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Garden Perennials that Gently Self Sow

Butterfly weed is a lovely native that will sow itself very gently and weave into the garden.

Some perennials persist in the garden not only as over-wintering plants, but also via self-sown seedlings. With their penchant for popping up spontaneously here and there, they’re a great fit for cottage gardens, wildflower borders, and other informal plantings. Additionally, they obviate the need for deadheading!

Unwelcome Self Sowers

Admittedly, a few perennials can take self-sowing too far. For example, a lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) that is allowed to go to seed will soon produce a population bomb, spawning gazillions of offspring. Although the plants profiled below typically self-sow in moderation, they can be more prolific in favorable situations. Keep an eye out and a hoe at hand just in case!

You’ll also want to discourage self-sowing by named varieties of perennial species whose seedlings are not true to type. Allow your pristine Phlox paniculata ‘David’ to self-sow, and you’ll likely soon have a flock of muddy-purple wild-type offspring. The same goes for many other groups of perennials, including columbines (Aquilegia spp.), and just about anything from the aster/daisy family, though on occasion their offspring can be quite pretty.

Aquilegia hybrids gently self-sow, but their seedlings yield various unexpected surprises.

Finally, avoid heavy applications of mulch in areas where you want to encourage self-sowing. Most perennial seeds will not germinate while are buried under a 3-inch stratum of shredded bark. A much more satisfactory method of controlling weeds is to allow desirable plants to seed themselves densely into any garden gaps and to keep the gaps weeded while the new seedlings develop. A light early-spring scattering of Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost is all the mulch you’ll need in an established, densely populated border.

Welcome Self Sowers

Black cohosh, bugbane (Actaea racemosa)

The white flower spikes and ferny foliage of black cohosh are both attractive.

Native to moist fertile woodlands over much of the eastern U.S. from zones 4-8, this imposing perennial produces moderate numbers of seedlings in similar garden habitats. Mature plants form ferny-leaved, 3-to 4-foot clumps, surmounted in summer by white bottlebrush flower spikes. Several other U.S. native bugbanes are also well worth growing, most notably the relatively compact, bold-leaved, late-summer-blooming Actaea rubifolia.

Blue-star (Amsonia spp.)

The pale flowers of Arkansas blue-star mingle with tall Allium.

Most members of this mostly North American genus will self-sow obligingly (but not invasively) in sunny to lightly shaded garden niches. Almost all amsonias are large, upright, long-lived clump-formers with handsome, lance-shaped, disease-resistant foliage and starry, light blue, late-spring flowers. Arkansas blue-star (Amsonia hubrichtii, Zones 5-9) is especially handsome, thanks to its extremely narrow leaves that lend its 3-foot clumps a hazy, dreamy look. It’s also one of the most reliable self-sowers of the lot.

Butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Both butterflies and bees are attracted to the bright flowers of butterfly weed.

A durable eastern U.S. native for hot dry sunny niches, butterfly weed summons early-summer pollinators with its brilliant flat-headed clusters of orange to yellow flowers on 2-foot stems. The ensuing seed pods split open to release downy seeds that float away on the summer breeze – and germinate the following spring. Volunteer seedlings can be sparse to abundant, depending on wind patterns and other vagaries. Grow it in zones 3-9.

Bleeding heart (Dicentra spp.)

Fringed bleeding heart is an exceptional native for pollinators.

Fringed bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia, Zones 3-9) would be worth growing for its lacy, finely divided, blue-green foliage alone. For most gardeners (and hummingbirds), though, it’s the flowers (which resemble fanciful pink flasks rather than hearts) that are the primary feature of this lovely eastern U.S. woodlander. Bloom repeats sporadically from spring through fall, spawning the occasional seedling. Hybrids (such as ‘Luxuriant’) between Dicentra eximia and its western U.S. cousin Dicentra formosa (Zones 4-8) are sterile and seedless. At around a foot tall, Dicentra eximia and its hybrids are miniatures compared to the species whose cordate flowers inspired the common name “bleeding heart”. The purple-pink hearts of Dicentra spectabilis (recently re-dubbed Lamprocapnos spectabilis, Zones 3-9) open in mid-spring on arching stems that ascend to 3 feet or more. There’s also a beguiling white-flowered variant. All manifestations of the species self-sow modestly and true to form.

