I like that word, culmination. The crowning point, the zenith, the high-water mark. In the gardening year, for me, Labor Day is the beginning of the period when I enjoy my garden most. As I've grown older, my taste has shifted towards late bloomers and plants that wait until now to really shine, in the beautiful clear light of early fall.
Don't get me wrong, I still love the exuberance of April, May and June, the lush fresh growth that expands almost hourly, flowers everywhere and the promise of another season still unspoiled by disappointments and setbacks. We all need that time, especially after the long, dim winters we often have here in the Hudson Valley. But I'm pushing my plantings more and more towards things that strut their stuff at the end of the growing season, and enjoying the results.
As a young gardener my plantings were heavily weighted towards that late spring/early summer culmination, that peak we have around Memorial Day, when Iris, Peonies, Poppies and other traditional perennials flower. Nurseries are well stocked then, and there's no shortage of eager customers, which is part of the reason why most gardens are so dull after midsummer. At Loomis Creek, and later at Pondside, we were constantly striving to get people to come in later in the season, because there's really a large vocabulary of plants that can make this time of year one of the most gratifying.
Here are a few ideas for plants I'd recommend trying, to give your garden (and your spirits) a late season lift . . .
Grasses, grasses, grasses! Those seedheads are what I wait for all season, even though the foliage is lovely and soothing during the summer. But now's the time that grasses really are front and center. One of my new favorites is this Blue Grama Grass with yellowish seed heads, Bouteloua gracilis 'Blonde Ambition'. The wiry stems look delicate but they're remarkably strong, staying upright even through most of our winter snows. A native of the western plains that needs a hot, dry, sandy position.
Purple Love Grass, Eragrostis spectabilis, is a bit of a plain Jane through the summer, but when it blooms in September, it's a knockout. Native to this area, so once you learn to recognize it you'll start seeing it everywhere, on roadsides and in unmown fields.
Lots of ornamental grasses are shoulder high or taller, so it's great to find some that are below knee-high. A good choice, and one that tolerates some shade, is Deschampsia cespitosa 'Goldtau' (Golden Dew). Native to several parts of the world, including North America, with deep green blades that have a medium-fine texture all season, then in early fall carry ethereal sprays of pale green aging to warm gold. I love it planted among my Hellebores so there's another whole season of interest in that area.
Panicums are still among my favorite grasses, and you can't go far wrong with Panicum virgatum 'Northwind' (above, left). It's a reliable choice if you need a tall, upright presence. For more color, there are quite a few reddish cultivars coming on the market now. The standard for years has been 'Shenandoah', but I'm loving 'Hot Rod' (above, right). It seems to be more vigorous than 'Shenandoah', and colors up richly by summer's end. I think it looks especially fine paired with one of the larger Sedums, a classic fall combination.
Speaking of Sedums, I love this newer variety with citron-yellow flowers on sturdy stems that stay upright all winter. It's called 'Lemon Jade', and although I usually hate the plants selected by the Proven Winners program, this one's truly a fine choice, and a good blender color-wise. A little shorter than 'Autumn Joy', 'Matrona' or the other pink-flowered cultivars that have been around for years.
A plant I've been fascinated by since I was a child is the Rattlesnake Master, Eryngium yuccifolium. It's common in the Louisiana pinelands where I grew up, but grows well here also. Does best in sandy, dry soils that keep it sturdy and upright... in rich ground it tends to sprawl and need staking. Otherwise trouble free, a great textural feature, and dries well for winter bouquets.
Heleniums are American natives that went to finishing school in Europe in the late 19th century and came back to us much improved, but we still don't appreciate them nearly as much as the Germans, Brits and Dutch do. That's beginning to change, with the introduction of some shorter varieties that don't need staking like the older cultivars. Three good choices are 'Mardi Gras' (top), 'Mariachi Salsa' (lower left), and 'Moerheim Beauty' (lower right), an older variety that I still think is one of the best reds. Heleniums provide a solid punch of color in September, and the seed heads age nicely into fall. Easy to grow if they have consistent moisture in the soil, otherwise they tend to dwindle after a couple of years.
Aster season kicks off with Aster umbellatus, the Flat-topped Aster. Fresh, clean white daisies are followed by really showy tufts of seedheads in a beautiful tawny gold. My plants were a gift from local Superwoman Gardener, Betty Grindrod, and just divided this spring, so by next year they should reach their full height potential of 6-7 ft. Annoyingly, this plant has recently been reclassified as Doellingeria umbellata. Just kill all the botanists, now.
It's a shrub, no it's a perennial, no it's a shrub! Lespedeza thunbergii, common name: Japanese Bush Clover, is a graceful plant that's tough and pretty. The stems die to the ground in our winters but regrow vigorously to shrub height, arching sprays that cover themselves with deep pink or white pea-flowers in early fall. The best pink is 'Gibraltar' (above, left) and there are several nice white ones, like 'White Fountain' (above, right).
