Still blooming


The perennial border today, still in bloom despite the drought.

Despite this season’s drought, a garden of well-chosen native perennials can still provide plenty of late-season interest for you (and food for wildlife). The photo above, taken today, shows part of a perennial border that has never been watered this season. The plants were all chosen for their ability to thrive in full sun and very dry, sandy soil. The garden started blooming in May, with columbine, and will probably end sometime in mid-October. The late bloomers include several species of aster, Boltonia asteroides, and two species of Rudbeckia, plus the visual interest supplied by an abundance of colorful autumn leaves, seeds, and fruits. (Notice in the left foreground the golden leaves of a red milkweed plant.)

Below is a wider view of the perennial borders that surround the patio (sadly, we put the patio furniture away this morning). You can see the different colors of the two aster species; on the right,you can see the white and yellow of white snakeroot and goldenrod that volunteer from the miniforest that’s just outside the picture. And aren’t the grasses lovely in the sun!



Winter bounty


My garden is as lively with birds in winter as in summer, and this is why: I leave lots of leaf litter, and I leave the perennials and grasses in place until spring. Ground-feeding birds sift through the litter for seeds and insects, and perching birds feed from the standing stalks. It’s the perfect habitat for the mixed foraging flocks of chickadees, nuthatches, sparrows, and juncos that come through almost daily and for the cardinals, jays, and mourning doves that live here year round. Look closely at the picture above, and you’ll see seeds of native grasses, asters, monarda, boltonia, and several other plants. Every time I look out the winter I see birds.

Planted near the sidewalk is a low-growing border that’s exuberant with spring-blooming natives, most of which went dormant months ago. Now it too is loaded with seed of shade-loving asters; ferns and other groundcover plants (Heuchera and Tiarella) hold the leaf mulch in place. I “mulch” my gardens by simply allowing the leaves to remain where they fall. They insulate and enrich the soil, shelter overwintering moth and butterfly larvae, and help feed the birds.


In a part of the garden that I allow to look a bit more wild, htere are tall seed stalks of sweet joe pye weed, white snakeroot, an unknown volunteer goldenrod, and many other plants against a backdrop of hemlocks. This joe pye weed grew 8 feet tall this year and will feed the birds all winter.


Autumn unfolds


The edge of my mini-woodland is filled in with bountiful flowers of volunteer goldenrod (species unknown) and white snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum). A month ago, this shady area was dominated by great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), which has now gone quietly to seed (as has the sweet joe pye weed on the right). There’s still plenty of food for pollinators and birds.


Look closely at this flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) and you’ll see lots and lots of bright-red fruit. These trees are growing in part shade, which is their preferred siting. A dogwood tree placed in full sun would be severely drought stressed now, after more than a month of low rainfall. In nature, these shallow-rooted trees always grow under the shade of canopy trees, often at the woodland edge. Dogwood berries are especially nutritious, and birds never leave them on the trees or shrubs for long. Migrating birds will stop to eat these berries within the next few days. And speaking of berries . . .


. . . back in July I showed you a picture of these cranberry bush (Viburnum trilobum) berries just as they were showing color. Compare that with the way they look now–ripe and juicy (edible to humans but very acidic). Usually birds don’t eat these berries until well into the winter, kind of as a last resort. This year they seem to be disappearing early, despite the abundance of other fruit. Maybe the cool nights have ripened them early.

I love to try to figure out the interactions of plants and animals in my garden and to watch autumn unfold.

Native plants for fall color

My husband takes most of the pictures on this blog (all of the good ones). Within the last hour, he walked around the garden and took pictures of the perennials that are in bloom and the shrubs that are showing fall color. We’ve had quite a cool summer, and it’s been very dry for the past month (and I have not watered), so it seems to me that the garden is a week or two ahead of where it should be right now: late-blooming perennials are further along than they are in most years, and some woody plants are shutting down a bit sooner than usual. But there’s still a lot going on in the garden.


New England asters are always the star of the autumn garden, attracting pollinators well into October. This is a unknown cultivar of Aster novae-angliae that’s been in my garden for about 20 years.


This is Aster oblongifolius ‘October Skies,’ which I purchased only yesterday. The plants are still in their pots, but the bees don’t care.


Notice the bee theme we have going here. Yet another pollinator is enjoying this lovely goldenrod, species unknown, that volunteered in my garden many years ago.


Yet another volunteer plant is white snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum), a native perennial that started to appear in this area about 10 years ago and is now common. Look closely–there are lots of pollinators on this one.


And still another volunteer in my garden. I believe this is heath aster (Aster ericoides).


We planted Virginia creeper on the side of our garage about 15 years ago. It feeds the birds in fall and rewards us with gorgeous fall color.

The Asteraceae (Part II)

This fall feels farther along than it really is because the  nights have been so cool. Trees are already showing considerable color. But many plants in the Asteraceae family are still hanging in there, showing their last few blossoms and continuing to ripen seeds.

Right now, it’s all about the asters: New England asters, several shade-loving species, sky-blue asters, heath asters (scads of tiny white flowers, not pictured). My garden is still full of color, and when the sun is out, the flowers still hum with pollinators.




Most of these will be in bloom for another month, barring very cold weather. Their seed won’t begin to ripen until frost, and plants in shady places are just showing buds.

