Planning for Perennials in a Fabulous Fall

Story by Dr. Cheryl Boyer

Henry and Lola, Dr. Boyer's children.
Henry and Lola, Dr. Boyer’s children.

Fall leaf drop has been slow and gentle this year. Scattering red, orange, and golden leaves flutter to the ground everywhere I go. Idyllic, really. I can’t remember having such a long, enjoyable fall for a good many years. Now that the heat of summer has passed, our family is really enjoying being outside and I’m ready to think about the next phase of landscaping at my house. Because my kids are getting a little older (6 and 2…yes, I realize that won’t work for everyone, but the baby isn’t a baby anymore!) I can spend more time working on my landscape without worrying about them running into the street. The little one is even a good helper!

As a planner, (in all things, but in particular a planner with a Landscape Architecture degree from OSU) I made a long-term landscape plan for our property years ago. We’ve only completed phase 1, starting with small plants that are now quite mature. I can be patient that way. Each phase of landscaping brings its own sense of satisfaction: getting a survey, sketching out design ideas, brainstorming plants I’d like to use, shaping the beds with a garden hose, prepping the soil, shopping for plants, planting, refreshing the mulch, pruning, watching the plants grow and change…picking out the annuals each spring (always on my birthday in May). I love it all.

For the past several years I have had to make do with what little time I could get outside. I’ve done basic maintenance (pruning, cleaning out debris, mulching, edging) and fresh annuals (often pretty late into June by the time I got to it). Those are beds in front and on one side of our house. It’s time for the backyard to get some TLC. It will probably take me several years to “finish” it, but I feel invigorated about starting again. First off, I need some more soil for the beds near the house. My husband pointed out that they need to be built up and that we will probably need some kind of edging (unlike the “natural” edging I’ve used elsewhere) to keep soil and mulch from running down the slope in our backyard. Touché husband, you are right! Now I get to shop and think about edging construction and how I’m going to acquire some affordable materials, tools and topsoil without a pickup truck. I like a good challenge.

I probably won’t even plant anything right away just so I can let any weed seeds take their course and get it clean and ready for new plants when I can find the ones I want. Which ones do I want? I pulled out my landscape plan and reviewed it. Certainly some things I am still liking a lot, but others need to be re-thought. For example, I have some hostas planned, but it occurred to me, with this fall weather, that too many hostas will mean not enough winter interest. Hmm…Looks like I need to do some thinking about perennial plant choices. Most herbaceous perennials die back to the ground during the winter. Some will leave interesting seed heads or foliage for winter interest and others just need to be cleaned up and mulched a little. I would like a little of both mixed in with my woody trees and shrubs. But which direction will I go?

Fortunately, my colleagues at OSU have written a great fact sheet ( color.pdf) about perennial flowering plants for Oklahoma. It even has some color photos! For more photos check out the Oklahoma Proven list (, the OSU Botanic Garden website (, or I’ve got lots of resources and I’m looking forward to curling up with some lists and books about perennials this winter as I do some more planning on the next phase of my landscape—one that holds lots of excitement for each season of the year, especially in the very lovely Fall.