Gas plant (Dictamnus albus)

Gas plant blooms have a sweet citrusy scent.

Slow from seed and in growth, gas plant is one of a multitude of splendid perennials that are rarely offered because they are a poor fit for mass-market plant production. Give it a few years, and it will mature into a 3-foot hummock of lustrous, dark-green foliage decked in late spring with spikes of fragrant, showy purple or white, hummingbird-seducing flowers. One of the best strategies for propagating this long-lived Eurasian native is to wait for volunteer seedlings, which occur sporadically. Gas plant has only one liability as an ornamental: in rare instances, the volatile oils that inspired its name can cause blistering and other symptoms of acute dermatitis. These volatile compounds are also responsible for a time-honored garden ritual. Hold a match near the plant on a calm warm evening and its “gases” will briefly flare into flame. Grow in zones 3-9.

Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)

Here purple and white coneflower variants mingle in a naturalistic garden.

No need to plant more of this beloved Midwest native: once it’s in your garden, it will almost certainly give you a scattering of volunteers. Expect to see their rose-pink, dark-coned flowers within a year after they germinate. Seedlings of the slew of recently introduced hybrids involving Echinacea purpurea (Zones 4-9) and the yellow-flowered Echinacea paradoxa (Zones 4-9) are a different story. Even if they survive the winter – a dubious proposition in USDA hardiness zones 6 and lower – they’ll produce flowers unlike those of their parent.

Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium)

The unique foliage and flowers of this prairie native add interest to native gardens. (Image by Kurt Stueber)

You might think that a perennial with yucca-like foliage (and a botanical name to match) would favor arid conditions. In fact, Eryngium yuccifolium (Zones 3-9) often occurs in moist habitats in its native range, which spans much of eastern and central North America. Give it a reasonably fertile, not too dry garden soil, and it will send up 4-foot stalks in midsummer, topped by spheres of silvery flowers. Allow it to seed, and you’ll be rewarded with progeny the following spring.

Bearfoot hellebore (Helleborus foetidus)

The pale chartreuse flowers of bearfoot hellebore bloom in late winter to early spring.

Most hellebores self-sow, given the opportunity. Helleborus foetidus (Zones 5-8) is perhaps the most adaptable and fecund of the lot, prospering and self-propagating in sun and shade. A member of the shrubby side of the tribe, it bears leaves and pale chartreuse flowers on upright stems that can ascend to 18 inches or more. The foliage is pleasantly pungent rather than unpleasantly fetid.

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis)

Cardinal flower spikes have blooms of the purest red imaginable.

The brilliant red spires of cardinal flower (Zones 3-9) are a common midsummer sight in wetland habitats of eastern and central North America. Quite often they’re attended by adoring hummingbirds. Relatively short-lived in the garden, they persist by sowing themselves into moist exposed soil, germinating into evergreen rosettes. Equally wonderful is blue cardinal flower (Lobelia siphilitica, Zones 4-8), another eastern North American native and midsummer hummingbird fave. It succeeds in just about any garden position except deep shade. Its white-flowered form is also compelling.

Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica)

Virginia bluebells will make any spring garden look lovely.

Give this eastern U.S. native (Zones 3-9) a good moist soil in partial shade, and it will spread freely both from underground rhizomes and from self-seeding. A member of the borage family, it produces the blue flowers typical of the tribe. The blue-green, tongue-shaped leaves go dormant soon after the flowers fade in late spring.

Celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum)

Wooded native gardens are suited to celandine poppies.

An excellent shade-garden companion for Virginia bluebells (as well as trilliums and woodland phlox), this reliably self-sowing eastern U.S. native (Zones 4-9) bears glistening yellow mini-poppies on 18-inch plants clothed in large lobed leaves. Its East-Asian analog Stylophorum lasiocarpum blooms in summer.

Among the numerous other perennials that seed themselves are:

  • Blazing star (Liatris spp.);
  • Patrinia (Patrinia spp.);
  • Beardtongue (Penstemon spp.);
  • Balloon flower (Platycodon grandiflorus);
  • and Yellow fumitory (Pseudofumaria lutea).

They’re living proof that going to seed is not necessarily a bad thing!

Cool Season Annuals for Spring and Fall

Snapdragons are classic cool-season annuals that make glorious cut flowers.

