Fall into Color

Colorful ideas for autumnal outdoor spaces and what to do now for a vivid spring.


Inject color with annual-filled containers 

To add immediate fall color to your landscape, try container gardening, says Anne Marie Adams of Ebert’s Greenhouse Village in Ixonia. Containers are transportable and can be moved throughout a property to fill a color void. When selecting varietals, stick to the “thriller, filler, spiller” rule. “The tall ones are called thrillers, and then the ones that kind of surround the thriller are called fillers,” Adams explains. “Then the third one is a spiller, which cascades over the side of the container.” For fall, Adams recommends:

● Rudbeckia (also known as black-eyed Susans) or millet as a thriller

● Flowering kale, pansies, purple fountain grass or ornamental peppers as fillers

● Whopper begonia or annual grasses as the spiller.

Adams also suggests fertilizing your containers once weekly with a balanced fertilizer, which typically contains equal amounts of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. “The nitrogen keeps the leaves green, phosphorous is for the root development and keeps [the plant] flowering, and potassium also improves development and helps guard against disease,” she explains.

Plant perennials now to set their roots

“Fall is a good time to plant [perennials],” Adams says. “The weather is cooling off, and there’s less stress on the plant.” Hardy mums, asters and black-eyed Susans are safe choices, but Adams recommends purple coneflowers, heuchera (commonly known as coral bells), sedum and helenium too. “There’s a switch grass called Cheyenne Sky, which is green in the summer, but in the fall turns wine-red. It’s a nice backdrop for something that’s yellow,” she adds. There’s no need to fertilize perennials, Adams says, as they should focus on dormancy, but mixing organic material such as leaf compost into the soil is beneficial. 

Jim Drzewiecki of Cedarburg’s Ginkgo Leaf Studio says he now encourages clients to plant in September, versus waiting until October or even November. “Because we seem to be having wildly varying winters, I’m starting to tell clients that I don’t feel comfortable putting plants in the ground after the end of September,” he continues, adding that plants generally require four weeks to set their roots.

Shop local to avoid fragile plants

Drzewiecki warns that big-box garden centers often bring in Southern-grown plants — many of which aren’t geared to Wisconsin winters. “It can be a plant that’s zoned as hardy for here, like an arborvitae, but if it’s spent its entire life growing from a seed in Kentucky, it can literally can go into shock that first winter because it’s never been in that cold of a temperature,” he explains. Shop local garden centers and nurseries to ensure your plants are Wisconsin-bred and prepared to face a long and bitterly
cold winter.

Select plants that provide year-round interest

When designing a landscape, Drzewiecki says he tries to incorporate plants that provide year-round interest, such as shrubs with interesting bark or trees with berries. “We do try to include some perennials that don’t bloom until late summer or fall, which I think is always a nice surprise for a client — when they go into their yard in September or October and have plants that are still flowering.” For late bloomers, Drzewiecki suggests:  

● Solidago, or goldenrods, a flowering plant in the aster family

● Ligularia, which flowers in September or October

● “Purple Dome” aster — its grape-purple color provides a nice contrast to warm fall colors

● Fall-blooming crocuses 

Plan for next spring this fall 

“Fall is truly a great time to be planning next year’s project,” says Drzewiecki. “... If you wait until April, or even March, you might find out that the landscape contractor can’t install your project until July. But if you talk to us now, in the fall, it’s slightly slower then, so everyone doesn’t have to feel as rushed. If we can get it designed and quoted for an installation before the end of the year, there are two pluses to that: One, the client gets the current year’s pricing because everything, of course, goes up the next year, and two, they likely get one of the first spots on the contractor’s schedule for the next spring.”  

Another option, Drzewiecki adds, is to complete the hardscaping portion of your project in the fall, when a torn-up yard is less disruptive, and have the plant beds prepped too, but wait until the following spring to install the plants. Then a mid-June project completion date is likely feasible, he says. MKE