The graceful dead, pre-frost album

Fall is my favorite season. I love the cool mornings, the crisp blue skies, and watching the leaves change color. I even love the melancholy rainy days (as long as I'm not trying to garden) and especially the fog, They feed the wistful melodramatic in me.

Plants that look good this time of year are extremely important to me. That includes evergreens that look good year-round, fall-blooming plants, and plants that die gracefully. I don't have nearly enough of any of these categories (especially the fall-bloomers, notably Osmanthus fragrans var. aurantiacus). I've been walking around the garden with a hyper-critical eye (as usual), specifically to evaluate the appeal of plants in the fall. What I'm discovering is that there are a few plants I haven't paid enough attention to that take on new dimensions as they senesce, while others that I love simply look terrible. These kinds of inspections help to highlight problem areas in the garden and start me thinking on how to solve them. For many of the plants that die in ugly ways, I'll probably relegate them to some area of the garden more distant from the house. For others, I may try to re-position them with other plants that will hide them in their off season. If it's really ugly, I might even get rid of something all together.

This is going to be a picture-heavy post, and will likely have later installments as the season progresses toward winter (and then we'll be looking at things that are still attractive in that season).

It seems as though the heaths (Erica varieties) are starting to bloom earlier than usual this year. Then again, it's been a few years since I've been home in the fall, so perhaps my memory is foggy. Most of winter here is dark and snow-free, so white flowers show up beautifully, especially against rich, dark green foliage. Supposedly there are purple and nearly red varieties that bloom in fall and winter, too, but whenever I see them in real life I'm disappointed by how pink they look. Maybe if I tried ordering from a specialty nursery with more varieties to choose from. I know there's at least one in both Washington and Oregon. Then again, those darker colors wouldn't show up as well as the pristine white.

Hutchinsia alpina is another evergreen with saturated green leaves and white flowers. The main bloom season is in early spring, when the flowers nearly obscure the foliage, but it will produce flowers almost year-round, provided it gets a deep watering every couple weeks to once a month in summer. I do think it should have more flowers than this right now, and it may very well be getting munched on by armyworms, which have been wreaking havoc in my garden this fall.

The foliage of Cyclamen coum (below) and C. hederifolium emerges at the end of summer and lasts through fall, winter, and spring. Cyclamen purpurascens is evergreen with a bit of summer water.

This Diervilla Kodiak Black (Real cultivar name 'SMNDRSF'. I hate that breeders can get away with that.) has amazing fall color. I didn't know what to expect from it when I got it from Kate Bryant.

I wouldn't say Bletilla dies beautifully in a classic sense, but I kind of like the gradation from bright yellow, through brown, to black at the tips. After the leaves turn completely brown, they detach cleanly from the stems.

I missed getting a photo of the Magnolia stellata at peak color, but it does turn a rich yellow that glows on dark fall days. After the leaves fall, the light grey bark and fuzzy flower buds carry their own appeal.

This patch of Siberian iris is in serious need of division. As such a big clump, it really flops over and makes a mess. However, the yellowing leaves are much more attractive than the slimy, spotted grey brown of my bearded irises.

Calla lilies turn into a floppy, mushy mess in fall. I hate mushy. These callas never produce more than a few blooms per summer in my garden anyway. I think it's time to be ruthless and edit these out of the garden.

I'm not a fan of the way Echinacea purpurea goes dormant, either. The seed heads are fine, but I don't like the curling brown foliage along the stems. I'm not a huge fan of them to begin with, but the bees and butterflies love them so much. Still, I think I'll be removing these and finding other plants that attract bees and butterflies, likely natives.

Origanum 'Kent Beauty' is a little messy as the flower bracts turn brown and begin to fall. It's another plant that just doesn't die in a pretty way, though it looks fantastic in bloom.