Annuals aren’t just a summer thing.  True, many popular annuals – such as marigolds, zinnias, castor beans, portulacas, and celosias – are unabashed heat-lovers, languishing in chilly conditions and hitting full stride during the long sultry days of July and August. Among the most valuable annuals, however, are those that thrive in cool weather. They’re especially useful for filling the floral doldrums that tend to haunt gardens in late spring and fall.

Most cool-season annuals germinate reliably in relatively chilly soil (below 45 degrees F) and tolerate a goodly amount of frost. Sow them outdoors in late winter or early spring (depending on your locale), and they’ll be up and flowering well before the summer annuals get going. Or for extra-early bloom, start plants indoors and transplant them to the garden several weeks before the last frost date. Cool-season annuals take center stage again in the fall. Sow them 3 months before the first frost date for a late floral display, or plant out store-bought plants in late summer.

Great Cold-Hardy Annuals

Some especially cold-hardy annuals – including all of those described below – will even overwinter as seed or seedlings into USDA hardiness zone 6/7 (or colder, in some cases), arising in spring to bloom weeks before spring-sown plants. These can be planted in the garden in the fall as seeds or young transplants, or existing plantings can be allowed to self-sow. If you’re starting plants indoors, be sure to give them lots of light and a good potting mix such as Fafard Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed.

Pansies and smaller-flowered Violas are cool-season musts for the garden.

Pansies (Viola × wittrockiana) are among the most popular cool-season annuals – and for good reason. Not only do they flower continuously in fall and early spring (and beyond), but they also throw some blooms during mild winter spells in USDA zones 6 and warmer. Sold by the thousands in garden centers and other venues in fall and spring, they come in all colors, usually with a signature deep-purple “face” at the flower’s center. Violas – hybrids of Viola cornuta – are close relatives of pansies that also flower prolifically during the cool seasons, as well as in winter warm spells. Short-lived perennials typically bear smaller flowers than those of the pansy tribe, with streaking rather than “faces” at their centers. Both pansies and violas do well with either early-spring or late-summer sowing and planting. The Victorian Posy Pansy mix is an excellent choice for those who start their own flowers from seeds.

Snapdragons can make a grand statement in the spring garden.

Like pansies, snapdragons (Antirrhinum majus) overwinter outdoors throughout much of the U.S., making them ideal candidates for late-season planting into USDA zone 5. Overwintered seedlings bloom early in the season, lifting their colorful spires to the sun in late spring. In USDA zones 5a and colder, start seed indoors in late winter, a few weeks before the last-frost date. Early-blooming snapdragon varieties such as those in the Potomac, Chantilly, and Costa series provide an additional head-start on the flowering season, blooming days to weeks earlier than other varieties. They flower in the full range of snapdragon colors, including white, yellow, pink, red, and purple.

Large-flowered gloriosa daisies are ideal cool-season annuals for the fall.

Also ideal for fall planting are gloriosa daisies (Rudbeckia hirta), which are exceptionally winter-hardy (to USDA zone 3). Overwintered plants open their bright yellow to burgundy “black-eyed Susan” flowers in late spring or early summer, repeating until frost. Varieties include ‘Indian Summer’, with classic bright yellow “black-eyed Susan” flowers on 3-foot stems; ‘Cherokee Sunset’, whose double blooms on 30-inch stems come in various tones and combinations of yellow, bronze, and maroon; and the green-coned, tawny-eyed ‘Prairie Sun’. If seedlings don’t survive winter in your area, try sowing seed in the garden in fall, for early germination next spring. Plants will readily self-sow if you don’t deadhead them. Of course, late winter or early spring sowing works too, either indoors or out.

Classic blue cornflowers can be sown in the fall for spring.

Other classic candidates for fall planting or sowing for spring are Larkspurs (Consolida ajacis) and cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus). They bring an abundance of blue to the late spring garden, in two different forms. Larkspurs produce quantities of dainty butterfly-shaped blooms on 30- to 50-inch spikes. Cornflowers, in contrast, bear frilly pompons atop wiry 3- to 4-foot stalks. In addition to classic blue varieties such as ‘Blue Spire’, larkspurs come in an assortment of other colors including white, pink, lavender, and combinations thereof. Cornflowers, too, are available in a wide color range, from blue (e.g., ‘Blue Diadem’) to pink to red to maroon.

