The Mountain Gardener: Choose fall bloomers for late-year color
by Jan Nelson
Oct 04, 2012 | 2148 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print

Every garden changes over time. Gardening is a process, a constant experiment, so don't get discouraged when things don't go exactly as planned.

For example, a cool spring may cause some things to bloom later, while a warm, dry winter speeds up plant and flower development. Maybe that pink flowering tree now conflicts with the red blooms nearby. Whether it's caused by climate change, or just the weather, take comfort that your garden can grow more beautiful each year with just a little tinkering.

At this time of year, look to the following plants combined with ornamental grasses coming into bloom to carry your garden until autumn color from trees and shrubs kicks in. Go for dramatic extravagance with color combinations that inspire.


Russian sage’s tall, airy, spike-like clusters create a lavender-blue cloud of color above finely textured gray leaves. This perennial has a long blooming season, and the cool color of the flowers is stunning in the fall garden. There are several varieties available with different shades of soft blue to violet blue flowers. Most grow 3 to 4 feet tall. Little Spire Russian sage is a shorter, upright selection that doesn't flop over in the landscape. It adds a sense of lightness to the garden. You'll love the cool color on a hot day.


The lavender-blue flowers on Aster x frikartii ‘Moench,’ a perennial, can get to 3 inches across and cover the plant with blooms from early summer to fall — or even longer in mild winter areas, if spent flowers are removed. They attract butterflies and make good cut flowers. This reliable, drought-tolerant plant thrives in full sun, grows 2 to 3 feet tall and is mildew resistant.


Agastache, also called hyssop, is deer resistant and attracts hummingbirds, butterflies and bees to the garden. Aromatic foliage on Blue Fortune smells like peppermint and lemon when brushed or crushed. The flowers on Electra are vivid orange. Then there's licorice mint hyssop, orange hummingbird mint hyssop, anise hyssop and a whole slew of hybrids of every color in the rainbow: lavender, pink, apricot, orange, purplish, coral, powder blue, tangerine, red. Agastache is easy to grow in full sun or partial shade and is drought tolerant. Just be sure to provide excellent drainage.


Salvia is the workhorse of the garden. A long blooming season makes these plants right at home in the fall garden. There are about 900 species of salvias — the largest genus in the mint family. Choose from many new cultivars, such as Dancing Dolls, with rose and cream-colored flowers. Another good choice is a California native hybrid called Starlight that blooms with long white flower wands that really stand out at twilight.

There are lots of Salvia greggii varieties available, such as Pink Frills, Golden Girl and Neon Dancer, which has vivid rose and red flowers. Salvias are drought-tolerant and deer-resistant. Although they tolerate some shade, they look best when planted in full sun. To encourage repeat bloom, trim off spent flower stalks when they start to look rangy. They will re-bloom for months.

Another common plant from this huge family is the Mexican bush sage. They’re so showy that people mistake them for huge lavender plants. They are vigorous and upright, growing to 3 to 4 feet tall and just as wide. Velvety purple and white flowers cloak foot-long stems. Salvia Santa Barbara is a compact selection that grows 2 to 3 feet high and spreads 5 feet wide. These plants stop blooming only when frost hits them. To limit plant size and renew flowering stems, cut them back close to the ground before spring growth begins. You can't go wrong with Mexican bush sage if you have a large space to fill. Hummingbirds love it, too.

Perennials should be planted in multiples, not only for beauty's sake, but also to minimize maintenance.

Let your trees and shrubs lend structure and year-round interest to the garden with an explosion of perennial color that gets all the attention. Just don't hesitate to change what needs adjustment, and don’t be afraid to transplant if a plant needs a better location.

- Jan Nelson, a landscape designer and California certified nursery professional, will answer questions about gardening in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Email her at, or visit to view past columns and pictures.

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