It’s that time of year again. The summer garden’s bright blooms and easy vibrancy are fading into fall. In many Northwest gardens, that means the beginning of a long season of brown, mushy twigs.
It doesn’t have to be that way.
“The fall component to a garden is just as important,” said landscape designer Heidi Skievaski and owner of Sublime Garden Design in Snohomish.
Too often landscapes are missing the structure — the paths, pergolas and the like — that gives the garden visual interest through the fall and winter, she said.
People often get seduced by a shrub’s blooms or that quick punch of color from a mass of annuals. They overlook the beauty inherent in leaves, bark, conifer needles, the graceful arms of a bare tree, a simple flagstone path or even a boulder. These are the gardener’s palette for creating more interest in the fall garden, she said.
Here are a few of her suggestions.
Assess the bones of the garden: Too often people think about the plants first when planning a garden. That’s a mistake, she said. The paths, patios, pergolas and other permanent elements to a garden provide structure.
Like a home, a garden needs a good foundation. The plants should come later, just as furniture comes after a home is complete.
Newer homes usually come with what she calls “a starter patio” that’s too small for even a small get-together. She suggested replacing it with a larger one, perhaps made of flagstone.
The type of material used for the patio should be dictated by the style of the garden and the house. If you choose flagstone, make sure the stones are at least 2 inches thick and large enough to set a nice chair on.
An arbor can provide an inviting entry to the garden and draw the eye. Consider a seating area, if the yard is large enough.
When it comes to paths, she often uses gravel or flagstone.
Add more evergreens: Trees and large shrubs also contribute to structure in the garden. Many gardens lack enough plants that keep their leaves all year, other than rhodies and azaleas, Skievaski said.
Successful gardens have a balance of both deciduous and evergreen plants. Gardens also should have plants with a variety of attributes: some that offer interesting foliage, some with bold blossoms and a few with intriguing bark.
Evergreen doesn’t mean just green: Evergreen plants can be yellow or orange or even bluish. Interesting evergreen shrubs and trees are available to augment or replace those ubiquitous rhodies.
Many won’t grow to be towering green monsters. Better check the label to be sure. Dwarf conifers are a solution for small yards.
Select plants with multiseasonal interest. Plants should do their part in the garden through the seasons, particularly in smaller gardens, Skievaski said.
Fall is the best time of the year to plant because roots have a chance to establish in the cool, wet months.
Just for starters, consider the Japanese stewartiatree, which offers the triple combo of amazing bark, flowers and leaves.
If gardeners knew more about the plants available, they’d make other choices, she said.
Great Plant Picks at www.greatplantpicks.org is a good noncommercial resource for researching plants that perform well in the Northwest.
Enhance interest with pots and art: The No. 1 mistake Skievaski sees people make with both pots and garden art is selecting pieces that are too small. Be fearless. Go big.
Selecting garden art is a bit like accessorizing the top of the living room mantel. It’s better to invest in fewer larger pieces than many smaller ones, she said. Just one good piece of garden art can serve as an eye-catching focal point.
Same with containers. They look big in the store, but they often get dwarfed in the landscape. She prefers groups of three. Her rule of thumb is the grouping must have something in common: either the trio is the same color or style or shape. For instance, three red pots in different shapes, or three tall, columnar containers in contrasting colors.
Remove annuals from containers in the fall and spruce up with evergreen and foliage plants. Using one-gallon shrubs is an inexpensive way to add structure. They can be removed and planted in the garden later.
Also think about adding boulders. Never do less than three. Large yards will need groupings of more. The boulders should look natural in the landscape, as if they have emerged out of the ground, she said.
A hunk of stone acts can function as a piece of sculpture in the landscape. And a boulder can double as seating.
If you’ve got a pickup truck and a few muscled friends, boulders are available for about $50 each.
A few of Heidi Skievaski’s favorite fall-interest plants:
1. Heuchera: a semi-evergreen perennial with bell-shaped flowers. She particularly likes Berry Smoothie, Miracle, Ginger Ale, Peach Flambe.
2. Scarlet leucothoe: a low-growing evergreen shrub that turns burgundy in fall and winter, and has white bell-shaped flowers in spring.
3. Conifers with fall color: She suggested golden pine and Eastern white pine (actually blue in color).
4. Nandina Gulf Stream: an evergreen shrub with red, orange, purple and green fall color and red fruit.
5. Abelia kaleidoscope: a semi-evergreen shrub with variegated gold foliage, white flowers in summer, orange-tinged in fall.
6. Sunshine Blue blueberry: a shrub with bluish foliage that turns red-orange in fall, and offers fruit in August and September.
7. Japanese stewartia: a tree with patchy camouflage-looking bark, red fall color and white summer flowers.
8. Oak leaf hydrangea: a shrub with footlong, cone-shaped, creamy white flowers in summer that fade to pink. Also offers cinnamon-colored peeling bark, and its leaves turn deep red to orange and purple.
9. Coppertina ninebark: a shrub with coppery-colored foliage in spring turning to rich red. Light pink flowers emerge in summer. It also offers red seed capsules and peeling bark.
10. Shasta viburnum: a shrub covered in flat-topped white flowers in late spring. It turns red to purple in the fall, and its berries turn from red to black.
Heidi Skievaski, Sublime Garden Design of Snohomish; 206-818-6065; sublimegardendesign.com