Once we hit Labor Day, the unofficial end of summer, you might think the curtain has come down on another gardening season.
The show isn’t over, though, if you’ve planned for late season color in the garden. As temperatures cool and days grow shorter, some plants are just preparing for their moment in the spotlight. With the right players, your garden can have a grand finale in the crisp days of early autumn rather than fading away in a dreary tangle of plants past their prime.
Make the acquaintance of feathery grasses, tiny autumn crocus and cyclamen, succulent sedums and shade-loving toad lilies, and you’ll find that even while the season is drawing to a close, fresh surprises abound. Try some of these plants to carry you through September and beyond:
The first flower that may come to mind is the chrysanthemum, practically an icon of autumn. Available at every farm stand and supermarket, potted mums do have their place, especially as replacements for spent annuals in containers.
Be aware that mass-produced mums won’t necessarily survive the winter in our area. Most are from milder climates like California, where they are bred for color and form, rather than resistance to the cold.
To have reliable mums, year after year, you need the fully perennial types best planted in the spring. These include many desirable varieties and require little more than a few rounds of pruning through the summer to keep them compact.
With their cool sky-blues and vivid pinks and purples, asters offer a perfect compliment to fall’s warmer palette of golds and reds. A native plant, asters provide nectar for bees and butterflies and include species adapted to every niche.
The two types most commonly available are the New York aster, Aster nova belgii, and the New England aster, Aster nova angeliae. These grow into dome-shaped mounds 18 to 30 inches tall and thrive in a sunny or lightly shaded spot.
Asters should be cut back by a third in early summer and kept well watered from August on while buds are forming. If rabbits abound, they will need protection since bunnies find the shoots irresistible.
Few plants are more useful and trouble-free than the tall garden sedums. These fleshy, succulent plants form flat heads of tiny green flowers in summer, but these don’t color up until late in the year.
In a sunny spot with well-drained and even relatively infertile soil, they require little from the gardener. Plants are rarely bothered by pests or disease, and once they established, they laugh at drought. They are ideal subjects for sandy soils and hot, dry places like beds along sidewalks and driveways.
Growing about two feet tall, many sedums have flowers in the pink-rose-red color spectrum. ‘Autumn Joy,’ a russet-red, is one favorite, but the flesh-colored ‘Matrona’ and lipstick pink ‘Hot Stuff’ are just two of the many newer varieties worth attention.
Despite its common name, I think of Nipponicanthemum as “Sea Bright daisies” since they grow prolifically there and are well-adapted to seaside locations. This semi-succulent plant is actually more of a sub-shrub, growing three feet tall and wide by season’s end.
The plant produces pristine white daisies, very much like those of the Shasta, in the brisk days of October. Like an echo of high summer, the flowers cover the plant and generally last for several weeks.
Full sun in average, well-drained soil suits these plants, which have few pest or disease problems. Montauk daisies should be cut back sharply in early spring, when buds form, and again in early summer to keep them shapely.
Ornamental grasses have caught on in a big way because they make a dramatic statement without fussy demands. There is a grass for every situation, including shady spots, but most prefer lean soil and a sunny location. The only maintenance required is an early spring haircut to make way for new shoots.
While grasses remain handsome all season long, it isn’t until early fall that most species produce their feathery plumes. These can be very decorative, and can remain on the plant through winter, catching the slanting sun and fallen snow.
The pennisetum grasses do very well at the Shore and are long-lived accents for the garden. There are less hardy species that can be grown here as annuals, including the dark-leafed ‘Rubrum’ and dwarf pampas grasses. Grasses are a perfect foil for other fall subjects like sedum, asters and goldenrod.
Still little known, toad lilies need a public relations make-over and a more glamorous name. Technically known as Tricyrtis, this woodland genus produces a mound of elegant foliage on gracefully arching stems two to three feet tall.
In October, intricately speckled and streaked flower resembling orchids appear along the stems. The flowers are long-lasting and in countries like Japan are grown for the cut flower trade.
Hybridizers have fallen in love with toad lilies and are busy making ever-more spectacular cultivars in jewel-like tones. Check out the purple ‘Amethystina,’ the white and lilac ‘Miyazaki’ or the burgundy-speckled ‘Lightning Strike.’
Little bulbs and corms
For the most part, gardeners are planting bulbs in autumn for spring bloom. But there are tiny little charmers that actually flower in the fall.
Chief among them are the vivid lavender autumn crocus and the porcelain-pink meadow saffron. The latter is actually a lily, although it looks like a crocus on steroids. Cursed with a botanical name that sounds like a sneeze, colchicum grow from fat corms that can bloom on a windowsill without benefit of soil or water. Planted outdoors, they will slowly form a little colony.
Cyclamen – the hardy woodland type – look like miniature versions of the florist’s cyclamen popular as gift plants. Sticking to an upside-down schedule, their marbled leaves and small pink flowers arise in the fall and fade away in the spring.