We often think of gardening as a boys-and-girls-of-summer game. By late August, we're usually ready to stagger off the field and retire to the clubhouse. But with planning and mulch, September can be a wonderful reawakening in the garden. Which means the view from the clubhouse can be spectacular.
"It's one of the best times in the garden," says Rae Ann McInnis, horticulturist with the Horticulture Society of Maryland.
"In fall you can wake up the garden with blooms," agrees Tasanee Mack, a landscape designer at Homestead Gardens in Davidsonville. "The grasses and asters and mums all make it beautiful."
From resurrection lily (Lycoris squamigera), whose pink angel trumpets rise from foliage that died weeks before, to false aster (Boltonia asteroides) with drifts of little daisy flowers, the roster of September bloomers is as long as Julie Andrews' list of favorite things. There are climbers, like autumn clematis (Clematis angustifolia) with clouds of fragrant white stars, cathedral bells (Cobaea) whose big grape-purple or lime-white blooms dangle from long burgundy stems, and heart-leafed morning glory (Ipomoea) with cream, rose, Copenhagen blue or purple flowers.
"Morning glory is the flower of September," says garden lecturer Tina James. "Like nasturtium, it's at its peak then. Both are photo periodic [keyed to day length], and they like shorter daylight hours."
For semi-shade, there is hardy ageratum, also known as blue mist flower (Eupatorium coelestinum), and anemone, whose creamy white to deep rose blooms flutter like butterflies on 4-foot-tall wire-thin stems. Recently introduced turtlehead (Chelone lyonii) 'Hot Lips,' has Pepto-Bismol-pink blooms, and hardy Begonia grandis sports pale pink flowers atop red-veined chartreuse leaves. And the delicately painted blossoms of speckle-faced toad lily (Tricyrtis) beg to be examined.
"Tricyrtis 'Hatatogisa' is totally cool," says McInnins. "It has blue flowers, purple spots and white center. And Tricyrtis 'Miyazaki' is pale purple with dark spots."
For full sun, there's a slew of possibilities. Chrysanthemums (some of which are now called dendranthemums, just to confuse things) and asters are fall stalwarts. New varieties include Dendranthema 'Punkin Harvest,' a Monet-sunrise pink and apricot, and beautiful sky-blue Aster tataricus 'Jindai,' which grows 4 to 5 feet tall without falling over.
"I particularly like our native woodland Aster divaricatus, which has a deep maroon stem and a small daisy flower in September to October," says McInnis. "It's carefree with a wonderful range from full sun to part shade. And those little star flowers make a nice mass."
Sedums are fall-flowering regulars whose blooms slowly morph color. Recently introduced S. 'Neon' is a slightly lower mounding variety with a more defined magenta instead of the usual bronze pink. And now there are variegated sedums.
"They're nice," notes Cindy King, horticulturist at Kings-town Farm Homeand Garden in Chestertown. "But in my experience, they revert to unvariegated after four to five years."
Fall-blooming natives that are not only beautiful in a kind of fresh-scrubbed, country-girl way, but also attract butterflies, bees and other pollinators, include joe-pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum), which waves clustered purply pink blossoms on 5-foot-tall stems; ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis), which grows 4 feet to 6 feet tall and sports a vivid magenta bloom; and goldenrod (Solidago) 'Golden Fleece,' which is topped with fat sun-bright panicles and has beautifully dissected foliage. And heliopsis, a black-eyed-Susan-bloomed perennial that grows to 6 feet tall and adds a bright light to the back of a border.
"Heliopsis 'Prairie Sunset' is a neat thing," says King. "It's got a purple-black stem with a bright gold flower and blooms from July through September."
For shrubby perennials that can be mid-border focal points in a fall garden, there's caryopteris and Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia). Russian sage holds its misty lavender pipe-cleaner blooms atop filigreed sage foliage through September, while the new powder pink Caryopteris 'Pink Chablis' and purple-bloomed C. 'Sunshine Blue,' which has lemon-lime leaves, open little puffball blossoms along their stems in late August and go through October. And butterflies love them.
Then there are the grasses, which simultaneously send up frothy inflorescences and don their fall colors. Prairie switch grass 'Warrior' produces airy gold seed heads above green and blood-red foliage, the feathery fronds of big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) glow ruby red, and Indian grass (Sorgastrum nutans) is topped with bronzy gold inflorescences.
"I love Amsonia hubrechtii for the gorgeous orange and coral and red fall foliage," says King.
Additionally, fall's second wind encourages gardeners to do a little retooling at an optimal time for the plants.
"Fall is a good time for planting," says Mack. Fall-planted perennials, trees and shrubs can grow root systems without the burden of putting up foliage and bloom.
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