Article and Photography by Linda B. Gay
Ah, the days of lower humidity translate to cooler temperatures and our first sign that fall is here. Low-humidity fronts act like outdoor air conditioning and get us excited about the season. These days are as much mental relief as well as physical relief, and not only for us, but for our plants and garden spaces, too.
Our northerly neighbors experience “Indian Summer,” but here, we experience “Indian Fall.” This terminology means we get some cooler days as a sampling, but the temperatures can climb back up to summer mode — and we start sweating again!
So what does that mean for our gardens and container plantings? We are itching to dress our garden in its finest fall color, but with the continuing likelihood of hot days and lack of cool nights, we don’t know what to do.
To start, walk through your garden and do a mental inventory on what looks great and what needs to be removed. No doubt your yellow lantana and blue plumbago look the best they have all year, so complement the colors that are thriving in your garden.
What plants thrive with temperature fluctuations and bloom until we settle into consistently cold or the first hard freeze? The fall transition could last 30 days or three months, so what colorful plants should we use?
Chrysanthemums are instant fall color and come already budded. They’re available in small, medium and large pot sizes and in burgundy, bronze, yellow, orange, pink and white. You can use them in containers as fall decorator plants and enjoy their blooms until after Thanksgiving. Add a pumpkin or two with some corn or milo, and you have a festive seasonal display.
NOTE: You do not want to plant chrysanthemums in your flower bed. They are space hogs and fill up your garden, growing over your “precious treasures” already there. Plus, mums never look the same once they become garden plants. You will eventually weed them out, compost them — and this is OK. I refer to mums as quick color, as they come in quickly…and they go out just as quickly.
Using crotons in containers or for enhancing garden corners can create colorful foliage of orange, yellow, green and red. Crotons are woody plants used as landscape foundations in Florida. Crotons adapt well to our climate, and if you are going to grow them in the ground, add expanded shale to improve drainage, which is critical during our winter months.
Some transitional blooming plants will flower until frost. This list includes celosia or “Cock’s Comb.” The “Amigo” series with red foliage looks great with orange or yellow marigolds. There are two groups of marigolds, those with large flowers (African) and those with small flowers (French). The small blooming varieties produce more flowers that last longer, especially with lots of rain. By the way, spring and fall are the only times marigolds do well in Southeast Texas.
If bold fall colors are not your favorite, you can plant petunias, as they love this time of year. The “Madness” series of petunias includes spreading plants in habit, so space on 12-inch centers, as one plant can grow 16-20 inches wide. Petunias come in pink, purple, blue, white and red. These spreading varieties are great for containers, as they become the spiller.
The “Mambo” series of petunias features hybrids considered genetic dwarfs, with varieties growing 6-8 inches tall and 6-8 inches wide in the same color selections as the “Madness” series. The dark purple flowered petunia is very fragrant, so plant some purple to excite the olfactory senses. There is another series called the “Aladdin Nautical” with flowers in light blue, dark blue, lilac, white and dark purple to contrast and complement each other beautifully.
NOTE: When you see plant tags noting colors, know that one plant does not have all those colors on it. In a plant tray you will have a mix of plants with different colors on each plant, so if they are not blooming, you do not know what color you are getting.
Be adventurous and select the combinations that excite you at the moment. Do not think too hard about the selection or combinations, as the plantings are only temporary, fill in during the transition period and are to be replaced after the first frost — with cold-weather color and veggies!
Linda B. Gay is a horticulturist and staff member at The Arbor Gate Nursery in Tomball.