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11 things to plant during fall if you want a beautiful spring garden

Your garden will thank you for thinking ahead.

11 things to plant now if you want a beautiful spring garden Credit: Getty Images / Shizuko Alexander / herreid

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The weather is finally feeling a little cooler, which means it’s time to start thinking about spring! Yes, you read that correctly. The fall is a great time to plant a few plants that will provide early color, delicious scents, and, best of all, no additional work when warm weather returns.

There are two major types of plants that get planted in the fall: perennials and bulbs. Perennials, which survive the winter and rebloom every year, are planted as live plants, while bulbs like daffodils and tulips are put into the ground dormant.

Here’s a list of best-bet plants and bulbs for USDA hardiness zones 4-8, a region of the U.S. that spans roughly from southern Maine to Oregon, and south to Dallas and Atlanta—plus helpful tips to make sure they thrive.

Since common plant names can be confusing, we’re listing the Latin botanical names along with the common names so you can make sure you’re getting what you want. For example, there are half a dozen different kinds plants sold in the U.S. called “bluebells,” which look different, and grow best in completely different places (English forests vs. Texas plains vs. the Southeast). We want to make sure you get the right one.

How late can you plant in the fall?

This answer depends a lot on where you live. Live plants do best when they have time—preferably a month—to adapt to your soil before the first frost in your area, when the overnight temperatures dip to 32°F. In Minnesota, that’s early October, while Georgians are pretty safe through early November. But even if you’ve missed that date, you can still plant if the ground isn’t frozen.

You can get a rough idea of when your first frost date is by typing your zip code into the National Gardening Association’s site, or look at this frost zone map. But the actual frost date depends on exactly where you live. If your yard is shaded all day by pine trees, you’ll have first frost earlier than someone with a sunny yard that’s surrounded by heat-trapping pavement, sidewalks, and walls that stay warm through the night.

Technically, you can plant perennials any time the ground isn’t frozen too hard to dig. However, planting late reduces the chances the plant will survive, partly due to “frost heave,” when shallow-rooted plants are literally pushed out of the ground by the soil’s freezing and thawing repeatedly. To prevent frost heave, place 3 inches of mulch on top of your perennial plantings after the first frost.

Running out of time? You can overwinter perennial plants in containers, but it’s risky. Cover the containers with plenty of mulch, and check them for new growth as soon as the weather starts warming in the spring.

What to know about buying plants online

If you’re ordering plants online, check your USDA hardiness zone before you order. These zones, numbered from 1A (coldest) to 13B (warmest), tell you the average minimum winter temperature you can expect in your area, and which plants will survive. You may love the look of a Purple Queen bougainvillea, but they’re only hardy to Zone 10. That means that it won’t survive the winter anywhere the temperature goes below 32°F. Check the plant’s hardiness zone before you order.

Want to know more about what plants work best in your area? Contact your local agricultural extension.

Plants that bloom in spring

These spring flowers will give you bright garden color when the weather starts getting warmer.

1. Bleeding Hearts (Dicentra spp.)

bleeding-hearts
Credit: White Flower Farm

Bleeding Hearts are hardy enough to grow in shade and full sun.

The highlight of Grandma’s garden, Bleeding Hearts form arching stems up to 3 ft. long with hanging deep pink hearts; white varieties are also available. They’ll grow anywhere from shade to full sun if they get enough water, and they’ll keep blooming for weeks. If you’re interested in native plants that support butterflies and birds, consider the rosy pink fern-leaf bleeding heart Dicentra eximia. West-coasters should check out hummingbird-luring Pacific bleeding heart, Dicentra formosa.

2. Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica)

virginia-bluebells
Credit: Getty Images / Joshua Moore

Virginia bluebells thrive in the shade.

These 1- to 2-foot sky-blue, sweet-scented flowers bloom for a month in early spring. Virginia Bluebells thrive in shade, spread easily, and pair beautifully with bleeding hearts and small yellow narcissus for a spring pastel mix. They do tend to die back after bloom, though, so place them near plants that expand in the summer, like hostas or ferns.

Cut flower favorites

These flowers are a great option if you’d like to brighten your yard or fill a vase after vase with long-lasting, colorful blooms. All of these flowers come in a variety of colors, so you can choose soft pastels or a wild kaleidoscope of hues.

3. Peony tulips

peony-tulips
Credit: Van Zyverden

Also known as "double tulips," peony tulips will look beautiful in a vase or blooming in your garden.

Also known as “double tulips,” peony tulips look a lot like, peony flowers or roses, with rows of ruffled petals and a delicious scent. For a pastel garden try out Angelique peony tulips, with soft pink and white petals that look surprisingly good with traditional red tulips. For a little more excitement, plant Orange Princess peony tulips, which are orange with a purple flame.

4. Miniature Jonquilla narcissus

narcissus
Credit: Getty Images / Shizuko Alexander

Jonquilla narcissus plants bloom in early spring, so don't be surprised if you find them peeking through some snow.

