Fall Perennials

– Posted in: Plant info, What's up/blooming

Boltonia asteroides 'Snowbank'
Tick-tock, winter is coming. I was greeted at dawn with a few hours of light snow this morning. It melted as it landed, not like the snows that have recently visited Watertown and plagued Buffalo. It is a warning that fall is at a close and winter is coming. I spent this past weekend digging up Cannas, Dahlias, and other tender perennials. It is always an onerous task and I’ve been putting it off but could postpone it no longer. Winter is coming. I can’t help but hear those words as I work outside, closing down the garden for another year. Surprisingly, there are plants in bloom. These are the stalwarts that help me say farewell to another gardening season.

If there is such a thing as The International Society of Boltonia I should be paid for lobbying and proselytizing for them. Long ago, in another garden in a different place, a plant was needed for a tough gardening situation. I was looking for something at least three feet tall but very narrow for a small bed along a picket fence. There aren’t many plants that could accomplish that without engulfing their neighbors. The plant selected was Boltonia asteroides ‘Snowbank’, pictured above.

Blanketing itself with white in mid to late fall, ‘Snowbank’ is aptly named. Other varieties can be had that are pink or are shorter or even petal-less, yet ‘Snowbank’ continues to be my favorite. Stems are stiffly upright and strong. Even hurricane remnants have found it difficult to bend them. Foliage is small and strappy looking, with an appealing green-blue matte finish. Plants remain clean and unblemished during the season with little or no appeal to pests and diseases. Add in hardiness from zones 3 to 9 and what’s not to love. My affair continues.

Salvia azurea var. grandiflora photo by maodyI like blue flowers, especially ones colored in the mid-blue tones found in Delphiniums. It’s uncommon to find that shade in fall-blooming plants but Salvia azurea var. grandiflora has it. Also known as S. pitcheri, Blue Sage, or Prairie Sage, this Salvia is at its best among sympathetic neighbors where its leaning habit of growth can be accommodated. I planted mine beside a stand of Buddleias to give it support and to screen its tall and sparsely leaved stems. One day I noticed little blue flowers laughing at me for forgetting it existed. I laughed along too, having thought the plant had died because it had yet to emerge from dormancy by mid-June. For readers not familiar with growing conditions in the Great Northeast, June is spring and summer compressed together as the coldest days of spring have finally ended. Saying it’s a short growing season is being truthful. Prairie Sage’s beauty is a welcome addition to the autumn palette.

Allium thunbergii 'Ozawa' photo by wyndAllium thunbergii ‘Ozawa’ is the last plant to bloom for me. Otherwise known in my head as “that fall-blooming Allium”, I’ve been known to accidentally weed-whack it, forgetting once again its mimicry of a small tussock of grass. If you’re familiar with the rain lilies Zephyranthes and Habranthus you will understand my mistake. Triangular in cross-section, the shiny deep green leaves make a perfect backdrop for the flowers. Starting out as upright buds, the flowers nod as they mature, in a decidedly charming way. They look like groupings of small parasols with unusually extended ribs. Holding onto the illusion of summer, I picked a small bundle for display and noticed a light sweet fragrance that I would never have associated with an onion and garlic relative. Its looks and habit are deceiving because this Allium is a toughie. Seemingly weather oblivious, this little guy continues to perform while everything else has succumbed to frost. But eventually its time has passed, the leaves turn to orange, and the last blooms struggle and disappear. The gardening season is officially over, all the plants are sleeping, and dreams of next year are beginning to form.

About the Author

I started in 1977 growing plants at wholesale nurseries and a wholesale seed company in California. In 1992 I started volunteering (in the nursery, of course!) at Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco where I met my wife. My wife is originally from upstate and we moved here in 2002. It took at least two years of living here for me to fully understand our property and to take advantage and work with our microclimate. Although growing zone maps show us to be in 5, we are realistically a 4b. I am inordinately proud, in a smarmy kind of way, of how many of the plants we brought with us have thrived. Coming from a zone 9 has been quite an adjustment for all of us. But we are thriving and enjoy the beauty and what the land gives us everyday. USDA Hardiness Zone: 4b/5a Location: rural; Central Leatherstocking near Cooperstown, New York Geographic type: riverine valley Soil type: Chenango alluvial – shallow clay and highly stony Experience level: 28 years professionally wholesale and retail, no longer in the business Particular interests: native plants and ecosystems, flowering and berry producing shrubs, home-grown foods, maples, birches, willows, ornamental grasses, filipendulas, iris, ligularias, persicarias, asclepias, artemisia, asters, arisaemas, hardy geraniums, euphorbias, eupatoriums, origanums, lysimachias, eryngiums, lilies, and visiting nurseries

Now, the digging and dividing of perennials, the general autumn cleanup and the planting of spring bulbs are all an act of faith. One carries on before the altar of delayed gratification, until the ground freezes and you can’t do any more other than refill the bird feeder and gaze through the window, waiting for the snow. . . . Meanwhile, it helps to think of yourself as a pear tree or a tulip. You will blossom spectacularly in the spring, but only after the required period of chilling.

~Adrian Higgins in The Washington Post, November 6, 2013

Comments on this entry are closed.

Craig Levy October 25, 2006, 7:48 am

The link is fixed I hope, probably got too fancy and cocky leading to sloppy and careless. Although Bluebird is a wholesaler, they are very useful as an on-line reference. Their collection is vast and includes many unusual and uncommon plants. They are also committed to introducing plants from the most northern range of native populations, seeking the most cold hardy. They have a great relationship with the Denver Botanic Garden who have been instrumental in introducing plants collected from high mountains of South Africa. I am dying to try some of them and, like you, will need to create a special area for them. To be able to grow Gazanias again would be wonderful.

Kathy Purdy October 25, 2006, 7:23 am

I know, like you, that zonal information can be inaccurate. I also know that a lot of plants will winter over with good drainage (which I have to artificially provide, since soggy is closer to the native conditions). At present, your link to Bluebird Nursery doesn’t work, but I assume if they’re wholesalers they won’t be selling to individual gardeners anyway. The more you know about a plant, the more likely you’ll be able to be successful with it–no matter what zone it is.

Craig Levy October 25, 2006, 6:53 am

Bingo Kathy, I think you’re right. My soil is a mix of clay and rock and doesn’t hold moisture. The rainy summer has kept the soil wetter than normal. This was great for new plantings and most established ones but could be setting me up for losses with wet soil during the winter. Excessive moisture during some plants’ dormancies can spell disaster.

Zonal information can be inaccurate. Most publications and nurseries are cautious and select the safest information. They want gardeners to achieve success and not discourage them. Other times it’s obvious the content writer does not have experience with the plant in colder climates – not like here!

Another element is where my plant came from. The Salvia (and Allium) originated from Bluebird Nursery, a wholesaler from Nebraska. They’re claiming it is zone 4 hardy and even offer a white flowered form. But their zone 4 winter is dryer than ours so this is another plant that you take a risk growing, knowing it may not make it through every winter. Mine was agonizingly slow to start growing – even the Hibiscus were up before I noticed anything. It is also less vigorous than I wished. I like Salvias a lot and the color is so alluring that I had to try it.

Sissy October 24, 2006, 6:16 pm

Gosh! What a beautiful allium and a stunning picture!
Another one added to my gotta haves!!

Kathy Purdy October 24, 2006, 3:47 pm

So that salvia wintered over for you? In my A-Z Encyclopedia it’s listed as hardy to USDA zones 7-9, and subspecies pitcheri is zones 9-10. Does it have good drainage where you’ve planted it?