Spring into Fall with Native Perennials

Last summer I spent almost a month touring gardens in Ireland and England, and without a doubt, these were some of the most spectacular landscapes I have ever seen. Garden after garden passed before my eyes, each filled with rich tapestries of perennials, perfectly chosen and expertly intermingled, flowing seamlessly around the ancient structures nestled in their midst. Honestly though, I must admit that as the tour wore on, I became more than a little depressed, for despite tremendous interest from American gardeners (myself included) in this traditional cottage type of landscape, these wonderful English gardens are almost impossible to recreate in this country outside limited areas near the two coasts. We simply don’t have the cool, damp climate that makes the traditional English herbaceous garden a reality. Our springs are too far unpredictable and our summers far too hot. Delightful, but deadly.

Then one day towards the end of my trip, as I was rather mournfully inspecting an absolutely stellar “hardy” fuchsia in a Dorset garden that I knew wouldn’t last a day in mine, I struck up a conversation with a man tending one of the beds, who turned out to be the garden’s owner, and well known gardening author. He received my admiration of his perfectly manicured grounds with grace, and as conversations among gardeners are wont to do, the topic quickly turned to various plants and problems. “Oh,” he said dismissing the fuchsia I had been admiring with a quick wave of his hand “I would trade that thing in a minute for a bank of those wonderful fall asters you Yanks can grow so well.”

And therein lies the crux of this tale, gentle reader, for while it’s true that English gardens are famous for their spring and early summer bloom, by the autumn, in that northerly part of hemisphere, days become very short and the weather cold and wet, which means for all practical purposes, English gardens are over and out by September. On the other hand, here in the United States, our autumn days are much longer, the temperatures far more mild, and in fact, fall provides some of the best gardening weather of the entire year over much of the country. Add to this the fact that the North American continent possesses a whole host of wonderful native perennials that bloom from late summer well into the autumn, already perfectly adapted to our shores. The moral here is that rather than weeping about all the European spring and early summer plants we can’t grow well on this side of the pond, why not concentrate on the American plants that we can grow well, and use them instead in traditionally inspired designs? The value of these fall bloomers has certainly not been lost on the Europeans: in fact, many of the best new cultivars are now of European origin: the British, German and Dutch have eagerly imported many of our American natives, sent them to “finishing school,” and returned them to us transformed, complete with hybrid European pedigrees (and European price tags to boot!)

Undoubtedly there’s a hole or two somewhere in your border after the spring bloomers are done, so now’s the time to fill them, while prices are low, and supplies still high at the local nursery.  Here are five of my favorites fall perennials to get you started:

Boltonia asteroides 'Snowbank'

Boltonia asteroides ‘Snowbank’

Boltonia asteroides ‘Snowbank’
If I were forced to choose only one plant for the fall border, this would be it. Appropriately named, this American native – much neglected until fairly recently – covers itself in a mass of snow-white, daisy-like flowers for almost a month in September. Extremely easy to grow, Boltonias hold true to their prairie origin: they are indifferent to soil quality, and will tolerate fairly dry conditions. They do, however, require full sun, and several years to reach their final height of 4’. Boltonias are perfect for massing at the back of the border, especially when paired with asters and chrysanthemums. There’s also a pink variety, ‘Pink Beauty,’ that makes a particularly lovely companion to “Snowbank’. (Z 3/4-8)

Aster frikartii 'Purple Dome'

Aster frikartii ‘Purple Dome’

Aster novae-angliae ‘Purple Dome’
When most people think of New England asters, they think of huge, towering giants that have a tendency to flop given the slightest bit of wind or weather. But here’s a cultivar that will never need staking: ‘Purple Dome’ grows 18”-24” inches tall and 3’ wide on low bushy plants, flowering with masses of royal purple blossoms from August through October. Indifferent to soil, lacking any serious pests, and requiring only average moisture, ‘Purple Dome’ is a great choice for low maintenance landscapes. (Z 5-8)

Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’

Helianthus 'Lemon Queen'

Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’

This sunflower relative is one of my favorite perennials for the back of the garden. More like a shrub than a perennial (mature clumps can easily top six feet) ‘Lemon Queen’, as its name implies, covers itself from top to bottom with large, pale yellow, daisy-like flowers from late summer until frost. (And unlike many of the more stridently shaded members of the sunflower clan, this soft hued plant is a pleasing match for most other flower colors.) Undemanding in terms of culture, this lovely cultivar is also an excellent source of cut flowers, and a huge favorite of butterflies. Full sun, well-drained soil. (Z 4-9)

Aster frikartii ‘Wonder of Staffa’

Aster frikartii ‘Wonder of Staffa’

Aster frikartii ‘Wonder of Staffa’
Beginning in July and lasting well into October, the yellow centered, purple flowers of  ‘Wonder of Staffa’ are a true delight. Growing 2-3’ feet tall and about as wide, this plant is fairly indifferent to soil and prefers full sun. A good candidate for drier sites, this German introduction is another plant beloved by bees and butterflies, and makes an excellent cut flower. (Z 5-8)

Solidago sphacelata ‘Golden Fleece’
This dwarf, spreading goldenrod is one of my favorite plants for the front of the fall border. Think common roadside goldenrod, except far more compact (only 18” tall) and far more floriferous. Easy to grow in average soil, its only requirement is full sun. By the way, don’t avoid this selection for fear of hay fever – goldenrods have picked up a bad rap for causing allergies, but it’s really ragweed that’s the villain, not goldenrods. An excellent cut flower (Z 4 -8)

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