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Northeast Gardening: Autumn Garden All-Stars

Brought to you by Lowe's Creative Ideas

Lowe's Northeast garden expert Irene Virag introduces some of her favorite autumn all-stars.

Dahlias, Mystic Illusion shown here with bronze Carex, are the divas of the late-season beds.

In autumn shadows lengthen, dusk comes sooner, and we turn back the clock. But as the earth cools and the light wanes, flowers put on their most vibrant costumes. And the transition from summer to fall melds with the transitions that mark the stages of our lives.

I cannot sing sad songs as the seasons change — not when the last roses of summer glow atop the garden arbor and tall, white anemones sway gracefully beneath the fading pink blooms of the Brugmansia that looks just like its common name: angel's trumpet. Not when Sedum 'Autumn Joy' blossoms in bronze and burnished mahogany, and pyracantha blazes into orange-red flames amid the greenery.

Yellow Dahlia Honka

This season of gentle greetings and fond farewells also offers dramatic opportunities for flower combinations. I walk around my beds and borders in the russet light of autumn and nod to the feathery plumes of fountain grass fluttering in the wind. I salute the salvias that flower proudly in the face of the coming frost. And I glory in the combinations of the changing season — especially the star turns taken by dahlias, toad lilies and Japanese anemones.

Dahlias are the divas of late-season beds and borders. They come in more shapes than Christmas cookies. Some dahlias resemble daisies, orchids and water lilies; others take the shapes of anemones, peonies and cacti. Blooms can be big and blowsy, or pint-size and petite. Their colors — red, orange, yellow, purple, pink, everything else except blue — carry almost any combination till frost.

Pink Dahlia Parkland Rave

Scarlet and crimson dahlias turn up the heat on purple petunias, verbenas, Russian sage and New England asters. Dark-leaf 'Bishop of Llandaff' cozies up to Crocosmia and Kniphofia, AKA red-hot poker, and gets it going with goldenrod and Rudbeckia and coppery Helenium. Tall, pink varieties rising amid the towering fall-blooming blue- and rose-hued salvias and pastel nicotianas take my breath away. And I smile at sunny Dahlia 'Mystic Illusion', shining against a backdrop of bronze Carex and black-eyed Susans.

Tricyrtis hirta, AKA toad lily

Or think toad lily (which needs a better name; even its botanical name, Tricyrtis hirta, makes it sound like a dinosaur).

This shade-loving, drought-resistant herbaceous perennial, with maroon-spotted creamy-white flowers, is an autumn all-star. It's even lovelier when the supporting cast includes liriope — a late-blooming groundcover featuring small bell-shape blue flowers. Or mix it with white or pink Japanese anemones, astilbes, hostas, heucherellas or painted ferns.

Pink Japanese anemones

Of course Japanese anemones are prima ballerinas in their own right, especially white, willowy 'Honorine Jobert' when supported by a corps de ballet of purple and pink cosmos; or Verbena bonariensis or tall Ageratum 'Blue Horizon.' Or contrast Japanese anemone's satiny, cup-shape blooms — which also come in pink, purple and red — with the creamy, bottlebrushlike spikes of Cimicifuga.

Japanese anemones like full sun to partial shade, and even though they're late to emerge, they'll flourish from late summer to midautumn in gardens as far north as Zone 5. Their Chinese cousins 'Anemone hupehensis' are hardy to Zone 4 and bloom earlier. They all prefer rich, moist, well-drained soil and don't like to be moved. Which is fine by me. They deserve their places in the autumn sun.

What are your favorite fall combinations?