Conversely, I've been very pleased with Origanum dictamnus. It's hard to photograph this small, newly planted specimen, but this ornamental oregano has yet to lose its leaves, even after the frost this weekend. It can remain evergreen in mild winters, but I have yet to find out at what temperature its threshold is. I like the smaller, more airy flower heads that (so far) don't look as messy in death as 'Kent Beauty'. We'll see how it performs in years to come, provided it survives. Some sources rate it as a little tender for my zone.

Geranium harveyi is also evergreen in mild winters, and I'm waiting to see where its threshold is, too, since this is my first year growing it. So far, it's been beautiful and silvery.

The Erysimum (right) I planted this summer have grown fuller with the cooler weather. The Kniphofia to the left still looks good now, but they do get a bit too messy in the winter for my taste. However, the flowers are so fantastic that there's no way I'm getting rid of them. I may, however, have to find places where their sometimes unsightly foliage isn't an issue or find ways to disguise it.

Artemisia schmidtiana is a new plant from this summer. It's recommended that these plants be cut back hard when the tiny flowers appear, to prevent the flopping and bare center you see below. I hesitated this year because I had just planted them and didn't want to set them back. Silly me, worrying about slowing down an artemisia. Next year, I'll be sure to cut them back when I see the flower buds appear, to maintain that beautiful mound of silver foliage.

But at least it has lots of buds that will produce new shoots in the center in spring.

Veronica spicata ssp. incana was a floppy, pampered nursery plant when I added it to this bed in summer. It looked gangly and awkward. Now it's producing copious new shoots from the center of the plant, and the long, floppy stems are rooting where they touch the ground. It's also starting to bloom. Unfortunately, it's grey is the type that turns green in the rain. I'm not sure if this plant is deciduous or evergreen, so I'll find out this winter.

Orostachys iwarenge does not die gracefully, at least not when newly planted. I've seen older patches form a nice carpet of rosettes. Perhaps once mine have filled in, it won't look so bad when the mature plants bloom and die.

This Acer rubrum definitely goes dormant with flair. It does require 2-3 deep waterings in summer, but it should become more drought tolerant with age. This one turned weeks later than most of the others I saw, both in my area and further south in Portland. It probably held onto its leaves longer thanks to those deep soakings and the fact that it isn't planted in a tiny strip of soil surrounded by asphalt or concrete.

I love the early fall flowers of Trycirtis 'Blue Wonder' but I can't say it's a looker after that. It falls into the unfortunately ugly category. In this case, I'm thinking I'll have to find some way to disguise the fading foliage. Planting it with the black mondo grass was a great idea for the bloom, but not so great for the fading foliage.

I love the shiny black seeds of Belamcanda and xPardancanda. They provide an interesting feature in fall.

But they definitely need something to hide their legs! I'll be relocating these to grow among or behind other plants to hide their ugly dead foliage.

Like the Siberian iris, this variegated Japanese iris needs to be divided. I'm planning to relocate it, too, because this location is too hot and dry. The flowers don't last long, and the foliage gets bleached out. So I'll have to look for something else to put in the hole it will leave behind. Both the Siberian and Japanese irises will be planted in a new border running along the dry creek bed, across from the south end of the house. This stretch gets a lot of water in winter, and the lower end stays moist all summer.

Podocarpus lawrencei 'Blue Gem' is always beautiful, but with the onset of cooler temperatures, the branch tips become red, with reddish chartreuse needles at the very end. It's most noticeable on the longer new growth, probably because those parts haven't hardened off as much and need some extra chemical protection from cold, resulting in the red color. I've decided I need lots more of these hardy dwarf podocarps. I've been so impressed with the performance of 'Blue Gem' in this hot, dry location in horrible, compacted clay soil. I recently added 'County Park Fire' near 'Blue Gem', though so far the color is only so-so.

Molinia caerulea 'Variegata' is among the graceful dead. This grass brightens to yellows in fall before fading to typical ornamental grass tan. The flower stalks remain upright for most of the winter. At some point, the leaves and stalks will look messy, but by then they will (for the most part) be easy to pull off by hand. The ease of clean-up is one of my favorite things about this grass.