Lesser-Known Cool-Season Annuals

The ranks of cool-season annuals that do well with spring or fall planting or sowing include a number of relatively little-known but highly ornamental species that deserve much wider use:

Blue woodruff is rarely grown and deserves more garden attention. Expect some self-sowing.

 Blue woodruff (Asperula orientalis) throws airy sprays of little sky-blue flowers on low, typically lax stems. It’s especially lovely in containers, making a lacy understudy for bigger, bolder leaved annuals such as flowering tobaccos and amaranths.

Also flowering in blue is Chinese forget-me-not (Cynoglossum amabile). The clusters of rounded, bright blue blooms do indeed recall those of standard forget-me-not (Myosotis spp.), but they occur on much more durable plants that blossom in late spring and repeat in summer and fall. The pink-flowered variety ‘Mystery Rose’ is equally ornamental.

Toadflax just grows in the cool season, but it is so delicate and pretty.

A perky little thing with spikes of bright blooms that resemble snapdragons, Moroccan toadflax (Linaria maroccana) is perfect for massing in garden beds and containers, in forms such as the pastel assortment ‘Fairy Bouquet’ or bright purple ‘Licilia Violet’.

The poppy tribe contains several cool-season treasures, none better than Shirley poppy (Papaver rhoeas), with its numerous pastel (such as ‘Mother of Pearl’ and the Falling in Love mix) and red (e.g., ‘American Legion’) forms; and Spanish poppy (Papaver rupifragum), a cheerful orange-flowered thing that’s especially winning in its double-flowered form, ‘Flore Pleno’ or ‘Tangerine Gem’.

‘Tangerine Gem’ is a very easy Spanish poppy to grow.

Although not quite as cold-hardy as most of the above, Green-gold (Bupleurum griffithii) weathers winters to USDA Zone 7, and is amenable to late winter and early spring planting in colder zones. Its large flat-headed clusters of chartreuse blooms on 3-foot stems make splendid accents for cut flower arrangements.

Perennials with Decorative Fall Seedheads

Some fall seedheads bring life to changing, late-season gardens, whether by adding structure and texture to beds or bringing beauty to dry arrangements. Many also do double duty by providing fatty, nutritious food for wildlife. Our favorites even continue to look attractive into the colder months.

Part of enjoying fall seedheads is knowing which should not be cut back. Fastidious gardeners need to hold back with their shears and trimming instincts with these plants. Only when they have served their purposes–whether by adding garden interest or feeding wildlife– should they be cut. Here are several of the best perennials with the prettiest seedy heads for fall.

Perennials With Decorative Fall Seedheads

Black-Eyed Susans

Black-eyed Susan seedheads are very structural and attractive in fall, and birds love them!

Black-Eyed Susans (Rudbeckia species and hybrids) have small, dark seedheads that remain attractive if you do not cut them back. Branched stems are topped with seedheads that songbirds cannot resist. Wait to cut them back until spring. The heads continue to lend garden interest and catch winter snow beautifully.

False Indigo

Baptisia has many seasons of interest if you leave up their dark, attractive pods through winter.

False Indigo (Baptisia species and hybrids, Zones 4-9, ~2-3 feet) has lovely pods that stand above the foliage and turn from green to black. In fall and winter, the dry, black seeds rattle and look attractive. The seeds eventually break open, and seedlings usually follow, but these are easily raked away with a hoe and mulched with Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost over in spring. Some songbirds, such as black-capped chickadees, also eat the seeds in winter.

Chinese Lanterns

Chinese lanterns are favored by dried flower lovers as well as gardeners.

Chinese Lanterns (Physalis alkekengi, Zones 3-9, 1-2 feet) are beautiful in fall–providing glowing lanterns that dry to bright orange-red, which are not seedheads but in essence seedhead covers. The upside is that they remain beautiful in the garden or dried arrangements for a long time. The downside is that these perennials spread quickly, so I recommend container-planting only for these rowdy but attractive plants. Fafard® Natural & Organic Potting Mix is an excellent choice for potting up perennials. Cut off the lanterns by late fall to reduce self-sowing.

Clematis

Long or later-blooming garden clematis, such as Jackman’s clematis (Clematis x jackmanii) offer more reliable seedheads for fall.

