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Behind the Garden Gate: Fall Flowers

It's fall, but the weather is getting—hot! Here's what to plant that will keep blooming during our changeable autumn months.

In California, fall is a tricky thing. In other parts of the country, leaves are turning brilliant colors, and the weather is changing, but here, we’re heading into one of the warmer periods of the year.

For the backyard gardener, there’s a dilemma: Should you go for flowers that are suited to hot weather or cooler weather? Because as nice and warm as it is now, we aren’t too far away from longer, colder nights and a bit less sunshine during the shorter days.

Luckily, there are a number of annuals and perennials that perform beautifully in the fall and will keep on blossoming—possibly even into December if there's not too much rain. Thanks to modern breeding techniques, many flowers now on the market have longer bloom periods and will keep on producing flowers until the cold really sets in.

And some annuals (marketed as “one-season” flowers) will actually “winter over” and keep blooming into spring, and may even survive more than a year, depending on how chilly it gets in your neck of the woods. I have a couple of so-called annuals that have survived for several years and they just keep on going.

Flowers are also being bred to be hardier than ever, which is great news for those of us who neglect our gardens (ahem, that would be me) from time to time.

I paid a visit recently to on De Anza Boulevard to see what was being offered in the way of fall flowers. There are so many eye-catching choices that it’s tough to choose among them.

Here are a few suggestions for flowers that are both beautiful and tough, and will do well even if temps should drop dramatically.

Geraniums. I used to dislike geraniums because they were so common. Now I’m crazy about them, because they can take a lot of abuse and keep on producing great color just about every month of the year. They are quite drought-resistant once established.

Pansies and violas. Improved cultivars in recent years also have made these gorgeous flowers harder to kill. Because so many color variations are available, you can match just about any palette you want. They also handle temperature changes well and don’t need deadheading to keep blooming.

However, they do prefer cooler temps, so plant them in a shady area if you can, or in a container that you can move to a protected place during hot spells.

Snapdragons. You can get tall varieties or short ones, depending on what you need for your beds, and in an amazing range of colors, from whitest white to deepest red. If you plant them in a sheltered area where they're protected from frost during the winter, they may live into next year or longer.

Marigolds. One of my favorite flowers, marigolds are super-tough and happy to produce prodigious blooms, and are equally happy in garden beds or enlivening your containers. However, I have had trouble with my marigolds attracting snails and slugs, so keep the snail bait handy.   

Cosmos and coreopsis. These flowers are shaped a bit alike but are different species. However, both are fairly trouble-free plants and offer reliable color in the garden. Cosmos come in white, pink and lavender; coreopsis are in sunny shades of yellow and gold.

• Salvia. This plant has become such a popular choice for drought-resistant gardens that breeders are now coming up with all kinds of new varieties for us to plant. You can get salvia in purple, blue, all kinds of pinks and reds, and white. Look for varieties that are fall bloomers if you’re seeking autumn color.

Dahlias. Another flower that has a wealth of varieties, forms and colors, and blooms most vividly during August and September. Grown from tubers, they’ll come back year after year if planted in a sunny spot with good drainage.

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