for further action. And under the golden light of autumn, once considered the denouement of the gardening year, these well-planned gardens showcase the possibilities for fall planting.
Barbara and Howard Katz
Layering is the thing in the all-seasons garden that Barbara Katz first designed for a client in 1995, then ended up owning after she and her architect husband, Howard, bought the property in 2002.
The steep hill behind the 1995 Glen Echo Heights house drops eight feet from its highest point to the patio. Terracing of a once-bare slope creates drama and ample space for year-round plantings at the back of a quarter-acre property.
“This is a rambunctious, informal country garden,” explains Katz, 58, owner of London Landscapes, “influenced greatly by the Netherlands and England.” As a young actress, she met Howard in London and fell passionately in love with plants there (her future husband, too).
The focal point of her autumnal Maryland garden is a Bloodgood Japanese maple. “Its brilliant display is even more ephemeral than spring flowers,” she says. “But that’s part of the magic. It turns flame-red, and then the leaves last only a couple of days. The carpet of colorful leaves on the ground creates another extraordinarily special moment in the garden.”
Shades of maroon, purple and rose fill smoke trees, cut-leaf Japanese maples and kousa dogwoods, as well as asters, stonecrop and annual coleus. Autumn light amplifies the yellow hues of hinoki cypress, gold-tip Japanese cedar trees and Lemon Queen sunflowers and plays off the dwarf conifer needles of mugo pines and blue spruce. "It's all about texture and depth," Katz says.
Seed heads on grasses attract birds. "Early in fall, goldfinches look as if they're bouncing off the Molinia Skyracer [purple moor grass]. … I don't cut anything down until February or March," to the benefit of birds, praying mantises and ladybugs.
A waterfall on an upper level feeds a fishpond below. “The pond adds a dynamic to the garden. We leave it on all year, and birds literally fall from the trees,” she says. “We have migrating warblers and even indigo buntings.”
Besides birds, fish, bees and an occasional fox, chipmunks and squirrels visit, scurrying to store nuts and seeds for winter, adding more movement and live action to this dramatic fall garden.
Ann and Tom Friedman
On a rainy morning, an allée of red maples creates a gold and crimson canopy that brightens the long, curved drive to the house Ann and Tom Friedman built 14 years ago. “We built our house around the old trees, which our deed restricted us from removing, not that we wanted to,” says Ann Friedman, 63, bending to weed a mulched walking path that follows the Bethesda property’s perimeter.
Three times around this path equals a mile and offers an easy tour of the varied garden rooms encircling the stone and stucco house. “It traverses continually changing terrain and light conditions,” Friedman, a passionate gardener, says as she enters a bamboo corridor. “There is something new to look at every season, at every turn.”
Hundreds of trees (200 were installed after the Friedmans arrived) create a symphony of autumn color amid a modernistic hardscape. Sandy Clinton, the landscape architect who designed it, describes the style as "painterly" or "planterly." Indeed, the Friedmans' gardens resemble a series of landscape paintings.
Flowing around the front lawn, house, garages, terraces, pool and putting green Ann gave Tom, 64, for his 50th birthday, masses of perennials, ferns and grasses fill well-organized gardens. Repetition and curvaceous installation of plants create continuity and movement.
Autumn light catches changing plants. "We love the way the low setting sun casts a bronze light ... especially on the astilbe, ferns and grasses such as Calamagrostis stricta," Friedman says. Her fall favorites include oakleaf hydrangea, stonecrop (inside the pool fence away from deer) and berries on crab apple and cherry trees. "We have many berry-laden trees for birds to enjoy." Migrating monarch butterflies congregate on stands of native milkweed.
Friedman uses trimmings from grasses, especially the seed heads of Indian woodoats (Chasmanthium latifolium), at Thanksgiving. She also finds that leafless trees add artistic dimension, especially the curving branches and leathery pear-shaped fruit of red horse chestnut. And a collection of garden-enhancing outdoor sculptures, on the theme of literature and literacy, is even more evident in fall. One piece in particular, a 10-foot stainless-steel sphere of letters, numbers and symbols by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, shines against the scarlet backdrop of native black gum trees.
Pink, white and purple make up the spring and summer palette of blooms here. “But lots of gold-flowering perennials like ligularia and rudbeckia take over in the fall,” Friedman says of one shade in the deeper tones that play through her late-season gardens.
“It’s a competitive sport on Capitol Hill,” Gary Mintz says of the many fine gardens in his neighborhood. Only a few, however, appear to have the fall appeal of his.
The borrowed landscape of deciduous street trees creates a golden backdrop for Mintz’s 1,500-square-foot garden, one filled with curvaceous hostas and hellebores and statuesque heavenly bamboo that resonate with the carefully sited sculpture among them. What at first appears to be a minimalist landscape, free of riotous perennial borders, is far from that. Around a 1906 bank, which was redesigned as Mintz’s house by Brawer & Hauptman of Philadelphia, is a small but fine garden with diverse horticulture.
Designed by Oehme, van Sweden landscape architects, the garden is in the classic New American Garden style: no lawn, repeated plant material, curves and four seasons of interest. Fall and spring are the two best.
“The garden seems to rejuvenate after the toll of the brutal D.C. summers,” says Mintz, 67, a cardiologist. “The end of August and the beginning of September are rather depressing, but the garden perks up in mid-to-late September.”
An outstanding fall feature is a native witch hazel, a delicate living sculpture with persimmon-edged leaves, which glow in morning light. Crimson leaves on nearby cornelian-cherry dogwood, kousa dogwood and serviceberry trees do the same.
While torches of red fill one side, berry-laden foster hollies line the opposite. Scattered groupings of two species of heavenly bamboo offer more color and berries. Their delicate foliage provides texture and an Asian accent.
Beneath trees and shrubs, swaths of perennials with slowly changing hues enhance the geometry. In addition to hostas and hellebores, perennials with autumn interest include perennial geraniums, bishop’s hat and dwarf mondo grass, which is the perfect edging for square bluestones. Seed heads on grasses add further geometry and movement in fall breezes. Small yellow flowers on tall, shade-loving farfugium and Winter Sun mahonia shine as the only fall flowers here.
“Because the canopy of the elm on East Capitol Street has grown 15 to 20 feet, the front garden has gone from a part-sun, part-shade garden to mostly shade,” says Mintz, whose extensive plant knowledge helps him understand what does well in the urban environment and the microclimates within this space.
“Fall,” he says, “is a much ‘safer’ time to plant than summer. ... It’s a great time to replace shrubs and trees, especially large specimens, as well as other plants that are finicky, and of course bulbs.”
“I always plant allium,” he notes, envisioning purple globes that in spring will add even more sculpture to his city garden.
Kathy Hudson is a Baltimore writer. For 20 years she has been the garden writer for Baltimore Style magazine. She is also the author of “On Walnut Hill: The Evolution of a Garden.”