Jonquilla narcissus are small-scale daffodils that bloom early, smell heavenly, look great in a vase, and can be tucked almost anywhere in your yard. Jonquilla narcissus “More and More” sends up multiple stems of bright golden flowers from a single bulb in early spring, while Jonquilla narcissus “Baby Moon” blooms later with pale yellow flowers.

5. Wild hyacinth (Camassia spp.)

wild-hyacinth
Credit: John Scheepers

Wild hyacinths bloom in late spring, keeping your garden colorful between early-spring daffodils and summer flowers.

These spikes of blue, light blue, or white flowers are native to the American northwest, and have been planted by Dutch bulb companies alongside tulips by centuries. Wild hyacinth bloom slightly later in the spring than tulips, giving your garden color in the long pause between spring daffodils and summer blooms. Wild hyacinth–native species Camassia cusickii has wisteria-blue star-shaped flowers on 2-foot stems, while the hybridized Camassia Blue Heaven is a paler, softer blue. Camassia Sacajawea has ivory flowers, and is named for the intrepid Shoshone woman who translated for the Lewis and Clark expedition.

6. Giant alliums

giant-alliums
Credit: Getty Images / KenWiedemann

Because these mid-spring flowers are part of the onion family, wildlife are likely to skip them during grazing.

These big purple attention-getting flower globes grow up to 5 ft. tall, and look like they’d belong in a Dr. Seuss drawing—but they thrive in everyday gardens. Giant alliums bloom mid-spring, and make excellent cut flowers. Since they’re members of the onion family, deer, rabbits, and squirrels tend to leave them alone. For even more Seussian splendor, mix giant alliums with different colors and heights, like these 8-inch white alliums or pink alliums.

Summer power plants

These are the go-to plants for “set and forget” summer color. Most of these plants start flowering in early summer and keep on blooming for weeks, even months in cooler areas. Their blossoms look great in a vase, and attract butterflies and moths—and they’ll help feed birds if you leave the seed heads on through the fall and winter.

7. Yarrow (Achillea spp.)

yarrow
Credit: Getty Images / LianeM

Yarrow plants are versatile enough to grow in both Alaska and Hawaii.

Wild white yarrow plants grow throughout the United States—including Alaska and Hawaii—and selections of this tough, versatile plant has been bred to bloom all summer in a variety of colors. Achillea Moonshine has silver-green foliage topped with lemon-yellow flower sprays, while Achillea Cherries Jubilee is a vibrant mix of hot pinks, reds, and purples.

8. Coral bells (Heuchera spp.)

heuchera
Credit: Getty Images / Poliuszko

Heucheras can produce vibrant colors in even the shadiest of yards.

Heucheras are the go-to plant for shade gardeners who want to punch up the color in their yards. Their flowers are pretty, but heucheras are really grown for their vibrant leaves, which can vary from the scarlet red Fire Alarm to lime green Citronelle to deep purple Black Pearl. The native American alum root from eastern Tennessee has ruffled leaves streaked in silver, while maple-leaved alum root comes from the Appalachian mountains with bronzy foliage and tiny white flowers.

9. Penstemon

penstemon
Credit: Getty Images / milehightraveler

Hummingbirds and honey bees love penstemon flowers.

Penstemon species, also known as “beard tongue” for mysterious reasons, are 3-foot-tall plants that attract hummingbirds and honey bees with their spikes of summer flowers. Try Penstemon Dark Towers for deep purple foliage with pink flowers, or Penstemon Mesa for swaths of lavender-blue.

10. Bee balm (Monarda spp.)

monarda
Credit: Getty Images / bgwalker

Bee balms can help attract butterflies and bees.

Bee balms are native to the U.S., and produce funky, colorful flowers all summer long, attracting butterflies and bees. Several species, such as “wild bergamot” and “Oswego tea,” have scented leaves that have traditionally been used in teas and herbal medicines. Mature plants are 3 ft. tall. For bright scarlet flowers that thrill hummingbirds, try Jacob Cline (Monarda didyma). If you’re interested in teas, try lemon mint seeds (Monarda citriodora), which has lemon-scented leaves and 1- to 2-foot spikes of feathery lavender and white flowers.

11. Milkweeds (Asclepias spp.)

milkweed
Credit: Getty Images / herreid

Milkweed can help attract butterflies to your yard.

Yes, milkweed is the plants that Monarch butterflies need to survive, but there’s more than one type of milkweed. Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) has sprays of bright orange flowers on 1- to 3-foot-tall plants, and thrives in typical garden soils. Swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) prefers moist soil, and rewards gardeners by growing 3- to 5-foot stems crowned with fragrant pink flowers. Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is another sturdy plant that nourishes butterflies, but it also spreads aggressively. For front-yard gardens, stick to butterfly weed or swamp milkweed.

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