On late summer afternoons when it’s just too hot to work in the garden, we love to sneak away for a while and enjoy a cool drink on a bench in the shade. Sitting quietly, we’re usually rewarded by sightings of hummingbirds. These tiny dynamos never fail to amaze and delight.
Although hummingbirds visit feeders stocked with sugary nectar, they seem to spend most of their time zipping among their favorite plants. Here are a few to add to your garden planning list for late summer bloom:
Lonicera sempervirens. Unlike Japanese Honeysuckle (Lonicera Japonica), our native Trumpet Honeysuckle is not invasive and relatively easy to keep in bounds. Plants are covered with clusters of narrow, trumpet-shaped blooms for most of the summer. Our new favorite is ‘Major Wheeler’, which has brilliant red-orange blooms. Trumpet Honeysuckle grows best in full sun, but we’ve also seen a magnificent specimen growing on the north side of a house surrounded by Maples. It’s definitely a plant worth trying in partial shade, too.
Monarda. Beebalm is a vigorous grower with intricate red, purple, or pink blooms. It’s a hummingbird magnet. We like to let plants duke it out with Rudbeckia and Ornamental Grasses in a border that’s allowed to look a little wild. Otherwise, plan to thin or divide Monarda after a couple of years.
Phlox Paniculata. Garden Phlox have large, fragrant flower heads in pure white, pinks, purples, and bicolors. Each floret has a narrow throat, pretty much invisible to humans, but enticing to hummingbirds. Plants are long blooming, especially if you can take the time to remove spent blooms and encourage new buds to form. Phlox make terrific cut flowers, too.
Spring Bulbs may be the easiest plants you’ll ever grow. Each contains next spring’s flower already tucked away in its heart. Planted this fall, the bulbs will produce roots as this year’s garden fades away. They’ll be ready to burst into bloom as soon as winter retreats – or even earlier, in a few cases. With a little planning, it’s possible to orchestrate a sequence of blooms that last for several months and overlap the early perennials for a stunning spring display. For most bulbs, the show is beautiful the first year – and keeps getting bigger and better in following springs.
Daffodils, of course, are the first large flowers of spring with their bright colors especially welcome after winter’s dreariness. Deer-resistant and long-lived, most varieties continue to multiply for years, even decades. Some are fragrant, especially the Jonquils. To extend the bloom time, try the earliest Trumpets followed by the midseason Large-cupped, then the later blooming Poeticus varieties. The Works has examples from all these groups, if choosing yourself seems too daunting at first.
But Daffodils aren’t the first bulbs to appear. Especially if you live where winter seems endless, try adding at least a few handfuls of the early blooming bulbs that will remind you spring is on its way. Galanthus (Snowdrops), Crocus chrysanthus, and Iris reticulata are small but they create a big impact when nothing else is blooming in the garden. These bulbs are tiny and even several dozen can be planted in no time at all. Choose a spot you’re likely to see every day, such as near your main entry or a flowerbed you can see from a kitchen window. We guarantee that a few months from now, you will be delighted that you did.
Overlapping this second group are various Fritillaria, Leucojum (Summer Snowflake), and Narcissus (Daffodils). The large-flowered Tulips, such as the Darwin Hybrids, tend to bloom along with Daffodils making them fine companions. The distinctive and elegant Lily-Flowered Tulips, with their graceful stems, usually provide the swan song of spring-flowering bulbs. They Hyacinthoides (Bluebells) transition to the first flush of early summer perennials, followed by the fragrant Lilies of summer.
Have fun choosing a color theme, or exuberant mixes of hues and varieties. Even a few dozen bulbs will cheer you next spring, before your perennials are barely discernible tufts of green.
Year after year, our customer service staff members spend as much time taking orders as they do answering questions and offering garden advice. They love to do this, especially because many are avid gardeners. Compiled below are the 5 most common questions they hear at this time of year. From advice on watering plants to pruning Hydrangeas, we hope you’ll find information you can use in your own garden.
The questions and answers here were supplied by Cathy Hughes, the Senior Horticulturist of the Customer Support Center and manager of the staff gardens at our facility in Torrington, CT.
Why aren’t the perennial plants I received this spring doing well despite being watered diligently (or religiously)?