Lespedeza is perfect for planting on a bank, where the lax stems can tumble down and cover themselves with flowers in September, as seen here at Linda Horn's garden in nearby Spencertown, NY. If a more compact plant is wanted, it can also be cut back by half around Memorial Day and it will still flower well, just in a bushier form.
There are good reasons why you see a Panicle Hydrangea, Hydrangea paniculata, flowering now at almost every house in these parts. They're tough, hardy, and spectacular in flower, aging from white to pink and perfect for big, lavish floral arrangements. There are literally dozens of cultivars on the market, from the classic heirloom 'Peegee' to more recent introductions like 'Limelight' (greenish-flowers) and 'Phantom' (panicles the size of basketballs). I prefer the ones with more open clusters, like 'Pink Diamond' (above). All they need is plenty of sun, reasonable soil, and a modest shaping in early spring. Also often grown as a standard, incorrectly called a "Tree Hydrangea".
I know it's on the invasives lists in several states, but I still grow the Sweet Autumn Clematis, Clematis paniculata. It foams up the side of our porch, sprawling out over a Lilac, and envelops the deck above with fragrant masses of bloom every September. I prune it back pretty severely in spring, just as the buds are breaking on the old vine, to keep it reasonably under control. As the old stems age and get woody, new ones will sprout from the base and can be trained to replace the older ones. Occasionally I find a seedling coming up, but I've never seen much potential for it to become invasive, at least not in our garden.
While we're on the subject of vines, early fall is the peak of perfection for most annual vines, like Morning Glories, Spanish Flag, Cup & Saucer, or the Hyacinth Bean, Dolichos lablab, shown above. I prefer this variety, 'Ruby Moon' which has purplish stems, leaves and pods that are as decorative as the flowers. I used to start it every year from seed, under lights in my basement, but it's been volunteering for the last three or four seasons and it seems to come true to color. As easy as any other bean, and one or two plants is all you need to cover a fence or an archway.
What would early fall be without at least a few Dahlias, queens of the late season cutting garden, and (mostly) worth all the trouble to start them warm, stake them while they grow, and dig & store after frost. Their gorgeousness is often breathtaking, and the varieties are endless.
Another tender group that's worth the trouble to replant every year are the shrubby Salvias, like Salvia guaranitica, Salvia leucantha, Salvia uliginosa, and their many cultivars like 'Black & Blue', 'Indigo Spires', 'Cambridge Blue', 'Waverly', 'Argentine Skies', or 'Amistad', each more enchanting than the next. The only reason they're not more popular is that they look like weeds when it's time to buy and plant them... but just wait until the days shorten a bit and they start to bloom like mad and keep going until taken out by the frost. Give them full sun, evenly moist soil and plenty of room to expand into shrub-sized plants that will cover themselves in flowers that Hummingbirds and Sphinx Moths flock to. Did I mention they're deer-proof too?
I love anything thistle-like (maybe it's my prickly personality) and I buy a couple of Cardoon plants every year to plug into sunny spots that need a gutsy foliar focal point. The proper name is Cynara cardunculus, and it's a cousin to the edible Artichoke. I had one live over the winter this year and although it didn't make the large, vase-shaped plant I was hoping for, it did throw some nice buds and flowers, which were like small artichokes and dried nicely. Most years the leaves reach 3-5 ft. in height and look incredibly sculptural by the end of the season.
Another plant I love for it's dramatic foliage is Ricinus, the Castor Bean. I grow a few every year from seeds that are easily sprouted with a little bottom heat. By September they're topping out at 8 ft, more in a hot wet year, and producing their clusters of colorful, spiny seed pods. The seeds themselves are highly toxic (the source of the poison ricin), so not a plant for gardens where small children are likely to ingest them.
There are a few varieties of Castor Bean, but my very favorite is a deeply colored one called 'New Zealand Purple', available from Select Seeds, Chiltern's, or Annie's Annuals. It's a little smaller than some of the green Castor Beans, only 6 ft. tall instead of 10, and I love scattering it through plantings of richly tinted annuals and perennials.
Here's 'New Zealand Purple' in a stunning combination with Salvia uliginosa, the Bog Sage, put together by Dorthe Hviid at the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, Mass.
I hope I've given you some ideas for plantings to liven up the waning days of summer, but whether you take my suggestions or not, enjoy your garden in September. With less pressing chores, beautiful weather, and a bounty of flora and fauna to observe, it's a wonderful time to be outdoors.
There's a tangle of colors and textures in the borders right now that's unequaled at any other time of year.
Welcome to Sempervivum, an opinionated, sometimes informed and completely unqualified journal of gardens, plants and plantings by artist-gardener Robert Clyde Anderson.