Fall in Maine is great, with the maples, oaks, birches and other trees turning color. But the perennial borders can be just a little bit drab, with few flowers actually in bloom.

That’s why so many people bring in chrysanthemums to brighten up the garden for the next month or so, when they spend the last few fairly warm days outside before the November rains and winter snows drive them inside.

But you can use something more unusual to add a variety of colors, and most of them could be planted now. You would enjoy them this fall, and the plants would have a head start on the growth for next year.

Genevieve Coombs, nursery manager at Roosevelt Trail Garden Center in Windham, thinks people should use foliage and texture to get their colors at this time of year.

“I look first to things like sedums and hens and chickens,” she said. “A lot of the succulents can take quite a bit of frost and still look good.”

Of course, the sedum family includes Sedum “Autumn Joy,” which is in just about every garden, but there’s also the shorter Sedum “Lidakense” and its relatives, which are in bloom now.

Another foliage plant that looks good in the early fall is heuchera, commonly called coral bells. Looking around the Roosevelt Trail stock, Coombs saw some in purple, one that is a mix of orange and yellow, and one that is green with white speckles on the leaves.

Ornamental grasses also look good now, she said, “and a lot of them will last right through the winter.”

The cranesbill, or perennial geranium “Biokovo,” works well as both a blooming plant and a foliage plant, Coombs said.

“It turns a flaming, screaming red in the fall and earlier is almost a glossy green, not matte like a lot of the other cranesbills,” she said. “In the spring it has a very pale pink flower, but the foliage stays nicer than the other cranesbills through the summer and the fall.”

But sometimes you just want some blossoms, and Coombs had some plants that would work very well.

At the top of the list, she likes the Montauk or Nippon daisy.

“They bloom in October and look almost like a small shrub, but they are definitely a perennial,” she said. “You want to cut it back to the ground (at the end of the season). The blooms are almost like Shasta daisy but a little bigger. They need lots of sun, but they hold their bloom until mid-October, and are really quite nice.”

Perennial hibiscus is a striking flower that blooms starting in early September and can last right up until frost. Some of the flowers are 6 inches or more across and come in pink, rose, white and red. 

Although most people think first of the tropical hibiscus, these plants are hardy to Zone 4, which includes most of Maine. 

“The Luna series comes back every year,” Coombs said, “and they get bigger every year, so you get that tropical look” without being in the tropics.

Although the hibiscus can flop, she said they look pretty good in Roosevelt Trail’s plots.

“It’s in full sun, and they stand upright,” she said. “It does flop a little in front, but we’ve got it up against a fence, and it stands up there and looks perfectly happy.”

She also likes paniculata hydrangea for their fall flowers. The standard PeeGee starts out white and turns pink, and then almost purple as it gets deeper into fall. 

One of the newer varieties, and already a big hit, is “Quickfire,” which blooms early and turns an orange-red later in the season.

Another common choice for color, along with the chrysanthemums, are the asters, but Coombs is not a huge fan of the plant.

“With asters, you don’t get quite the color range you get with chrysanthemums,” she said. “You don’t get the yellows and oranges. And with asters, if they aren’t in a good spot, they tend to get powdery mildew and look a little gross.”

They have to be in just about full sun, and in a place where the soil is not too soggy or wet, she said.

And just because everyone plants chrysanthemums and they might be considered a little bit trite is no reason not to plant them. If they did not work well in the garden, they wouldn’t be so popular.

First, Coombs said, there are hardy mums and garden mums. The hardy mums will be guaranteed to come back each year.

What you buy in the fall are garden mums, and they are not guaranteed to come back year after year — but sometimes they do.

“What I tell people is to go ahead and leave them in the ground until spring and see what happens,” Coombs said. “You can increase their chances of wintering over if you mulch them with straw.”

She also said that if your garden mums do survive the winter, you should wait until they get to be 6 inches tall next season, then cut them back to about 2 inches. Otherwise, they will get too tall and flop in the garden when it’s time for them to bloom.

Coombs said she was especially proud of her chrysanthemums this year, because she learned the secret to growing them about six years ago, and she thinks they reached the pinnacle this year.

She says you should look for the ones that are balanced and even and have a lot of buds. If there is going to be an early frost, cover them up so they can last late into the season.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:

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