Clematis (Clematis species and hybrids) of all types, vining, and non-vining, produce fluffy seedheads that remain on the plants through fall if left undisturbed. As they dry, they become super fluffy, and finally, they shatter. The seeds are then spread far and wide by the wind. Many hybrids produce sterile seeds, so you do not have to worry about seedlings overtaking your garden.

Coneflowers

Coneflower seedheads are strong-stemmed and will remain up and attractive even after birds have picked them clean.

Coneflowers (Echinacea species and hybrids, hardiness and heights vary) have reliably attractive seedheads that birds cannot resist. Many gardeners may be tempted to cut back the old flower heads in summer, but refrain from the temptation. Your reward will be lots of songbirds in the garden, and sturdy stems that dry to lend garden appeal all winter long. Expect some seedlings in springtime to move about the garden or share with friends.

Joe-Pye Weed

Joe-Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum, Zones 4-9, 5-7 feet) is a tall, native perennial that makes an impressive statement when in bloom and in seed. The fluffy seeds are attractive to birds and the structural heads and stems remain attractive into winter. Cut them back when they start to break apart. Expect some welcome spring seedlings.

Milkweed

Swamp milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is showy when in bloom and pod–from fall to winter.

Milkweed (Asclepias species and hybrids, hardiness and heights vary) have become garden favorites because they are essential for monarch butterflies, but many species also have very interesting and beautiful seedpods and seeds that break open and fly in the wind in fall. Keep the pods up in winter for interest. Seedings occur on occasion. Be sure to move them about the garden to increase its butterfly appeal.

Native Grasses

Prairie Winds® ‘Blue Paradise’ Little Bluestem is a beautiful native grass variety from Proven Winners with pretty fall plumes. (photo left thanks to Proven Winners)

Native grasses of all types have very showy plumes in fall and winter. These include stately garden grasses such as Blonde Ambition blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis Blonde Ambition, Zones 4-9, 2-3 feet), with its numerous small seedheads, airy pink muhly grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris), Totem Pole switchgrass (Panicum virgatum Prairie Winds® Totem Pole, Zones 4-9, 6-7 feet), Blue Paradise little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium Prairie Winds® Blue Paradise) or in the most extreme case, the 8-10′ western-native giant sacaton grass (Sporobolus wrightii ‘Windbreaker’, Zones 5-9).

10 Common Garden Flowers that Feed Birds

Coneflower seeds are a favorite of goldfinches.

Birds–chirping, whistling, and singing—are integral contributors to the daily symphony of garden sounds.  Their presence is also a sign of a healthy ecosystem.  Attract them by using the right combination of flowering plants and focusing on a succession of blooms and seeds. The end result will be a beautiful landscape and a smorgasbord for birds.

The majority of bird-friendly blooms need sunny space, though a few, like allium and black-eyed Susan, can flourish in light shade.  Some species will thrive in the leanest soil, while others prefer a growing medium enriched with organic material like Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost. 

Zinnias, cosmos, marigolds and other prolific annuals are “cut and come again” flowers, producing fresh flowers over and over again after deadheading or cutting.  In fact, the biggest dilemma for bird and bloom-loving gardeners may be whether to enjoy cut flowers or let them set seeds for hungry birds.  When in doubt, plant enough for both uses and refrain from deadheading at the end of the gardening season.

The ten flowering plants below are among the best at providing beauty, ease of culture, and food for avian visitors. 

Spring Flowers for Birds

Golden groundsel has seeds that feed birds. Birds also eat the spring pollinators they attract.

Golden Groundsel (Packera aurea, Zones 3-9): The native golden-yellow flowers of golden groundsel are repellant to troublesome garden critters like deer and rabbits, but magnetic for pollinators and birds. Their golden-yellow clusters of daisies attract lots of pollinators (some of which birds eat) and brighten partially sunny to shaded beds and look great in woodland gardens. Flowering may start in mid-spring and continue to late spring. Leave the fluffy white seed heads for the birds to enjoy! Plants may spread, so give them space to move.

Many birds enjoy eating cornflower seeds.

Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus): Annual cornflower, sometimes known as ‘bachelor buttons”, is an old-fashioned annual that blooms from May through July.  The most common cornflower color is bright blue, but some varieties may also sport blue-purple, dark purple, white or pink flowers.  Gardeners with poor soil can succeed with these bird-friendly blooms because they prefer lean conditions.  Like other annuals, cornflowers will respond to cutting by producing more blooms.  From a bird’s perspective, the sooner the flowers go to seed the better, so make sure to let that happen.  The seed that the birds leave behind or drop will produce a new crop the following year. 

Summer Flowers for Birds

Cosmos attract insects that feed birds, and their seeds are also highly nutritious to many bird species.

Common Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus): Blooming from the beginning of summer through frost, this annual is among the most cheerful members of the daisy family or Asteraceae (formerly Compositae).  The longtime garden favorite bears familiar saucer-shaped flowers with white, pink, or rose petals surrounding golden centers.  Some varieties, like those in the Double Click series, feature double blooms.  The leaves are fern-like, accenting slender stems that may be anywhere from 1 to 4 feet tall.  Like bachelor buttons, cosmos favor lean soil and good drainage.  For color variation, try Cosmos sulphureus, with yellow, orange, or orange-red petals.  Birds will have no trouble finding these tall beauties, which rise between 2 and 6 feet.

Zinnia seeds are a nutritious bird favorite, so leave up those seedheads in fall!

Zinnias (Zinnia species and hybrids): The world of annual zinnias is wide, encompassing varieties in just about every color except for brown and blue. Heights range from ground-hugging (6 inches) to 4 feet tall.  Some of the most popular are tall zinnias (Zinnia elegans). All zinnias bear bright, daisy-like flowers, borne on somewhat coarse, hairy stems adorned with elongated green leaves.  Pinching back the stems of young zinnia plants encourages branching, making more flowers for you and the birds.  Zinnias will also bloom from early summer through frost but are sometimes prone to powdery mildew, a fungal disease.  Avoid crowding the plants, as good air circulation discourages powdery mildew.

Coneflowers: Once upon a time, if you wanted a perennial coneflower (Echinacea spp.), your options were limited to the lovely blooms of purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea).  Now perennial coneflowers have become the darlings of the horticultural world and choices abound.  Petal colors range from white, like the lovely ‘White Swan’, through a range of yellows, peach, pink, orange, and red, with bi-colors, like the fetching ‘Green Twister’ thrown in for good measure.  Many of the newer coneflowers are also fragrant, an added plus.  The one thing that they all have in common is large, cone-shaped centers filled with seeds.  Goldfinches, in particular, love them.

Marigold seeds are numerous and feed birds.

Marigolds: Annual marigolds (Tagetes spp.) are easy to grow and, tolerant of a range of conditions.  Tall types, usually varieties of Tagetes erecta or African marigold, may reach a height of up to 4 feet tall, with large flower heads of cream, yellow, or yellow-orange petals.  Blooming through the summer, both flowers and stems are aromatic and quite effective at repelling deer and other garden pests.  Low-growing French marigolds (Tagetes patula) have all the virtues of their taller relations, but top out at 6 to 12 inches—perfect for containers, small spaces, and border edgings.  When flowerheads are left intact for bird consumption, marigolds will self-seed readily.

Nutritious seeds are the main attraction of black-eyed-Susans, so keep your seedheads up in fall.

Black-Eyed Susans: An old-time favorite, black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.) flowers from mid to late summer.  Native to North America, the plants may be biennial or perennial, but all feature prominent seed-filled cones that attract birds, especially finches and chickadees.  One of the most popular garden “Susans” is Rudbeckia fulgida var. sullivantii ‘Goldsturm’, a reliable perennial that is widely available in garden centers and features some of the largest flowers.  In general, black-eyed Susans can flourish in a wide variety of soil conditions and may even tolerate light shade. 

A scarlet tanager looks for insects on a sunflower head.

Annual Sunflowers:  It is hard not to love annual sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), which are held in high esteem by humans, mammals, and birds.  With broad, open flower faces and statuesque profiles, drought and heat-tolerant sunflowers, are also among the easiest plants to grow from seed.    Breeders have worked hard to expand the range of available sizes and colors.  Petals can be cream, shades of yellow, gold, orange, or russet, with bicolors popping up on the market every year.  All have seed-filled centers.  The big leaves may look ragged by summer’s end, but the flowerheads more than make up for that.  Container gardeners do not have to miss out on the flowers, or the birds, because shorter varieties like ‘Little Becky” topping out at about 3 feet.

