Prepare your garden in the fall for a beautiful surprise next spring.
Credit: Ralph Anderson

Only seven flats of annuals and a few choice perennials went into this bursting flower border. Given the span of just a few months, the front yard looked like a cottage garden. The plants added appeal and charm. It hardly resembled the barren earth that surrounded the house not long ago. If you want a colorful spring garden like ours, you have to realize that the real work starts in the fall.

This curved flowerbed, which runs along the edge of the gravel parking area, is 4 1/2 feet wide and 66 feet long. A small bed of Zoysia grass sweeps across the front edge of the border. This makes the narrow flowerbed accessible and easy to work from both sides of the border. Weeding and planting can be done without having to step all over plants or compact the loose, freshly tilled, and amended soil.

The area receives lots of direct light, so we used sun-loving plants. We put in a few die-hard perennials such as two ornamental grasses (Miscanthus sp.), one butterfly bush (Buddleia sp.), one Rose-of-Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus), and some 'Homestead Purple' verbena (Verbena canadensis 'Homestead Purple'). The plan was to install a few perennials each year and keep the open spaces covered with seasonal flowers.

To fill in the open areas, we used foxgloves, pansies, violas, snapdragons, and sweet Williams. We wanted lots of pink, yellow, purple, and white bloomers in the border because these colors blend well together. On a cool autumn day, we planted seven flats to produce a colorful April and May border. Each flat contained 36 little plants. When setting them out, we worked a little timed-release fertilizer into each hole.

After the fall planting, little maintenance was needed. A blanket of pine straw mulch covered the ground, keeping most weeds out and helping to protect the new plants. We checked the border once a week and quickly pulled any weeds. Little watering is needed in the winter, unless you're experiencing extended dry spells. The pansies were groomed occasionally by removing spent blooms. We did have to cut back the snapdragons after a few subfreezing nights turned their foliage brown, but cutting them back actually made them fuller in the spring. The tall foxgloves were supported using twine and a bamboo stake for each plant.

Why plant in the fall? The plants actually grew little in the fall and winter months, but underground roots began to spread, creating good anchorage and a strong growing base. The spring sun warmed the soil, and the tops of the plants began to flush with new growth. The foxgloves that were about 6 inches in March quickly grew to 4- and 5-foot-tall, multicolored spikes by May. Don't forget to set out plants in the fall for lots of spring blooms.


Foxglove (Digitalis purpurea)--This is the most common foxglove. It's a biennial and sometimes a short-lived perennial in most of the region; in the Lower and Coastal South, treat it as an annual. The flowers are 2 to 3 inches long and look like clusters of bells dangling from the sturdy stalks. Blooms vary in color from creamy white to dark pink and purple with spotted throats. Common foxglove grows 3 to 5 feet tall depending on the selection. It may need to be staked to withstand the beating of heavy rains. When possible, plant foxgloves in protected areas next to walls or fences and away from windy locations. You get a lot of bang for your buck with foxgloves. They're one of the easiest plants to grow, and they add height and charm to any garden.

Pansy and viola (Viola sp.)--These small, compact annuals provide sporadic color in the winter months and then form a carpet of blooms in the spring. Their cheery-cheeked flowers look like children's faces. Violas, also known as Johnny-jump-ups, are a compact version of pansies. Many violas will reseed freely in the garden.

Both pansies and violas come in a variety of colors ranging from white to blue, red, orange, yellow, and purple. Petals are often striped or blotched, but 'Crystal Bowl' pansies are a selection without the blotch. 'Crystal Bowl True Blue' and 'Crystal Bowl Yellow' are two reliable performers, and the yellow is also extremely fragrant. In the Upper South, plant them in the early spring; elsewhere, plant in the fall. To prolong bloom time, remove faded flowers regularly before they go to seed.

Snapdragon (Antirrhinum majus)--These are great flowers for sunny borders. They will grow 6 to 36 inches tall, depending on selection, and come in many colors including white, pink, red, yellow, and orange. Medium and tall snapdragons work well in the middle or back of a border underplanted with pansies. When planted in the fall, they bloom on and off in the winter and heavily in the spring, except in the Upper South where they may be planted in the spring for summer blooms. Or they can be grown as short-lived perennials in the Upper South. Elsewhere, snapdragons are discarded after spring and replanted in fall.

Sweet William (Dianthus barbatus)--These vigorous, old-fashioned biennials are often grown as annuals. Small plants set out in the fall garden quickly spread to form a mass of foliage. The plentiful leaves help keep the garden green throughout the winter. The following spring, dense clusters of white, pink, rose, purple, or bicolored flowers appear. The blooms look like small clouds on top of tall stems.