8 Plant Pairings for High-Impact Color in the Fall Garden

As the season shifts from summer to fall, high-impact planting pairings can effectively add fall color to garden beds. Check nurseries for fall-blooming perennials that are just beginning to bud (rather than those in full bloom) and for colors that really pop when planted in containers and garden borders.

For inspiration for your own high-impact planting combinations, take a look at these eight fall plant pairs featured in gardens from the Pacific Northwest to the Dutch countryside.

Milieu Landscaping

1. Black-Eyed Susan and Joe Pye Weed

North American native black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta, USDA zones 3 to 9; find your zone) is a fall favorite for good reason. They start blooming in midsummer but really come into their own by early fall — just when many other summer bloomers are looking tired. Plus, their vivid gold petals and dark centers catch the eye in an autumn garden.

In this Chicago garden by Milieu Landscaping, the black-eyed Susans mix with eastern North American native Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum, zones 5 to 10), which bloom from July through September with butterfly-attracting mauve-pink blossoms.

Water requirement: ModerateLight requirement: Full sun for black-eyed Susan; full sun to partial sun for Joe Pye weed

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Le jardinet

2. Autumn Fern and Japanese Forest Grass

You can get a delicious dose of fall foliage color — without allocating the space for a tree or shrub — with autumn fern and Japanese forest grass. Both plants thrive in partial to full shade and look lovely in woodland settings or mixed in containers.

The leaves of autumn fern (Dryopteris erythrosora, zones 6 to 9) turn from medium green to a rich gold-bronze in fall.

The foliage of Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra, zones 4 to 9), particularly hybrids like ‘Aureola’ or ‘All Gold’, doesn’t change color in fall, staying golden throughout the growing season (early spring to fall in cold climates; year-round elsewhere).

Water requirement: Moderate water for autumn fern; moderate to regular water for Japanese forest grassLight requirement: Partial to full shade

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Garden Stories

3. Purple Coneflower and Russian Sage

Purple coneflower and Russian sage make an all-star combination for late-summer and fall perennial beds. Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea, zones 3 to 8), native to Eastern North America, are cold-hardy perennials that bloom for months, attracting native bees and butterflies. After the bloom, the flowers’ spiky deep-orange centers can be left in the garden as decorative seedpods (and a feast for birds).

With its pale stems and delicate lavender-blue flowers, Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia, zones 5 to 9) adds an airy quality to beds, appearing like a pale-colored cloud when planted in drifts. Russian sage blooms from July to October.

Both plants are drought-tolerant, making them a good pair for a tough, low-water spot like this sidewalk garden by Garden Stories in Portland, Oregon.

Water requirement: Moderate to low, once establishedLight requirement: Full sun

Le jardinet

4. ‘Autumn Joy’ Stonecrop and Switchgrass

A popular fall bloomer, ‘Autumn Joy’ stonecrop (Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’, zones 3 to 10) is a fleshy, easy-care succulent topped with flowers that turn from white to deep mauve in fall.

Le jardinet, the designer of this Seattle garden, paired a dwarf variety of ‘Autumn Joy’ stonecrop with pink-tipped ‘Shenandoah’ switchgrass (Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’, zones 4 to 9) for a matched fall pairing.

Water requirement: Moderate for switchgrass, low to moderate for sedumLight requirement: Full sun

J. Gieo Pensoneault, MLA

5. White Coneflower and Feather Reed Grass

Pair neutral and bronze tones — as was done in this stunning combination by J. Gieo Pensoneault in Colorado Springs, Colorado — with a planting of cream-colored ‘White Swan’ coneflower (Echinacea purpurea ‘White Swan’, zones 3 to 8) and ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, zones 4 to 9). Feather reed grass adds height and movement to planting beds with its reedy stalks rising to nearly 5 feet tall, topped with tan-colored seeds that won’t spread.

Water requirement: ModerateLight requirement: Full sun

Garden Nest Residential Landscape

6. Mexican Bush Sage, New Zealand Flax and ‘Karl Forester’ Feather Reed Grass

Color and texture make a statement in this low-water combination of fall-blooming Mexican bush sage, strappy New Zealand flax and ‘Karl Foerster’ feather reed grass (Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’, zones 4 to 9), in a Bay Area landscape by Garden Nest Residential Landscape.

Purple-flowering Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha, zones 8 to 10) is a fall garden star. The shrubby perennial begins flowering in mid- to late-summer and produces showy blooms — which are sought-after by bees, butterflies and hummingbirds — up until the first frost.

New Zealand flax (Phormium spp., zones 9 to 11) add structure to gardens throughout the season; choose a variety like ‘Maori Queen’ (syn. ‘Rainbow Queen’) or ‘Maori Sunrise’ (syn. ‘Rainbow Sunrise’) for colorful stripes.

Water requirement: ModerateLight requirement: Full sun

Cottage Gardener, LTD

7. Conifer Mix

A dynamic, cold-climate-friendly planting of red barberry, gray-green juniper and a dwarf pine stand out against the golden backdrop of ‘Tiger Eyes’ staghorn sumac in this Milwaukee garden by Cottage Gardener.

Water requirements: ModerateLight requirements: Full sun


8. Sneezeweed and Beebalm

The magenta-purple flowers of ‘Scorpion’ beebalm (Monarda ‘Scorpion’, zones 4 to 9) complement the red-orange sneezeweed pictured in this Dutch meadow-style garden.

Aptly-named, beebalm (Monarda spp., zones 4 to 9) is a bee and butterfly magnet wherever it’s planted.

Sneezeweed (Helenium spp., zones 3 to 8) offers a late-summer to early-fall floral show. Try the speckled orange and red ‘Mardi Gras’ sneezeweed variety for petals that look like they’ve been tie-dyed, or try yellow-flowered Helenium autumnale for a North American native.

Gardening tip: Deadhead sneezeweed and beebalm regularly in late summer in order to extend their blooms as long into fall as possible (up to October for sneezeweed or September for beebalm, depending on care and climate).

Water requirement: ModerateLight requirement: Full sun

The Inspired Garden

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