Top 10 plants for a beautiful autumn garden
After the glory of summer, autumn can be a tricky time in the garden, as plants start to die back for the winter. But the autumn garden needn’t be a damp, brown, spent space. With bit of clever planting, you can make it a vibrant place to enjoy into November and beyond. Eden horticulturist Emma Pearce shares her top tips for the perfect autumn garden.
For me, the ideal autumn garden is not only one that’s ablaze with late flowering blooms, but is full of beautiful seedheads, and stunning foliage – and is buzzing with wildlife. I’ve chosen a top 10 of plants that will be colourful and structurally interesting well into autumn and can provide habitat and food for wildlife throughout the winter if left untouched.
Top 10 plants for an autumn garden
1. Michaelmas daisy
Image: Dominicus Johannes Bergsma
If you’re after a plant that stands out against the murky backdrop that is most gardens in autumn, you can’t do better than the mass of purple flowers that is Aster x frikartii ‘Mönch’. While some Michelmas daisies are prone to mildew, ‘Mönch’ shakes off pests and disease with scarcely a care. It does well in any decent soil and is easy to propagate: just pull off rooted stems and pot up in compost. Other options are the North American asters (now Symphyotrichum).
2. Smoke bush
Image: David Stang
People are wary of planting smoke bushes, for fear that they’ll take over the garden, but these autumn colour favourites respond well to pruning, and smaller cultivars are available too. Cotinus coggygria ‘Royal Purple’ and ‘Grace’ are both large shrubs, with foliage that turns red, orange and yellow in autumn and stays put well into November, while Cotinus obovatus is a small tree with fiery autumn colour. Of additional interest are the flowerheads, whose fluffy appearance gives the plant its ‘smoke’ effect.
Backlit by the low autumn sun, the upright feathery plumes of Miscanthus sinensis 'Ferner Osten’ seem to glow, lending a lightness to the border when everything else is looking a bit sad. It’s tall, reaching nearly 2m in favourable conditions, so give it space to show off and plant it where it can catch the sun. The flower plumes are deep red when freshly emerged. M. ‘Malepartus’ is even taller, with red flowerheads reminiscent of Astilbe and golden foliage in autumn, while the compact M. ‘Starlight’ has golden plumes throughout summer.
If you’re lucky enough to have a sunny, south-facing wall, try growing Nerine bowdenii next to it, either in the ground or in pots. A South African special, its striking bright pink, purple, red or white flowers will catch the eye when the rest of the garden is winding down. The bulbs need hot, sunny conditions to flower well, and they reward neglect; the more congested they are, the better the blooms.
5. Fountain grass
The fluffy seedheads of fountain grass Pennisetum alopecuroides look like a fountain of fireworks and persist well into winter, glowing in the crisp autumn sun. The different cultivars give plenty of interest earlier in the year, too: ‘Red Head’ has upright, red-tinged flowering spikes, while ‘Hameln’ has beige flowers and a more compact form.
6. Jerusalem sage
While Phlomis has long finished flowering by November, what does continue well into autumn and winter are its amazing structural flowerheads. Each dark brown stem has several whorls staggered along its length and, standing upright above the leaves, these create a bold counterpoint to a paler backdrop such as grasses. P. russelliana has yellow flowers; P. tuberosa has pinky-purple. Both can reach 1m or more in height in rich soil.
7. Cutleaf coneflower (Rudbeckia)
Around our Core building are ‘hot’ beds, featuring plants with red, orange and yellow flowers arranged to fiery effect. One of the last to flower is always the North American coneflower Rudbeckia laciniata, whose lofty stature and bright yellow flowers create quite a stir at the back of the border. Group it with Miscanthus sinensis and Monarda didyma for a prairie effect, and leave the seedheads on the plant for finches, tits and other garden birds to enjoy.
8. ‘New World’ salvias
Once you start with these colourful plants, you’ll want to keep adding more and more to the garden. Their compact size and endless flowering makes them an essential addition if you have a sunny garden with well-drained soil. Most will make it through the winter in milder parts of the UK, but take cuttings in autumn just in case. My favourite cultivars are Salvia x jamensis ‘Nachtvlinder’ (darkest purple flowers), S. microphylla ‘Royal Bumble’, and S. greggii ‘Stormy Pink’ (pale pink flowers on dark stems). They also look great in pots.
9. Toad lily
Image: André Karwath
Native to East Asia, toad lilies have unusual speckled flowers (hence the name) held high above mid-green foliage that are sure to brighten up a damp, shady corner. Cultivars of Tricyrtis hirta and T. formosana have pink, purple, white or blueish flowers, while T. latifolia’s flowers are yellow with brown speckles. Here at Eden, they bloom well into December.
Scent is a rare commodity during colder months, but Mahonia x media ‘Buckland’ pumps out its perfume even during frosty weather. Its vibrant yellow flowers – which stand out even on the dankest autumnal days – and its tolerance for shade make it suitable for dark corners where other plants might struggle. Grape-like black berries follow the flowers and are eaten with gusto by blackbirds at an otherwise lean time of year.
Top tip for a wildlife-friendly autumn garden
If you’re keen to attract wildlife to your garden, be sure to plant colourful late blooming flowers such as Michaelmas daisies or Rudbeckia, which can be a source of food for pollinators who may be still on the wing if the weather is warm and sunny. And when your garden starts to wind down in autumn, the best thing to do is simply… nothing! All those stems, seedheads and spent clumps of herbaceous perennials give wildlife somewhere cosy during the coldest months and are a brilliant source of food for insect and birds. Believe me, the wildlife will enjoy it, and your garden will stay full of interest well into the season.
Emma Pearce is a Horticultural Scientist (Conservation) at the Eden Project.