Perennial plant material, which includes perennials, trees, shrubs and Roses, needs to be watered well after planting and then watered when the soil is dry to a depth of 1”. If rain is scarce, this generally means one deep watering per week, even in the hotter areas of the country. This is especially true of bareroot plant material. If plants are overwatered while establishing new roots, the quality of the roots will be compromised and the plants will not survive.
Why is the foliage of my perennials (or shrubs) wilting even though I’m watering diligently? Why don’t the plants recover after watering?
The foliage of plants often will wilt during the hottest part of the day as a response to the heat, but this does not mean the soil is dry, especially if conditions also have been humid. Always check the moisture level of the soil before watering. It should be dry to a depth of 1” before you water again. It’s important to remember that decorative mulch holds moisture in the soil. If the soil is staying too wet, it’s always best to temporarily remove the mulch from the base of the plants and gently cultivate the soil to aerate it. This should be done after every rain until the plant recovers.
What’s the white coating on the leaves of my perennials (or vegetable plants)?
It’s the disease powdery mildew, and it can be controlled with neem oil, which is applied as a foliar spray. While the foliage looks unsightly, the overall vigor of the plant will not be affected. If possible, it’s also important there be good air circulation between plants and that all infected plant material be collected, bagged and discarded in the garbage in the fall. Do not compost this material.
What’s causing the holes in the leaves of my Roses?
If the damage results in a skeletonizing effect to the foliage (the leaf tissue between the large veins is eaten away), the damage could be caused by the larval stage of Rose sawfly (here in Zone 5 we begin scouting for this insect around Mother’s Day) or Rose chafers. Later in the season thrips may be the culprits. All of these insects can be controlled with a neem oil or Monterey Garden Insect Spray, or any insecticide recommended for Roses. While this damage is unsightly, it will only affect the overall health of the plant if the infestation is severe and is left untreated.
When do I prune my Hydrangeas?
The pruning of Hydrangeas depends upon whether they bloom on old wood, new wood, or both. Click here to visit our Grow Guide, which outlines how to prune different varieties.
As summer hits its high arc and the days grow technically but as yet imperceptibly shorter, Northeastern gardens are in full flush and bloom. Pick-your-own produce places pop up and roadside farm stands fill out with signs for ‘Native Corn’ and ‘Native Tomatoes.’ Despite the horticultural inaccuracy found on those placards and in other cases, it’s noteworthy that a plant’s native status is emphasized as an important selling point. True, while everything is native to somewhere, for our purposes, native plants are those that have been found in the Northeast (New England) from pre-Colombian times.
So why the interest and excitement over natives? Firstly, native plants ask for few resources upon seeding or planting them, and they also give back in abundance. As these plants have co-evolved with native butterflies, moths, birds and the like, they are recognized as sources of food, and good food at that. It’s not by coincidence that White Flower Farm’s Butterfly Magnet Collection, Monarch Butterfly Collection, and Pollinator Garden for Sun heavily favor native cultivars; e.g. Liatris, Phlox, Echinacea, Milkweed, Agastache, and Coreopsis (in no particular order).
When properly placed and established, native plants are vigorous players that usually outperform newcomers when the vagaries of nature throw drought, inundation, disease, and predatory herbivores their way. Not to say that they cannot be affected and even succumb to the aforementioned, but they often can overcome such problems with minimal care. This leads us to the next point: native plants generally don’t need as much water, fertilization and disease control as non-natives. This leaves you more time to fuss over other areas of the garden, or perhaps a chance to sit back and enjoy!
Finally, despite increasing popularity, natives and native cultivars are uncommon enough to elicit surprise, yet they’re entirely familiar and fitting in our gardens. No matter what kind of environmental conditions you have in your garden, or what kind of color or effect you’re looking for, you’re sure to find a native that excels in one or more areas. Dry or wet, shady or sunny, small or expansive — there are plenty of choices that are horticulturally interesting in leaf, form or flower. What follows here are some native highlights best seen in fall, before New England’s lakes and ponds release their stored summer heat and before morning mist and leaf peepers displace the snowbirds heading south.
