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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Fall flowers plentiful with lots of life left

Henry Homeyer

Big yellow buses are lumbering around everywhere I look, stopping and starting and making a morning car trip seem to take forever. A few trees are showing color, mainly those living in swamps or under stressful conditions. The leaves on my tomato plants have largely turned brown, meaning no new blossoms for late tomatoes. Fall is here. But I still have lots of flowers blooming, and more on the way.

Each fall, I treat myself to some chrysanthemums. I don’t buy them at the grocery store in an effort to get the cheapest price. I go to my local farm stand and buy the biggest, most beautiful pots of mums I can. I like to support local farmers and garden centers – and I believe I get better quality flowers from them. Mums that have traveled on a truck from New Jersey aren’t necessarily of bad quality, but those that were grown near home are less likely to have been stressed or damaged by too little (or too much) water.

Sometimes, I just plunk those mums down, pots and all, on the front steps. Doing so means I will have to water them every hot sunny afternoon, particularly if the mums are growing in peat pots instead of plastic ones. I like peat pots – they don’t use any petroleum products – but they do dry out more quickly than plastic. This is true even if you plant the pots in the ground. The lip of a peat pot will let moisture evaporate and dry out the roots unless the ground is pretty wet. So tear off the lip of the peat pot, or remove it entirely if popping them in the ground.

I know that some chrysanthemums sold now are said to be hardy in Zone 4, but I don’t care if they are or not. I use them as annuals, filling in spaces and brightening up places where I need color. They are great on the table, too, and will look good for six weeks or more.

Elsewhere in the garden, I do have some nice blossoms. Sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale) is a tall fall bloomer that likes full sun. The petals are “recurved,” meaning that their daisy-like petals don’t lay flat or lean inward as the petals on a black-eyed Susan do. Instead, they lean back a little from the central button. Sneezeweed comes in a pure yellow, an orange and brown, a reddish color and probably others. All are good cut flowers – and do not cause sneezing. I’ve read that the flowers were dried and used as snuff long ago.

Turtlehead (Chelone lyonii) is one of my fall favorites. It likes moist soil, but will grow anywhere from full sun to full shade. It spreads slowly by root, creating dramatic clumps in just a few years – but it won’t take over the garden. The foliage is a deep green, stems are 4-feet tall, and the flowers are a pure pink – in the shape of a turtle’s head. There is also a smaller white variety, which is a native wildflower, but the blossoms are sort of a dirty white, and not very interesting.

Then there are many different fall asters. Several of mine stand more than 4 feet tall and bloom in a variety of blues, purples, white and even pink. Butterflies seem to love them. They look nice in a vase, but I find they don’t last as well as turtlehead, mums and some others. I let native asters – treated as weeds by some – fill in around the edge of wooded areas and in my shade gardens. They are much smaller than the cultivated ones, and their colors are not as bright. But keep an eye out for a clump along the roadside and bring some home if you like.

Then there are the fall crocus (Colchicum spp.) which are not crocus at all, but do resemble them. Mine are either white or lavender and have either single or double blossoms. They pop up unexpectedly – they have no fall foliage. The foliage appears in the spring, then dies off. Each blossom is 2 to 4 inches from tip to bottom, and most appear on stems that don’t quite hold them up. So they flop unless you plant them in a place with a ground cover that will support them. Myrtle (Vinca major) seems to work well for that. My fall crocus have not yet appeared, but I know they will be along soon. They are bulb plants and a bit pricey.

Gentians are in bloom now, both in the wild and in my garden. The deep true blue of a gentian is unbeatable. This year mine are entwined with a perennial called Knautia macedonia, which has been blooming since mid-summer. It is a wine-red, pincushion-like flower that has long, thin stems. The two plants together are gorgeous, and the stiff stems of the gentian hold up the blossoms of knautia on rainy days. The particular gentian I grow is Gentiana makinoi, a variety named Marsha. Look for both, buy them if you find them; both are quite scarce in the nursery trade.

We never know when frost will first nip at our veggies and flowers. Most years recently, it has been mid-October for me. But I’ve seen frost here in August once, and plenty in September. Until frost, I’ll have plenty of annual flowers blooming. A particularly nice one for me this year has been Browallia Amethyst. The small blue and white flowers have been flowering like crazy for ages, and show no signs of slowing down. But I know their life span is limited, and I dread the day when the grim reaper – Jack Frost – takes them away.

Henry Homeyer is a gardener and writer. Contact him at P.O. Box 364, Cornish Flat, NH 03746, or by visiting his Web site, www.Gardening-Guy.com. His column runs the first, third and fifth Tuesdays of the month.