Autumn Finale

Chickadees eat visiting insects and seeds of asters.

Asters: Perennial asters (Symphyotrichum spp., Eurybia spp. and Aster spp.) are no longer grouped under one species name, but they all feature daisy-like blooms in shades ranging from white through a host of pinks and roses to blues and blue-purples.  For visual impact, you can’t beat traditional New England asters (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae).  Upright and leafy, they may grow up to 6 feet tall, but can also be kept shorter with judicious pruning earlier in the growing season.  Shorter asters, like the Woods series (‘Purple’, ‘Blue’ and ‘Pink’) have the same winsome flowers beloved of both people and birds but feature shorter stature (up to 18 inches). Butterflies relish the flowers’ nectar and birds feast on the autumn seeds.

Perennial sunflowers are essential late-bloomers for feeding birds.

Perennial Sunflowers: Drought-tolerant and versatile, sedums have really caught on with gardeners.  Whether you choose tall varieties like the much-loved ‘Autumn Joy’ or shorter ones, like ‘Wildfire’, sedums feature flowerheads of small, star-shaped blooms that draw butterflies.  Hanging around throughout fall, when other flowering plants have long since given up, sedums attract birds like finches with their plump seedheads.  If you can, avoid cutting back sedums until spring clean-up.

Many of these garden flowers naturally self-sow from year to year, so allow a few seedlings to provide more bird food and beauty to future gardens.

The Patriotic Perennial Garden: Planting in Red, White, and Blue

Native perennials in red, white, and blue!

What could be more American than a planting of native perennials that flowers red-white-and-blue in summer? If you have a sunny to lightly shaded garden spot with reasonably decent soil, you could celebrate next Independence Day with your own floral fireworks, courtesy of the following perennials. All are native to eastern North America, and hardy to USDA Zone 5. If your soil is excessively sandy or heavy, be sure to dig in a couple inches of Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost before installing your patriotic planting.

Red Garden Flowers

Bee balm (Monarda didyma hybrids)

‘Jacob Cline’ monarda has big bright red flowers that hummingbirds cannot resist.

Few plants are more all-American than the species and hybrids in the genus Monarda, which is endemic to the New World. The frilly, fragrant flower heads of these tall, often vigorously spreading perennials expand in late spring and early summer, drawing in whatever hummingbirds are in the vicinity. Powdery mildew can be a problem in humid, droughty weather, so look for varieties that have been selected for mildew resistance. These include cultivars in shades of brilliant red (‘Gardenview Scarlet’, ‘Jacob Cline’), rich purple-red (‘Judith’s Fancy Fuchsia’, ‘Raspberry Wine’), violet-purple (‘Purple Rooster’, ‘On Parade’), lavender-purple (Monarda fistulosaClaire Grace’, ‘Dark Ponticum’), and hot pink (‘Coral Reef’). All of the above are in the 3- to 4-foot-tall range. Several recently introduced, lower-growing bee balms are also available, including purple ‘Grand Marshall’ (2 feet tall) and bright pink ‘Grand Parade’ (15 inches).

Winecups (Callirhoe involucrata)

Winecups thrive in summer heat.

Another purely North American genus, Callirhoe encompasses 9 species of sun-loving perennials and annuals, most blessed with showy burgundy-red flowers that continue through much of summer. The trailing habit of Callirhoe involucrata is typical of most winecups. If you’re looking for a sun- and heat-loving perennial that will cover ground, cascade down walls, or weave through neighboring plants, you can hardly do better. Fringed poppy mallow (Callirhoe digitata) is more upstanding in habit, to 2 feet tall; it’s also well worth growing.

White Garden Flowers

American ipecac (Gillenia stipulata)

Gillenia is an easy perennial that deserves to be in every garden.

A long-lived, 3-foot-tall perennial with lacy leaves, starry early summer flowers, brilliant fall color, and a tough, drought-tolerant constitution, the eastern North American native American ipecac (and its close cousin, Gillenia trifoliata) is one of the best garden perennials, period. It takes a couple years to get going, which makes it a hard sell in an era when many gardeners and nurseries want instant results. But if you get a chance to buy one (or more), grab it. You’ll thank yourself for years to come.