While correlation does not imply causation, native fall flowers seem to hit their stride just as ‘Back to Skool’ advertisements begin to appear. Liatris, Coreopsis, and Monarda (Bee Balm) recede as Trumpet Honeysuckle, Autumn Phlox and Ox-eye Daisies continue their earlier summer shows into early autumn’s prime-time. Echinacea, Rudbeckia and Asters are in full effect. As vacations end and grumbling begins, optimistically bright Black-eyed Susans are true pick-me-ups and are as quintessentially New England as clam chowdah and apple pie.
The Goldenrods flower, as does Vernonia novaboracensis, New York Ironweed. White Flower Farm offers the Ironweed cultivar ‘Iron Butterfly,’ which tops out at about 3’, far below the impressive 6-8’ potential of the straight species, making it far more practical scale-wise for most gardens. It’s a strong favorite of Monarch butterflies, and the persistent seed heads fade to a rust color in the fall, giving it the common name. The seed heads are treasured by birds in the winter.
Another spectacular fall flower is Helenium autumnale, which is also called Dog-tooth Daisy or Sneezeweed. Beyond the straight species’ pure orange-yellow are brighter yellows and reds and oranges best found in the Mariachi™ series, which is also offered and grown here at White Flower Farm. Chelone glabra, Turtlehead, can be a late-to-the-party, white- or pink-flowered, deep green-leafed shade-tolerant plant, which, contrary to much of what’s written, can handle sun, if provided with enough water.
Eragrostis spectabilis, Purple Love Grass, appears at this time as well, along roadsides and in our new Native Garden designed by Head Gardener Cheryl Whalen. The light and feathery, relatively low seed heads are more of a 1980’s neon pink than purple, but semantics notwithstanding, and as the Latin implies, it’s a spectacle not to be missed.
In addition to flowers, shrubs small and large come into their own just as signs for New England’s Fall Fairs start appearing by roadsides, framed by the aforementioned Eragrostis. Red or black, you win either way with Chokecherry roulette. The fiery red foliage is a feast for the human eye, and for many a hungry bird to boot. And while most people fend off angry birds to protect their blueberry crop, Blueberry bushes both high and low are surprisingly undervalued for their foliage, which I find even more attractive than the Chokecherries, and far superior to the invasive, thornily ornery Berberis thunbergii, more commonly known as Japanese Barberry. If you prefer the hot pink fall foliage of Barberry to the redder Blueberry, there is still a native answer – Viburnum acerifolium, Maple-leaved Viburnum. This understory shrub is eye-catching and, like the Chokecherries, its berries are inedible for humans but delicious to our avian companions.
In addition to brilliant colors, there is a wide variety of natives that offers interesting foliage textures to Northeast gardeners. While many of the above have small leaves and the Amsonias in particular take fine texture quite seriously, Hydrangea quercifolia, the Oak-leaf Hydrangea, and Rubus odoratus, or Flowering Raspberry, have broad leaves and coarse texture. Both need a fair amount of room, and they tolerate or prefer light to part shade. Shade will reduce bloom size and number, but if that’s not the goal, they can fill in space very nicely. I have an Oak-leaf Hydrangea that was slammed into a lightly shaded corner quickly before the frost two years ago, but it has responded so well in form and flower that the most temporary solution became the most permanent.
The Oak-leaf Hydrangea’s spectacular orange, scarlet and purple extends its seasonal interest and contrasts the lemon yellow of the Flowering Raspberry. In addition to the red and pink fall foliage described above, Lindera benzoin or Spicebush, Clethra alnifolia or Sweet Pepperbush, and Amsonia tabernaemontana or Bluestar, provide attractive yellows to brighten the fall color palette.
In this New-York-minute scramble through the ancient Adirondacks, past Congregationalist churches, “Native Corn” farm stands and “Pick Your Own” pastures, I hope you’ve sensed the wide variety of available native plant material, whether you aim for sun or shade, big or small, flower, leaf color or shape, or edibility for yourselves or for friendly fauna. So explore, and indeed, pick your own!
[Editor’s note: Among the images here are plants that are not the straight species referred to in the article. Several are what is called “improved” varieties, which means they’re bred from natives with the intent of enhancing particular characteristics such as form, blossom size or color, hardiness, etc. Those who interpret “native” most strictly may wish to seek out the straight species forms of each plant.]