This photo is in part for Alison of Bonney Lassie, who got a bag full of yerba buena from me at the fall plant swap. I've said before that Satureja douglasii doesn't form a very full cover, but I was wrong. I threw a bit of compost over this patch earlier in the summer, because it's growing on a thin layer of mulch on top of a permeable weed barrier, and really needed some nutrients, moisture retention, and just some more soil to grow in. It's really filled in nicely. I think I'll give it some more next spring.

There are still some threadbare areas, but I've added some sempervivums that will hopefully cover up those areas.

The colder temperatures have started to bring on the almost metallic purple that shades this plant in winter. Such a fantastic native ground cover. I've started taking pieces from the edge of this patch to move to some of the new beds I've made this fall.

I was surprised to see the fantastic fall color on this Koelruteria paniculata that I grew from seed. The colors aren't always this nice. Other plants may be a plain yellow. I love the range of colors, yellows and oranges, and hints of red, on this seedling. For some reason, though, it keeps dying back at the top. This time, it died all the way to the ground and then sprouted four new shoots from the base. This dying back may have something to do with the fact that it's growing in an old tire in which the soil that once filled it has sunk and moles continually tunnel through, making the tree more exposed to drought. It was meant to be a temporary, small raised nursery bed, and has spent longer in this state than it should have. I'll be planting it sometime this fall in a more permanent site, in the ground.

The silvery-white seed capsules of Calluna vulgaris will remain attractive all fall and most of the winter, until they get sheared off in early spring to keep the plants compact. Without the shearing, the areas covered in seed capsules can become ugly bare stretches.

I find this photograph oddly appealing, but I hate the dying foliage of bearded irises. Do they all do this, or is it just this unknown cultivar that I got for free when my brother worked for a landscaping company in high school? It looks so ugly in real life. I'm no longer sure I even want them in the garden. I love the foliage when it looks good, and the flowers are nice when they're fresh. Unfortunately, this particular bearded iris is very susceptible to leaf spot, and I don't like the faded flowers or the need to dig and divide them every two or three years (I'm lazy, I know). Call it plant snobbery, if you will. I call it personal preference. Sometimes gardeners have to make tough decisions, to dispose of plants they may like, but that simply aren't working in their garden. Still, I may keep some and find a spot for them somewhere less prominent.

While I dislike the look of faded echinaceas, I love how Rudbeckia fulgida 'Goldsturm' senesces. The splashes of red and yellow are, of course, beautiful, but I also like the smaller seed heads on branching stems better than the larger echinacea seed heads, too. They just have an all-around tidier appearance and finer texture. The seed heads have almost all disappeared now, possibly harvested by birds.

Plain old bergenia may not be an exciting plant, but I enjoy the large, shiny green leaves that will take on reddish tones in winter. It's hard to find low-growing, drought-tolerant, evergreen perennials with big leaves, and I really needed something to help break up the fine textures in this bed. This is actually a remnant of the first bergenias I planted in this bed, which, surprisingly, appealed to the deer. This one managed to hide in the skirts of a heath and came out once the fence was up and the deer were locked out.

Tricyrtis 'Empress' dies more gracefully than 'Blue Wonder' pictured earlier. But it was the first year for 'Blue Wonder', and the plant was a little worse for wear when I planted it. We'll see how they compare next year.

I like this combo of Rhododendron impeditum (foreground), Calceolaria arachnoidea (middle) and Scleranthus uniflorus (or is it biflorus?) in the back. All three are evergreen. The Calceolaria had taller bloom stalks, but those died back to the evergreen basal foliage. Neat and tidy, and fuzzy. So very, wonderfully, fuzzy.

Yucca filamentosa is, of course, looking as good as it always does.

Geranium robustum has put out some new, leafy shoots that overtook the old blooms, giving it a fresh, tidy appearance, with a few older leaves turning yellow. At some point, possibly this week, a cold front will kill it back, possibly to the ground. For now, though, it's looking great for fall.

