Recently I was able to spend a day with Darrel Morrison, a highly regarded landscape architect known for designs that mimic native plant communities. 

Darrel was the dean of The School of Environmental Design at UGA way back when I was in school. He explained (or, rather, re-explained, as I am only a fair student) that we can do better than using native plants simply as chess pieces in a landscape. Instead, gardeners can create more successful and interesting designs by noticing which plants grow together in nature, then matching those communities with the corresponding manmade conditions. 

Most everyone who sees a healthy forest, rock outcrop, or meadow appreciates their natural beauty. Many would like to capture it and bring it home. 

Darrel insists that it can be done. By successfully duplicating these plant communities at people’s homes, offices and schools, we can celebrate Georgia landscapes while creating better wildlife habitat with numerous other benefits.

Darrel worked with our landscape architect to select plants for a meadow at Trees Atlanta’s future home. He matched the existing nutrient-poor, sandy soils with the native plant community best suited for those conditions: a meadow along a Georgia granite rock outcropping. 

The fall colors of a meadow are subtle, elegant, and long-lasting, and the morning light and dew accentuate the beauty even more. 

Purpletop

My longwinded point is to emphasize the importance of learning about your patch of dirt to be landscaped – soil type, drainage, and sun exposure. Then, identify the plant community found in places similar to your existing site, and focus on the plants that thrive in that particular environment.  Your plants will be more likely to flourish and you will recreate a beautiful landscape found in the most-loved wild places of Georgia. 

As our day together ended, Darrel and I headed down U.S. 78 towards Athens. When we hit the outskirts of Loganville, we saw a sea of dark purple. It was in fact Purpletop (Tridens flavus), a native grass common in the Piedmont.  It went on for miles – just one plant in the right place, a member of a southern meadow plant community. We both agreed we had never seen the highway look that good, and all the D.O.T. had to do was let it grow. 

This grass gets to be around three feet tall and is one of many meadow grasses that really show off in the fall just before the leaves change. Unlike the trees, though, they retain warm colors throughout the winter. 

Our native grasses should be an important component in our gardens as they provide habitat for beneficial insects and larval food for butterflies, as well as seeds and shelter for many bird species.

Our plant communities are very diverse, from full forests with an open canopy and little else but a carpet of moss, to a meadow with over a hundred native perennials and grasses. Fall can bring out a unique splendor in each of these communities.

Grasses to grow for extra fall color

Consider these grasses and perennials if you have room for a small meadow or perennial border and want some fantastic fall color. 

Broomsedge

Broomsedge – Andropogon virginicus – This early successional grass lives for just a few years but reseeds nicely. It has a long-lasting bronze fall color. The height ranges from three to five feet. Like many grasses, it grows taller with more moisture and most of the height is in the seed head.

Little Bluestem

Little bluestem – Schizachyrium scoparium – ‘Standing Ovation’ is a cultivar that stays upright. You need a bit more patience for this longer-lived grass as it is a bit slower than broomsedge to establish but makes for a good companion plant.  It can handle dry to slightly wet-to-dry soils. It has reddish purple to silver fall color. The grass gets 2 to 4 feet tall.  There are a number of cultivars available in the market that vary in leaf and fall color. 

Blue Mist Flower

Blue mist flower – Conoclinium coelestinum –This is the foolproof flower. It has reliable purple smoke-like flowers in the fall and the pollinators are all over it.  When it’s really happy, mist flower will hold its ground with the competitive river oats.  I pull a lot of this plant up and still have a purple party for several weeks when it blooms in September and October. It likes average soil moisture and can take full sun to part shade. It can reach almost 3 feet tall.

I must include a tree for your fall planting. Pawpaw (Asminia triloba) is a four-season tree, and if your garden has average soil and partial sun to almost full shade it will thrive. 

Papaw

This native tree grows to about 30 feet tall and looks pretty tropical with its slightly drooping leaves that turn a nice yellow in the fall. Its maroon flowers give way to the largest edible fruit native to North America. The fruit resembles a small pale green mango and taste like very sweet banana. You have to get them fast or the raccoons and possums will beat you to it. The tree can work as a lovely specimen, but it helps to have two trees for the best fruit production.

Grow a moss garden

Learn to grow your own moss garden. On Oct. 22, Annie “Mossin’ Annie” Martin, a nationally recognized expert on moss gardening, will present “The Magical World of Moss Gardening” at Trees Atlanta, 225 Chester Ave., Atlanta.  This program is free and open to the public, but you should register to reserve your spot at www.treesatlanta.org.

Greg Levine

Greg Levine is Co-Executive Director & Chief Program Officer of Trees Atlanta.