Carolyn Singer: Perennials add to autumn color |

Carolyn Singer: Perennials add to autumn color

Carolyn Singer
Dwarf plumbago adds fall color in Carolyn Singer's rock garden.
Photo by Carolyn Singer

Trees steal the show in fall. Even this week, as the native black oaks turn to golden brown, accented against the rich greens of ponderosa pine and cedar, I find myself looking up at all the colors in the native landscape and in local gardens.

However, a quiet walk in my own landscape reminds me that perennials, too, add to the autumn hues. Pulling my attention away from the trees, I look down. Fall maintenance is postponed for these plants that bring lingering beauty to the garden.

Fall flowers

Bluestar (Amsonia ciliata) is one of my favorite perennials during the growing season and into winter dormancy. Its dark green willow-leaf foliage on gracefully arching stalks is a strong addition to the flower border or wildflower meadow, and does not fade with summer heat. Attractive blue flowers open in late spring, followed by interesting seed pods, long and slender.

But wait! There is more to come.

In fall the foliage of bluestar turns golden-yellow, glowing from a distance. The show doesn’t last long, especially in a very warm and dry fall such as we have been experiencing. Soon it will be time to cut back this past season’s growth, leaving no stalks showing.

The seed pods of Amsonia may be gathered and sown on the soil surface. In late spring, tiny seedlings will appear. Harvest the seed pods after they turn brown in late summer. By November they have often split open, dropping the seed close to the parent plant.

Peonies, too, add to the fall landscape with soft golden-brown, similar to the fall color of black oaks. While it is possible to divide established peonies in fall, foliage would need to be cut back prematurely in the process. If you are not propagating root divisions, let the foliage “ripen” naturally.

Peony stalks will eventually weaken and lie on the ground. Only then should you cut them back to the crown at ground level. Do not leave short stalks to decompose.

In one of the shadier areas of my garden, Epimedium invites closer viewing. If I were not out wandering through the garden at a leisurely pace I might miss its fall color. This is a very low-growing plant, but it is the particular fall color that is lost in the bigger show. Rich brown and red-brown is an eye- catcher as I pause to sit on a garden bench.

Taking it all in

How delightful it is to have a special garden detail at my feet as I pause in my wandering to take in the total fall display from that perspective.

Perhaps fall is for lingering outside, especially on the warmer days. The exquisite autumn lighting catches all the rich colors for several weeks.

Soon I will begin fall cleanup, first attending to a border of tall fall-blooming perennials that have finished blooming and now have mature seed. The seed heads add to fall interest in the garden, and several tiny birds feast on the harvest. I save some seed to share with other gardeners.

Knowing the growth habit of each perennial will guide you in maintenance. Some die back completely in winter. These should be cut back to the ground, leaving no stalks, in late fall or early winter. Spring growth will be far more attractive without dead stalks.

Then there are evergreen perennials such as Jerusalem sage (Phlomis) that need little or no maintenance. The seed heads that follow the attractive yellow flowers are a main attraction in the fall and winter garden. The large leaves are an attractive groundcover all year.

When in doubt, err on the side of caution, cutting flower stalks to just a few inches until you are certain they are dead. Do not cut leaves at ground level if they still have vigor. Someone doing maintenance one fall in my garden got carried away with cleanup and the perennials did not return the following season.

Fall maintenance should not be rushed. Pause to enjoy the changing colors and light in autumn.

Carolyn Singer has gardened organically in Nevada County since 1977. She is the author of the award-winning “The Seasoned Gardener, 5 decades of sustainable and practical garden wisdom,” and two volumes of “Deer in My Garden” (deer-resistant plants), available locally. Send your gardening questions and comments to Check out her website at

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