September in the Native Garden

By Cindy Gilberg

Native Garden‘To Do’ List

As the days shorten the fall planting season begins. Don’t wait until spring to do what can be done now – this will help you to avoid the frantic rush of the spring season. The soil is warm and typically dry in autumn unlike the cold wet soils of spring. Because of this, plants establish more quickly, returning in spring, robust and ready for another year in the garden. Choose new additions as well as adding more of those plants that thrived. Look to add plants that will bloom at times when there is a lull, plants that offer desirable textures or those that are food sources for wildlife. Most garden centers and mail order native plant nurseries should still have a good supply of plants for the fall season.

Continue collecting ripe seeds of your native favorites so that you can expand existing plants that have succeeded. After cleaning the seed, store the seed in moistened soil in a plastic bag in your refrigerator for spring sowing. Another method is to spread the seed outside in November – don’t cover the seed as that may prevent good germination in the spring.

An event you might want to consider when looking for a wide assortment of native plants is the fall plant sale at Shaw Nature Reserve on September 5. There will be an open garden venue for viewing native plants in the landscape. The horticulture staff will be on hand to answer questions. A couple of lectures on native landscaping will top off the event. See Shaw Nature Reserve for more information.

Time to Assess

As the season marches on, it is the time to observe how plants have performed this year. For example, perhaps that spot where you planted some shade plants is really more sunny than you thought and the plants look pitiful from sunburn. Learning from mistakes is part of the gardening process, so try to analyze why a plant is failing. Most failures are due to ‘wrong plant, wrong place’ – the solution is to match plants with their cultural requirements. While many plants may be tolerant of a wide range of conditions, some are not. Therefore, those more particular plants should be moved to a more appropriate site. The end of August through mid-October is a great time to dig and divide perennials that need to be relocated.

Fall blooming Natives to Add

Is there a lack of color in your garden in late summer and fall? There are so many natives to choose from that can provide strong, late season blooms. Yellow predominates, especially in the sun to part sun habitats. There appears an ample supply of composites – those flowers with the classic daisy structure. Silphium (such as the compass plant, cup plant and prairie dock), Helianthus (the various sunflowers) and Heliopsis (false sunflower) are among the most abundant, hailing from the prairies and savannas. Yellow Solidago species (the goldenrods) join in adding a softer, full bloom that consists of numerous small flowers. Other composites include Aster species that appear in shades of blue and purple providing striking color contrast to the yellow and golds. Liatris aspera is the latest of the blazing stars to bloom. Its tall purple spikes are a veritable butterfly magnet.

Color comes in many forms in the garden. The berries of Callicarpa (beautyberry) ripen to a lovely lavendar color, signaling to migrating birds to come and feast as they pass through. American bittersweet, a native vine, has berries that ripen to a rich pumpkin orange. Most of the grasses are heavy with fattening seed heads. Consider as well the ornamental qualities of the ripening spore fronds of Matteuccia (ostrich fern) and Osmunda (cinnamon fern) or the brilliant orange berries of Ariseama (Jack in the pulpit).

Color is also provided by visiting wildlife seeking out food sources. Butterflies, especially the migrating Monarchs, continue to hunt for nectar sources. Goldfinches, indigo buntings and other seed-eating birds forage on ripe coneflower seed, blazing star and other earlier blooming forbs. If you are collecting seed for future plantings, you may want to leave some as a source of food for our feathered friends.

Easy to grow, fall-blooming native plants

For the shade to part-shade garden:

  • Chasmanthium latifolium – creek oats
  • Eupatorium coelistinum – blue mist flower
  • Lobelia cardinalis – cardinal flower (tolerates more sun with moist soil)
  • Phlox paniculata – tall phlox
  • Solidago caesia – blue stemmed goldenrod
  • S petiolaris – woodland goldenrod
  • S drummondii – cliff goldenrod

For the sun to part-sun garden:

  • Aster – many species are available
  • Chelone obliqua – turtlehead
  • Helenium autumnale – Helen’s flower
  • Helianthus salicifolius – willow leaf sunflower
  • Helianthus silphiodes – silphium sunflower
  • Heliopsis helianthoides – false sunflower
  • Hibiscus lasiocarpus – rose mallow
  • Liatris aspera – rough blazing star
  • Rudbeckia subtomentosa – sweet coneflower
  • Silphium laciniata – compass plant
  • S. terebinthinaceum – prairie dock
  • Solidago rigida – stiff goldenrod
  • Solidago speciosa – showy goldenrod
  • Many grasses such as little bluestem, prairie dropseed, switch grass etc.

Cindy Gilberg, horticulturist and Missouri native, founded and ran the garden center at Gilberg Perennial Farms with her husband Doug for 28 years, also teaching classes and workshops on gardening and garden design. She now focuses on garden design, consulting and teaching, and also works part-time in the Whitmire Wildflower Garden at Shaw Nature Reserve, emphasizing the use of native plants in home landscaping.


About Mike Perry

Husband, Father, DIYer, Gardener, Runner, Tea-Drinker, Traditional Wet Shaver...
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