Many folks think that as summer is winding down, the garden is too. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, it’s my favourite time of the year in my garden. With a bit of planning and faith—because the plants don’t look like anything when they’re young—late summer and fall can be the most exciting times; brimming with fragrance, birds, butterflies and bees. As I’ve written before, don’t blow the budget on the May 24 weekend! Go to the little independent garden centres throughout the summer and pick up what suits your soil and sun/shade levels and you can have lovely all year long! (Yes, even in winter, but that’s for another article.)
All of the plants that follow are quite drought-tolerant, provided that you give them an inch of water each week for the first full year. The big irony with drought-tolerant plants is that they need more care for the first year, but after that, you’re golden. Everything with a flower is also attractive to pollinators, so I won’t double up that information as I work my way through.
Some of my favourites, and why…
There aren’t many perennials that bloom all season, but Rozanne Geranium is one of the rare delights. With its purple flowers and tendency to lace through other plants, this perennial will knit a garden together, giving it uniformity. It’s low, so it’s good for the front of the garden, but it sprawls, so I’d put it about 40 cm back from the edge unless the goal is to soften the hard lines of walkways.
Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) blooms for weeks, from mid-summer on. Its purple is aaaalmost blue. (We gardeners know the definition of blue is broader than that of painters since there’s so little true blue available to us!) Its leaves and flowers taste like licorice and it has a decent amount of winter interest from the seedheads, which should be left standing until spring to shelter beneficial insects. It’s an Ontario native so it’s great for the traditional border and wildflower garden alike.
Asters, in general, are excellent and they can be as wild and loose as Fringe-leafed Aster (Symphyotrichum ciliolatum), or as controlled as Purple Dome Aster. Some of the taller New England varieties could be pinched (use the tips of the fingers to nip out the very end of the growth) every other week, from mid-April to mid-June to promote shorter, bushier plants. This method works with chrysanthemums as well. Asters often lose their lowest leaves late in the summer so they’re usually best for the middle of the border, where other plants will hide that brown foliage. There’s an aster for every location. Big-leaf Aster and White Wood Aster are great for shade. Swamp Aster (those who name things are often very littoral) is great in wet areas.
There are too many ornamental grasses to list here. Some are native while others are exotic, and a few, like some Miscanthus varieties, are actually invasive and should be avoided. (Cabaret and Giant Miscanthus are safe in our climate.) There are Big and Little Bluestem, Switchgrass, Indian Grass, Fountaingrass, (although be aware that the red-leafed varieties are annuals here) and, pictured above, for something a little different, Autumn Moore Grass (Seslaria autumnalis), which has amazing evergreen foliage and nifty seedheads from August to May. The winter interest and, above all, texture of grasses is invaluable year-round!
Chocolate Snakeroot is shade tolerant and has white flowers in the fall. Nifty bit of trivia: when cows eat it, the MILK is fatal to humans. How on earth did someone figure that out? I don’t think this will be a real problem for most homeowners, what with cows being uncommon in urban areas. The purple flowers give much-needed colour to the shade.
There are several species of Ironweed, and some are Ontario natives. They are Monarch MAGNETS. Some are about a metre tall and others are well over two metres. They tolerate wet soil, which makes them great for rain gardens, but also thrive in dry clay (like all the plants in this article). This is one of the few plants that I would cut the seed heads off before they drop since it can be a bit weedy. It’s worth it though for that rich magenta and value to biodiversity!
One of my favourite non-native flowers for its long bloom period and great texture is Firetail Fleeceflower (and, I suppose, for its ultra-cool name). The bold foliage offers valuable texture. Now, beware, bunnies will eat this to the ground for the first part of the season. It seems to bounce back fine, so I let them nibble. The bright red flowers look amazing with yellow daylilies, roses and Crocosmia, as well as the aforementioned Rozanne Geranium. This is also one of my favourite tactile plants. I can’t resist running my fingers through the flowers. The deep red candles are so soft!
Purple Coneflower is pretty well known. I think we need to be careful not to OVERplant this, lest we end up with some plant disease sweeping through our communities. Also, unless you’re willing to really look after them for the first year, I’d avoid the cool-but-weird colour variations like ‘Tomato Soup’, ‘Mac n Cheese’ and (I’m glad we have fun naming plants) ‘Now Cheesier’. They look amazing in the catalogue, but I’ve lost a LOT of them. Still, great seeds for the birds and they bloom for a long time, especially if you cut off the spent blooms for the first month or so.
Rudbeckia offers many species and varieties to gardeners. Like Purple Coneflower, it has great winter interest. It compliments ornamental grasses and Showy Stonecrop and pretty much everything in this article. The species pictured here goes by the common name of Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba) and is actually a biennial (lives only across two years, then dropping seed and dying) and it’s one of the life savers of my garden, popping up just where I need it. If it shows up where I don’t want it, it’s easy to pull out.
Several great ornamental onions are available for use in our landscapes. The most well-known is Giant Onion but Persian Onion is also quite showy – giant mauve fireworks. There are even small natives such as Nodding Onion which are late blooming and delicate. One of the new hybrids is Millennium Onion and it’s a cross between chives and…something else. Its parentage is, interestingly, unknown. Mine blooms for about six weeks in blazing sun. As a bonus, it’s even less appealing to rabbit and deer. It looks great with Asters and low, blue junipers and the non-flowering, giant woolly-leafed Helen Von Stein Lamb’s Ears. It looks best massed together, so buy a few and plant them in drifts.
Of all the late-season flowers, the most misunderstood, under-rated and valuable group is the Goldenrod genus. There are many Solidago varieties. I’ve found that referring to them as Solidago help folks forget about their goldenrod phobias and then get over the mistaken belief that they cause allergies. The truth is that they just bloom concurrently with the real culprit – RAGWEED! There are Solidago species such as Zigzag Goldenrod, pictured here, and Bluestem Goldenrod which are good for the shade. If one was making a list, a plant that withstands drought, salt, shade, clay, sand and, in some cases, wet feet AND is beneficial to a whole range of creatures AND gives colour in the garden when things are often lean…well, that would be a plant worth having. My favourite goldenrods for sun include ‘Fireworks’, ‘Golden Fleece’ and the wild Seaside Goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens ). This last one I love specifically for its extreme salt-tolerance. It’s a star on my boulevard. There’s really no reason not to invite these lovely natives into your garden. They look great, depending on when they bloom (some bloom in mid-July, while others bloom in early October), with Helen’s Flower, grasses, Blue Star…the list goes on. Go for it! Take a chance.
Really, that’s what gardening is all about. Take chances. Experiment with different plants you’ve never tried before. Sometimes you’ll fail, but the successes are worth it.
Sean James is Milton’s Gardener: a horticultural expert, a designer, a gardener, an ecologist and teacher. One garden at a time, Sean designs and plants eco-compatible, efficient, aesthetic, symbiotic gardens using philosophies and practices that are rooted in promoting native botanicals, edibles and responsible species.