Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
I read in an article recently that the mark of a "true landscaper" was planting fall flowers. Now I'm not sure I agree completely with the author of that statement, but I do think that choosing to plant fall flowers does open up a whole new world of gardening if you haven't tried it before.
Growing up, my mom always planted annuals each spring, and they lasted until the first frost. As I got more and more interested in gardening, I wanted to try different things, including fall flowers. My mom was not interested. She said she didn't want me to waste my money like that, since the flowers would be killed by frost all too soon. To avoid an argument, I didn't bring home any fall flowers.
I waited until I had an apartment of my own to waste my money without my mom around to object. And it turned out that fall flowers weren't a waste of money. Even my mom reluctantly agreed with me, while she looked at the pansies still in full bloom on my balcony in November.
The first fall flowers I grew are still my personal favorites-- pansies and violas. Pansies and violas are both from the genus Viola. They have a similar face-like appearance, but pansies have been selected to produce bigger flowers than violas. Violas produce dozens of smaller flowers on one plant. Both are extremely cold-hardy, surviving light frosts with ease.
Keep an eye out this fall for the panola, a hybrid between pansies and violas. They combine the larger flowers of pansies with the high bloom count of violas. One description I found described panola as "violas on steroids".
Chrysanthemums are another popular fall flower-- a very cold-tolerant flower, but don't count on it to survive the winter. People often ask me which mums will overwinter well. Unfortunately, there is no way to know by looking at them. Even the ones labeled "perennial chrysanthemum" may behave like an annual and not survive to see next spring.
The best advice I can offer on overwintering mums is to choose a sheltered, well-drained location, plant them early so their roots will establish well before winter settles in, and add a little extra mulch around them for the winter.
I do not remove any of the dead foliage after my mums are done blooming for the year. The dead stems help hold the mulch in place, and offer a little protection of their own. I remove the dead stems in the spring only after I see new shoots emerging. So far, I've lost only a couple of the mums I planted three years ago.
It's tempting to think that bigger (and more expensive) is better when planting mums. This is not always true. Most of my mums, which are huge now, started out in little three inch pots and only cost about a dollar. I've received really large mums as gifts in eight inch or greater pots that barely made it through one season let alone survived the winter.
It takes a lot of energy for a large mum planted in the fall to grow enough roots to survive the winter. In contrast, a smaller plant has a smaller root system to contend with. The lower temperatures and sunlight of fall also means there is less energy for the plant to work with-- so again the smaller plant wins out.
Another favorite cool season flower of mine is the snapdragon. I planted a few last year, and they have re-seeded at will all over one part of my garden. They were flowering profusely earlier this spring, and have struggled through the heat of the summer, but are showing signs of bouncing back for the fall.
If you haven't noticed, I tend to stick to fall flowers that have some chance of re-seeding or surviving the winter at least once, to get the most bang for my buck. In the case of pansies, violas and snapdragons, I can get a good three months of flowers in the fall, plus a two or three months of bloom in the spring-- that's five to six months of flowering, easily equaling or exceeding all my 'summer' annuals. To me that is proof that fall flowers are not a waste of money-- chosen wisely they are a great way to stretch your gardening dollars. Given the state of our current economy, I don't foresee myself changing my ways anytime soon.