What Perennials to Plant in the Fall

A perennial garden in bloom.

As September and October shift into cooler temperatures, your thoughts might turn to pots of mums and tidying up your garden. But it's also an ideal time to consider what perennials to plant in the fall. Planting them now and giving them a chance to get rooted gives you a jump start on spring color from coral tulips and sunrise peonies to purple crocus and ruby-red echinacea.

Here's a quick primer on what perennials to plant in the fall, how to divide your perennials, how to trim and protect perennials for the winter, and tips on what perennials should not be cut back in the fall.

What to Plant in the Fall

If you're looking to add to your garden and see those sunny flowers in early spring, you can plant a variety of perennials in the fall to be enjoyed the next year.

Choose Floral Showstoppers

Layered large blooms of peonies, velvety ruffles of irises and carnival pops of color from daylilies can be the stars and showstoppers for flower gardens and home landscaping. Fall is the best time to invest in these beloved, dependable perennials that will bring fragrance and beauty to your home for decades to come.

You can order these flowers in fall as bulbs, bare-roots or potted plants. Check labels for instructions on planting depths, as these can differ. A peony, for example, needs its "eyes" — the tip of the tubers where the plant sprouts from — near the surface of the soil or you might not get any blooms.

Plant Spring Bulbs

Start with purple crocus and sunny bicolor daffodils if you're craving the earliest possible spring colors, as they can be tenacious enough to push through light snow. A vibrant tulip bed can complete the spring spectacle. Look for a ready-to-go blend of tulips, or mix your own with bright and subtle colors, striped patterns or fringes for a variety of looks. Purchase a blend of early, mid-, and late-spring bulbs for continuous blooms.

Add Unexpected Colors

For something surprising for the next growing season, consider a few color twists on familiar perennials: stunning yellow 'Itoh Bartzella' or 'Coral Charm' peonies; rich reds, oranges and yellows of the 'Warm Summer' echinacea; or the bold 'Starry Starry Night' hibiscus, which has dramatically dark foliage.

Adjust to Your Climate

When it comes to what perennials to plant in the fall, another consideration is shifting weather. If your part of the country has had extended droughts or water shortages, consider adding more drought-resistant perennials to your garden. Besides being an environmentally responsible gardening method, it's a low-maintenance way to enjoy flowers and foliage without the hassle of watering.

Prepare Your Beds for Next Spring

If your garden is already bursting with perennials, fall is also the time to do other perennial prep work for your spring garden.

Divide and Expand Plants

Fall is an ideal time to divide any perennials you may have if you're thinking of expanding your spring garden. Plant them in new areas for a bigger show of color, and fill in the spaces with spring bulbs or trendy new perennials.

To divide perennials such as hosta and daylilies, dig around them carefully, then shake off or hose off excess dirt. Some plants and roots will pull apart with a gentle but persistent pull, but more overgrown ones will need a sharp knife or spade to split the roots. While any knife works, a dedicated garden knife can be sturdier and double as a measuring stick when planting.

Trim Back Some Perennials

Fall also is the time to trim back foliage on perennials. If leaves are left to droop and rot in cold rains, the debris can attract fungus, slugs and bugs that may lay eggs in the old leaves. Clip daylily, peony and hosta leaves. Cut iris leaves down to a small fan shape, and trim back woody stems on other perennials as they go dormant.

Leave Some Foliage Untouched

Not all perennials need to be cut back or cleaned up. It's helpful to leave a few untouched for the winter, especially seed heads. You may see birds feeding off echinacea, coreopsis and other seed heads. Decorative grasses and some sturdier perennials also can provide shelter for birds and small creatures during the winter while livening up the winter landscape as frost covers them.

Add Insulating Mulch or Leaves

If you're in the northern states or at higher elevations with snow and ice storms, protect and insulate your perennials — especially any new ones — with a layer of fall leaves or mulch. This helps regulate temperatures at the soil level, keeping plants from freezing over the winter or sprouting prematurely in the spring.

While fall may seem like the time to put away the tools and wrap up the garden year, you can get a jump start on next year's spring blooms by planning ahead and planting perennials to be enjoyed year after year.

For more ideas to make your spring garden pop, check out Burpee's guide on bulbs to plant in the fall.

Written by Lisa Meyers McClintick

Lisa Meyers McClintick has been an award-winning journalist and photographer for publications such as USA Today, Midwest Living and Twin Cities Star Tribune for more than 30 years. She also has authored travel guidebooks on the Dakotas and Minnesota and volunteers as a Master Naturalist based in St. Cloud, Minn. Her home garden includes fourth-generation perennials, herbs, heirloom tomatoes, fruits for making jam and jellies, and a variety of hybrid and native flowers that inspire illustrations and photography.

November 8, 2021
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