For Dorothy Danforth of Deer, Wisconsin, fall is fortissimo time in her exuberant garden outside Milwaukee. In her one-third acre corner garden, Dorothy orchestrates the blare of red salvias, the softer notes of dusty rose 'Autumn Joy' sedums and the dramatic highs of towering ornamental grasses. While most gardeners stop planting in May and many get tired of watering by July, Dorothy perseveres, planting and tending straight until snowfall.
To gain inspiration for her fall garden, Dorothy started visiting garden centers every autumn and brought home "anything blooming," she says. Late performers are planted next to spring bloomers so each can take the stage in its own season and disguise the other.
"In my mind, music and gardening are intimately related," says Dorothy, who is retired from a 26-year career teaching music in local public schools. "Both art forms require much discipline to bind together the elements of color, harmony, rhythm, variety and repetition to bring the work to completion."
Everything seems to grow bigger and better in Dorothy's yard because she has amended the soil with compost for 28 years. The other keys, Dorothy advises, are watering through fall and cutting back any spent foliage, which often produces a fresh flush of green. In the photo, wine-red celosia draws the eye next to orange tuberous begonias with sedums, asters and other plants in the background.
The backbone of every fall garden, ornamental grasses add height and texture. The bonus: They look great through winter. Dorothy especially likes the large, frothy types such as 'Allegro', 'Sarabande' and 'Goliath'. Most are hardy to Zone 3.
Dorothy's favorite shrub, only about 2 feet tall, looks good year-round and serves as a burgundy backdrop for white spring tulips followed by plantings of Wave petunias, which flower profusely until frost. Zone 4.
Growing up to 6 feet tall, these underused perennials (hardy to Zone 4) begin blooming in late summer or early autumn with small masses of white, lilac or pink-purple, asterlike flowers. Dorothy uses them toward the middle of her borders as a companion with large grasses, goldenrod and asters.
If you have lots of sun, the silvery, lance-shape leaves and delicate sprays of violet-blue flowers of Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) will charm you. For something special, try 'Little Spire' for smaller gardens or the fernlike foliage of 'Filagran'. Cut any of them back to half their height in midsummer to produce a more compact plant; the species reaches about 4 feet tall. Zone 5.
Dorothy loves the reddish-purple-bronze leaves of 'Bressingham Bronze' Heuchera (coral bells). Tidy mounds of foot-tall foliage contrast with most plants that grow nearby, and slender stalks bear delicate flowers. Dorothy's coral bells are white, but blooms are available in a wide range of colors, including pink (shown at left). Heucheras require good drainage and should be divided every three years. Hardy to Zone 4.
Crimson spikes emerge like tiny tails from still-green foliage in fall with Persicaria amplexicaulis 'Firetail'. This long-blooming perennial, growing 4 feet tall in sun or partial shade, is a nice foil in front of other foliage that may look less fresh in fall. Zone 5.
Even though daylily blooms last only a day, Dorothy loves the plants for the color they bring to a garden. She plants dozens of varieties that begin blooming in summer, but she's always on the hunt for season-extending varieties, including 'Autumn Minaret' and the rebloomer 'Pardon Me.'
The spiky foliage looks good all summer. By fall, blooms provide a payoff in Dorothy's garden. Her favorites include 'Purple Dome' (but plant something in front to disguise leggy plants), 'Alma Potschke', 'Blue Lagoon', 'Fellowship' and 'Lamb's Pride'.
Gazing balls and an arbor give this garden a special touch. Dorothy continues to fine-tune her beautiful composition, just as she continues her passion for teaching by giving piano lessons in her home. Her garden gives her time for contemplation and keeps her feeling young.