I'm crossing my fingers that this Convulvulus cneorum will survive winter. The soil isn't the best drainage, but there are Cistus and an Arctostaphylos growing nearby without issue. My first attempt at growing this plant ended when a clogged gutter overflowed and flooded the end of the bed it was growing in. This time, it's in a spot away from the gutters where it shouldn't flood.

To finish off, some early to mid-fall bloomers. First, Aster x frikartii 'Monch'. This photo was taken in October, but some of them are still blooming, even after being uprooted and moved. Unfortunately, I didn't recreate this lovely scene. Instead, I penned the asters in the middle of several groups of other plants that will hopefully help to hold them up a bit.

Zeltnera muehlenbergii was still blooming well earlier this month, though now it's pretty much done.

Cyclamen purpurascens bloomed before, during, and after the bloom period for Cyclamen hederifolium. Checking my two plants today, the blooms on one froze, while the single remaining bloom on the one pictured below looked fine.

Sternbergia lutea was blooming over a month ago. Now all that's left is the foliage, looking clean and tidy. I still find it funny that yellow annoys me in late spring and summer, but in fall I enjoy these flowers. Maybe I'm just desperate this time of year.

Now that frost has arrived, things will change again. Time to walk around again to see what still looks good after frost.


  1. Evan - fantastic information. I think I will try the yerba buena this spring, it does look nice in your garden. I too have been wanting to edit out plants that don't pull their weight in fall/'s an interesting transition into a different way of looking and thinking about my garden.

    1. I'll make sure I bring some well-rooted divisions to the spring swap, Tamara. The native bees like it, too, and if you actually plant it among other things it weaves through them nicely without smothering anything. You've got a great opportunity with the new property to leave out those plants you've decided don't pull their weight.

  2. I should follow your shining example and make a critical tour of the garden. Somehow I tend to overlook the uglies and direct my gaze to the things that can still please the eye. All of my good intentions seem to have fled with the warmer weather.

    1. I'm very good at being critical. I do understand focusing on the good, though. I try to do that, but with some things, the bad is simply too glaring.

  3. Over the past few years, I've been somewhat ruthless in this very thing...I try not to plant anything that doesn't have at least some presence during winter...although a few plants that do well for me (Persicaria, Geranium) are sort of "grandfathered" in, in spite of the fact that they don't have much winter form. The trick with both Echinacea and Rudbeckia is to plant them among things (most likely, grasses) that are lighter to contrast with the seedheads. I love the twisting, gothic brown leaves of the Echinacea...they are very Tim Burton-esque to my eye ;-)

    1. I'm moving in the same direction, though I think I'm not being quite ruthless enough. Maybe I'll try moving the echinaceas somewhere else and combining them as you suggest. Another issue I have with them is that mine tend to flop, whereas the rudbeckia remains nicely upright. I love Tim Burton. You'd think I'd appreciate the dead echinacea more, but they just don't work for me.

  4. I so wish we had more plants that offered beautiful fall color, like your Acer rubrum and the Koelruteria. This year, even the plants that traditionally color up a bit like the persimmons, the ornamental pear, and the Acer palmatum have produced virtually no color. We have relatively few plants that go dormant but at least those that do should have the grace to go out with a bang.

  5. I'm terribly impressed you've managed to have Orostachys iwarenge live on past the bloom stage, I've never managed that.

  6. I'm one of those weirdos who finds beauty in extreme ugliness, especially those plants that die ugly in the fall. Like you, I don't much like the ones that just turn to mush though. I've been thinking of doing a similar post with some ugly/pretty pictures. I took a boatload of small divisions of my Pacific Coast irises. If they take, and you want some in the spring, let me know. Maybe you could put some in the Japanese iris holes.

  7. I got yerba buena after reading your post last year. Mine most likely need some TLC, as it looks pathetic. The pictures you posted here are helpful: now I know what I should strive for!
    I really like the vignette with Convulvulus cneorum. I happen to give this plant a second chance too this year I love the gray-green-silver evergreen leafs. We are both crossing our fingers to see it through the winter.


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