As the heat of the summer starts to give way to cooler days and nights it's time to think about getting the most out of the fall season that lies ahead. There are a number of plants that thrive in the fall, and depending on where you live, the time is here or fast approaching when you should start planning for extending the growing season. There are plants for show, edible plants, and some that do double duty that just might fit your design and taste. Here are a few that I like.
Pansies - Pansies are one of the most popular cool season flowering plants. Available in many different colors and ranging in height from 4 to 8 inches, these tender perennials are usually grown as annuals. In zones 7 and warmer they often bloom well into winter. In the colder zones they will last until a hard freeze. And here's a bonus -- the flowers are edible and add a little color to food presentation and spice to the palate. Look for started plants at your favorite garden center.
Ornamental Kale and Cabbage – There is a wide variety of selections in this group of cool-weather loving plants. Their usual height and spread is about 12 to 18 inches. Besides being colorful, they display different leaf shapes and forms. They are also edible if you like their cabbage flavor. Some varieties are bred primarily for color without regard to taste so I recommend trying a small amount to make sure you have a tasty one. In the Midwest seeds can be sown in August and plants can be set outdoors from mid-August into September. Further north you can start a little earlier; south gardeners should wait a little longer until the weather begins to moderate. Started plants are also widely available at garden centers in late summer and fall. Cool weather brings out the colors in ornamental kales and cabbages, and these hardy plants often survive temperatures down into the single digits. In the South they often overwinter and retain their color and charm until spring.
Asters – Asters can be planted in the spring or fall. Their prime blooming season is late summer until frost in the north and into the winter in the south. They are very colorful and range in color from yellows, to blue, purple, pink and red. New England asters grow 3 to 4 foot tall. New York asters are smaller plants, generally, but some can reach to 3 or more feet tall. Most prefer full sun. Some will tolerate partial shade.
Chrysanthemum – Mums are probably the most recognized of fall flowers. There are hardy varieties and greenhouse varieties grown indoors for cut flowers. You'll want to make sure you plant the hardy varieties. They are available in just about any color and usually grow two to three feet tall. There are many different flower shapes. They include single, double, spoon, spider, button, cactus and others. Since they depend on shorter days and longer nights for blooming, do not plant near street lights, yard lights, or other light sources.
Spinach – Spinach is an excellent early spring or late summer/fall crop. Spinach likes cool weather and doesn't usually do well in the summer heat. There are many different varieties with various leaf shapes. It is mostly grown for eating in diverse ways, but some varieties could be considered ornamental. Late season spinach needs a little more time to reach maturity than a spring crop due to the cooling, shortening days of fall, so start your seeds about 8 weeks before the fall frost date in your area.
Swiss Chard – We used to think of Swiss chard as a food crop for early spring planting, but with new varieties and more interest in extending the season, Swiss chard also makes an excellent fall crop. While all varieties are edible, some are also very showy, with red, yellow, orange, or white stalks that can provide contrast in any planting bed. Start seeds 8-10 weeks before your first fall frost date.
Other vegetables in the cabbage family – Brussels sprouts, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kohlrabi are crops that love the cooler fall weather. They can be harvested well into the fall, or even the winter in milder areas. Super hardy kale can even be harvested after snow has fallen! In the northern parts of the country, you'll need to start with transplants at this point to grow these crops to maturity before the weather gets too cold, but gardeners in southern or longer-season areas still have time to start plants from seed. And if you plan to protect plants with cold frames or low tunnels, you can push your planting dates forward by a month or so.
With any of these favorites, talk to your garden center professionals to determine the best varieties and planting times for your area. Enjoy the display and some good eating well into the fall season.
Steve Trusty has a degree in horticulture from Iowa State University. He has been helping gardeners receive more enjoyment from their lawns and gardens for years through radio, TV, books, magazines and websites.