Use the Department of Agriculture’s Plant Hardiness Zone Map to select annuals and perennials for fall. Hardy annuals can add a few months to the life of your garden; If you live in a warmer climate, they can last well into winter. Cold-tolerant perennials can come back each year if you protect their roots when temperatures dip below about 20 degrees. Take the pot to your garage or, if you live in a colder climate, bury the perennial’s pot underground.
We asked Steil and other plant experts for suggestions on plants to add life to your garden this fall. Here are their recommendations.
ornamental cabbage and kale. Decorative vegetables available at garden centers can add interesting color and texture to your garden. “They might look faded or washed out when you buy them, but the pinks, purples, and whites get deeper and brighter with cooler temperatures,” says Steil. If you prefer red plants, try turnips and Swiss chard. These annual vegetables can withstand slightly below freezing temperatures, but they will die off in the winter.
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ornamental peppers. Available in bright orange, red, green and purple, these pots and planters can add zest for the fall months, but don’t expect them to last until the first frost. “You would buy them now and keep them in a container until Halloween or Thanksgiving, depending on your zone,” says Debra Prinzing, a Seattle gardening expert who hosts the Slow Flowers podcast.
annual stock. Like snapdragons, another flowering plant that prefers cooler temperatures, the annual stock grows upwards and blooms in colors like pink, white, and purple. It can tolerate one or two periods of frost. “It’s a nice addition to a front door container because passers-by will smell its perfumed sweetness,” says Steil. Consider planting them in a container alongside smaller cold-tolerant flowers like Alyssum or Nemesia as a vertical accent.
Japanese anemone. Of all anemones, the Japanese — which grow on long, stalk-like stalks with small flowers — are the only ones that thrive in the fall. Find varieties 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 the wind and rain. After that, the yellow seed heads can make a statement in a pot or vase.
coral bells. Melinda Myers, a gardening expert in Wisconsin, says coral bells — considered hardy in zones 4 through 9 — can thrive in containers in cooler climates. “They have great leaves, so we really breed them for the leaves,” she says. They come in amber, purple, and peachy leaf colors, and most varieties can survive at least one frost. You can let them die back in winter or protect the roots by burying the pot in the garden or storing it in the garage.
Specialty Moms. Decorative florist mums that come in a variety of colors are a common fall find. In milder climates, they can be transplanted into the landscape for future enjoyment. However, specialty nuts are different than what you see at the grocery store. While florist mums are typically cultivated into compact balls and planted in containers for ‘seasonal colour’, many of the specialty mums have unique flower shapes and more subtle petal palettes, making them great late season additions, either in a pot or garden bed. Many tolerate temperatures of up to 20 degrees and, once they have taken root, last well into winter. Prinzing likes these mums in fall colors like 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 make a statement in their own right. Many species — like black mondo grass or Japanese sweet flag grass — can survive in cold weather, but they usually can’t withstand the weight of snow, according to Prinzing.
Blue Star. Some long-lived perennials bring joy all year round. This feathery perennial produces purple-blue flowers in spring and early summer. Delight in summer as a green shrub. Then, as the weather cools, the green leaves and stems turn a golden-copper color. “The stretched, driving vibe looks great in a fall discount,” says Prinzing.
Sweet Alyssum. These may look light and airy but are surprisingly hardy and will tolerate light frosts. If you can find sweet Alyssum in the fall—it’s typically sold in the 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 scent when you do go outside.
asters Potted asters are common in late summer and early fall when they start to flower. These flowers typically shed their delicate blue or lavender blooms when there’s a frost, but Prinzing says you can preserve the roots by moving them into your garage for the winter and then enjoying them in a bed or border next spring. “It’ll look like an ordinary green plant, and then you’ll wait all summer for it to produce bright flowers when very little else blooms.”
Ashley Abramson is a freelance writer based in Wisconsin.