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October pleasures in the garden

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Posted on October 8, 2018 |
By Judith Irven



garden DSC_6956.jpg
ON A CHILLY mid-October morning these Black-eyed Susans were tinged with frost. Photo by Dick Conrad

By October, many people assume all the flowers in the garden are finished for the year. This is the season for the trees and forests to bask in their colorful glory — and for the leaf peepers to take to their cars.

But do not write the garden off too hastily. October has plenty of delights in store for gardeners too.

In my Zone 4 Goshen garden I have several varieties of perennials with beautiful flowers that last throughout October, as well as some lovely — and well-behaved — grasses with delicate stems that shimmer in the slanting autumn light.

And these are complemented by other autumnal pleasures such as the leaves on the blueberry bushes that turn a beautiful bronze, rose-hips on the smooth wild rose (Rosa blanda) along the hedgerow, as well as the seedheads of many summer perennials (such as astilbe and echinacea) that I purposefully leave for the birds to enjoy.

Here are some of my favorite flowers and grasses that grace my autumn garden. Many are well known, others less so. You should be able to find almost all of them at your local nursery.

Fall hydrangeas

THE DELICATE FLOWERS on the “Pink Diamond” fall hydrangea gradually change from creamy white to dusky pink.

Photo by Dick Conrad

Fall hydrangeas (Hydrangea paniculata) are the cornerstone of the autumn garden. These are sturdy, long-lasting woody plants, grown either as a shrub (lots of stems) or a small tree (a single stem). Their enormous, round flower-heads start out white in mid-summer, and then, as the season progresses, gradually turn pink (or in some instances pale green).

As a testament to their longevity, fall hydrangeas can be seen in old cemeteries all around Vermont where, unaided by any gardener for a century or more, they still thrive today. When I was studying Landscape Design at Vermont Technical School we called them, no joke, the “cemetery plant.”

Recently plant breeders have developed a vast array of cultivars from the Hydrangea paniculata species for our gardening satisfaction. My personal favorite is Pink Diamond, with huge conical flower-heads that gradually become delicate pink in late September. Left unchecked it will eventually grow 12 feet or more high and wide, so plan accordingly. However, if you prune back in late winter to around eight feet high and wide, it will become even more floriferous.

Some hydrangea cultivars even take on their fall coloration as early as July. Quick Fire has dusky pink flower-heads, while Limelight has greenish tints. However, since both eventually grow quite large, their smaller cousins, Little Quick Fire and Little Limelight, are better suited for most gardens.

Mid-summer until frost

Most fall-flowering perennials make me wait until September before they start to flower. But the well-known Black Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia Goldstrum) which began flowering back in August, will keep on blooming until singed by a hard frost.

However the prize for the longest flowering perennial in my garden goes to the amazing Geranium Rozanne. It began flowering in late June and will continue non-stop until felled by the frost. It has clear violet-blue flowers and by the end of the season each plant will become a sizable mound.

For a great, long-lasting color contrast plant some Rozanne around your Black-eyed Susans.

Hardy chrysanthemums

JUDITH'S BLUEBERRY BED in mid-October. The prolific yellow chrysanthemums, Mary Stoker, all originated from a single plant in Judith’s garden.

Photo by Dick Conrad

Everyone is familiar with the colorful chrysanthemums — a.k.a. mums — sold at garden centers and supermarkets. They come in lots of pretty colors and are the perfect touch for around the front door. But sadly if, after they have finished flowering, you try planting them in the garden these varieties are unlikely to be hardy enough to make it through our Vermont winters.

So look a little further. There are plenty of varieties of mums that are perfectly hardy in our Vermont winters and which will faithfully return to create a lovely patch of color in your fall garden for years to come.

For instance, Autumn Moon is a clear yellow, Glowing Ember is red and gold, and the taller and vigorous Mammoth Red Daisy is scarlet. Plant some of these this fall as an investment in the future.

Native Asters

We all know the tall purple New England asters (Aster novae angliae) that brighten our hedgerows at this time of year and they too make lovely garden plants.

Furthermore, plant breeders have developed cultivars in colors other than purple. So, for a stunning effect, include some New England asters with unusual colors, in the mix. Position some salmon pink Alma Potschke (which grows about three feet high) near the front of your bed, and back them with a taller variety, such as dark violet Marina Wolkonsky, which grows four feet high or more.

However, if you have a small garden, you might prefer the shorter drought tolerant Aromatic Aster October Skies (Aster oblongifolius), about two feet high, or even the compact Woods Blue New York Aster that grows about 18 inches high.

Cheery sedums

Fall-flowering sedums are wonderful garden plants. Their fleshy water-retentive leaves carry the plants through the dry hot weather of summer without any attention from the gardener. And from September onwards their flowers are abuzz with bees and butterflies enjoying the nectar.

Like many people I have grown the well-known tall Sedum Autumn Joy — with its rosy pink flowers and substantial green leaves — for many years. Over time I divided my original plants to create clumps of three to five plants together for greater emphasis in the garden.

Recently I have also been growing the very pretty cultivar Matrona, which has grayish leaves in summer and lighter pink flowers in fall — a nice addition to my autumn garden.

A pink fountain

BUSH CLOVER WAITS until October before it explodes in color.

Photo by Dick Conrad

A few years ago, when browsing the shelves of a favorite local nursery, I came across an unknown plant called Bush Clover (Lespedeza thunbergii).

Always one to try a new plant, I bought one and planted it near our front door. And I could not be more pleased with the result.

Bush Clover begins the season as a mass of slender, delicate stems which, to limit the final size of the plant and make it more bushy, I cut down to half height around mid June. Then, in early October, the plant suddenly explodes into a brilliant pink flowery fountain that lasts until the first heavy frost.

Graceful grasses

THE FEATHERY FLOWER stems of Tussock grass intermingle with the Black-eyed Susans in Judith’s garden.

Photo by Dick Conrad

And finally I suggest you also include some ornamental grasses in your garden mix. With their linear lines they contrast beautifully with the perennials we have been discussing. And, at this time of year, most also take on autumnal hues.

Most people are familiar with Maiden Grass (Miscanthus sinsensis) and its many cultivars. These are robust coarse-textured grasses, typically six feet or more high, that will stay standing throughout the winter. I am partial to Miscanthus purpurescens which, towards the end of summer, turns an attractive reddish color.

As a complete contrast Purple Moor-Grass (Molinia caerulea’Skyracer’), which grows as high as eight feet, has a delicate lacy texture. Nothing gives me more pleasure than watching a song sparrow swinging to and fro on the Purple Moor grass outside my kitchen window, as it feasts on the ripened seeds.

There are several wonderful native grasses including Tussock grass (Deschampsia cespitosa) which has airy seedheads atop a mound its mounded leaves, and the many cultivars of Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) that all make excellent garden plants.

I am also extremely partial to Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), a prairie grass with delicate blue leaves between two and four feet high. For a real standout seek out Blue Heaven — a taller cultivar of Little Bluestem with slender red-tinged leaves even in the summer.

I hope the ideas offered here will inspire you to create autumn beauty in own your garden to give you pleasure for many seasons to come. You can see additional pictures of our garden in fall on Dick’s website, northcountryimpressions.com in the album called “The Autumn Garden.”

Judith Irven and Dick Conrad live in Goshen where together they nurture a large garden. Judith is a Vermont Certified Horticulturist and teaches Sustainable Home Landscaping for the Vermont Master Gardener program. You can subscribe to her blog about her Vermont gardening life at northcountryreflections.com. Dick is a landscape and garden photographer; you can see more of his photographs at northcountryimpressions.com.

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