Goldenrod (Solidago spp.) is aster’s invariable associate almost everywhere in the northeast. There are many, many species; the one in my garden is a volunteer; it’s about 3 feet tall, and it does well in both sun and part shade. Boltonia asteroides is another member of the tribe and also a good companion for the sun-loving asters. Boltonia began blooming even later than the asters–only about a week ago–and it too will bloom until frost.



Notice the Rudbeckia subtomentosa still blooming in the last picture. That species has many ripe seeds now even as it continues to bloom. Members of the Asteraceae family have now been blooming in my garden for well over three months, since the first Coreopsis opened in late May (I forgot about Coreopsis when I wrote my first post on the Asteraceae), and much longer, if you consider the early spring dandelions. Dandelions aside, consider planting some of these beautiful and carefree species–Asters, Rudbeckias, Echinaceas, goldenrod, liatris, ironweed, Boltonia–and their many cousins.


Fall beauties

There’s a lovely little native plant, a spring ephemeral, whose common name is spring beauty. It’s quite common in this area in wet places in early spring–you see it all along the Saddle River Pathway if you walk between the Glen Rock and Ridgewood duck ponds. That’s something to look forward to for next year. Today I’m going to show you some of the plants I think of as fall beauties.

Right now my garden is blazing with several species of Asters, Boltonia, goldenrod, and white snakeroot. while the summer perennials, particularly the Rudbeckias, continue to bloom with all their might. So here are just a few hints of what my garden looks like right now.


Sky-blue aster (Aster azureus), a lovely little plant, continues to bloom among little bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium) at the front of a perennial border. (Please note that the genus and species names in the entire Asteraceae, or aster family, are in flux right now, and the names used in the links I’m providing are different from the ones I’m using.)


Boltonia asteroides, with flowers that look like asters, grows up to 6′ tall and is most suitable for larger gardens.


White snakeroot (Ageratina altissima) is a shade-loving perennial that is common throughout this area. It volunteered in my garden, and now that it’s established, it provides welcome fall bloom in the shady areas.


This goldenrod was also a volunteer for me. I don’t know what species it is–there are dozens of goldenrods (Solidago species), adapted to many different habitats. You see them in the woods, in sunny places, growing out of rocks on the seacoast, in wetlands, usually alongside similarly adapted aster species. This one seems to prefer part shade and has rhizomatous roots.

You might find it interesting to do some reading about goldenrods, one of our most distinctive native plant groups. Contrary to what many people believe, goldenrod does not cause hayfever. Plants from a totally different genus of the Asteraceae, Ambrosia, are the culprits. They’re commonly called “ragweeds,” and there are many species native to both North American and Europe. Their flowers are green, and they look nothing like goldenrod flowers, although the general form of the plants can be similar.


This shade-loving aster (I believe it’s heart-leaved aster, A. cordifolius), blooms so abundantly in the shade gardens along the sidewalk in front of my house that it lights up the block. It’s quite carefree and thrives in my very dry, sandy soil and deep shade.

All these plants provide abundant pollen for insects in late summer and fall, when there’s little else in bloom, and when they set seed within the next month or so, those seeds will feed the birds all winter. Consider planting some of these or any of the other late-season natives, and make your garden a year-round natural haven.

8/30/13: In the garden this week

Sky-blue aster (Aster Azureua)

Sky-blue aster (Aster azureus) is just coming into bloom–the second aster to bloom in my garden this year. Fall blooming is late this year: New England asters, boltonia, and goldenrods are all still just showing buds. Sky-blue aster, like all members of the genus but even more so, is a favorite food of rabbits, so only a few manage to bloom in my garden. This one is tucked in back of some taller plants, among some little bluestem grass, and it just manages to poke its flowering stalk toward the front of the border each year. This is my favorite aster–the color is exquisite, and this photo doesn’t do it justice, You’ll just have to grow it for yourself. It’s low-growing, likes full sun, and isn’t fussy about soil.

If you are a person who fertilizes your lawn, this is the time to do it, around Labor day. I do not advocate fertilizing lawns, preferring to use a mulching mower instead and nourish grass plants with their own excess growth, but if you feel you absolutely must, do it only now, around Labor Day, and use an organic product. This is a good time because warm-season grasses are still growing actively and cool-season grasses are about to begin an active growth period, so the products you use are most likely to actually be taken up by the plants and used, rather than washed away.

Here are some other things you should do in the garden this week:

– plant your fall vegetable garden: cool-weather crops such as lettuce, arugula, peas, and mustards (brassicas).

– keep the grass long (3″ or more) to reduce mowing times. Mow with a mulching mower and leave the clippings on the lawn, where they will serve as natural fertilizer. There is no need to fertilize or water. We received a bit less than 1″ of rain this week.

– as perennials finish blooming, leave the dead flowers on the plants. Collect seeds as they ripen; let most remain to feed the birds next winter. For most perennials, I will not remove any growth until early next spring.

– harvest squash and beans before they get large and tough. Pull up bean plants when they stop producing. Pull up and discard (do not compost) warm-weather plants such as cucumbers, squash, and beans that are attacked by insects or disease.

– continue to stake tomato plants firmly as they grow and remove all suckers. While plants are producing fruit, cut back on watering to prevent cracking. If the weather continues hot and we get no rain next week, you might give an inch of water.

– identify pests before taking action: most insects are harmless or beneficial, and many harmful ones can be easily removed by hand-picking. Expect pest populations to decline naturally as the weather cools down.

– take advantage of the relatively cool weather to do garden chores: carry out remedial or cosmetic pruning as needed.

Enjoy the long weekend, the last one of summer, in the garden!