Other White-Flowered Native Perennials

White coneflowers are bright and beautiful!

Quite a few other U.S. native perennials sometimes dress in white, even if it’s not their typical flower color. Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) sometimes goes albino, as in cultivars ‘White Swan’ and the dwarf, 20-inch-tall ‘PowWow White’. Their large-coned, many-rayed blossoms debut in early summer and continue for many weeks. False dragonhead (Physostegia virginiana) is another purple all-summer bloomer that often diverges into white forms. Cultivars such as ‘Alba’ and ‘Summer Snow’ have the same general habit as purple forms, bearing their flower spikes on 3-foot tall, rapidly spreading plants. Less rampant forms include ‘Miss Manners’, a 2-foot-tall clump-former, and the 15-inch ‘Crystal Peak White’. Purple-to-white also happens in the genus Phlox. Most border phlox (Phlox paniculata) come into bloom after the Fourth. Several other species and hybrids, however, start flowering in June and continue through summer. Look for ‘Solar Flare’, ‘Daughter of Pearl’, and ‘Aurora’, all bearing white, pink-eyed flowers on 2- to 3-foot, mildew resistant plants in spring and early summer with repeat flushes until frost.

Blue Garden Flowers

Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)

Bees love these fragrant blue flowers.

If you love masses of lavender-blue flowers and bumblebees, you’ll want to work this eastern North American native into your plantings, patriotic and otherwise. The flowers are carried from late spring through much of summer on airy spikes undergirded by clumps of coarse toothed oval leaves. All parts of this large, 3- to 4-foot tall, short-lived perennial waft a pleasant fragrance. A reliable (and sometimes prolific) self-sower, it comes in several forms, including white-flowered and gold-leaved varieties. Dalliances with other species including the East Asian native Agastache rugosa have led to numerous hybrid selections (e.g., ‘Blue Fortune’), most of which offer a somewhat more compact habit.

Tall larkspur (Delphinium exaltatum)

These larkspurs are more delicate their hybridized European cousins.

Common garden delphiniums are European hybrids of Eurasian species that melt in the heat and humidity of eastern North American summers. Tall larkspur, in contrast, hails from the Southeast United States, so it can take just about anything summer throws at it. Don’t expect flowers the size of those of the prima-donna hybrids. Count instead on spikes of purple-blue blooms that are much daintier and less flop-prone, on 4- to 5-foot stalks. They’re right at home in cottage borders, butterfly borders, and other informal settings. Flowering kicks in around the Fourth, yet another reason to celebrate the holiday.

Wonderful Winter-Blooming Shrubs for the Garden

Wonderful Winter-Blooming Shrubs for the Garden Featured Image
Winter jasmine has beautiful fragrant flowers and a pleasing cascading habit.

January showers bring winter flowers. No – really. Plant the right shrubs, and you can have midwinter bloom whenever the weather turns mild, provided you’re in USDA Hardiness Zone 5b or warmer. Boston, Rochester, Columbus, Detroit – wherever. And, all feed early bees and other essential pollinators.

Witch Hazels

'Aurora' witch hazel flowers
Witch hazels with orange- or red-tinged flowers, like ‘Aurora’, are especially colorful.

Topping the roster of hardy winter-blooming shrubs are the witch hazels (known botanically as Hamamelis). These medium to large deciduous shrubs are to winter what roses are to summer. The gossamer, spicy-scented flowers unfurl their ribbon-like petals as early as December. (The eastern North American native Virginia Witch Hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) departs from the witch hazel norm by blooming in autumn.) Witch hazels are also attractive during the growing season, bearing broadly oval, gently scalloped leaves that turn bright yellow, red, or orange before shedding in fall.

Plant witch hazels in full sun to light shade and humus-rich soil that’s not overly heavy or dry. Mulch with Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost to get them off to an especially good start. Their semi-translucent flowers are showiest when flooded with light, so give them a position where they can be viewed against the sun.

Witch hazels in Fall
Brilliant fall color is another notable trait of witch hazels.

A good place to start your winter-blooming shrub collection is with one of the many hybrids of Chinese witch hazel (Hamamelis mollis), arguably the showiest-flowered members of the witch hazel tribe. As with all Hamamelis species, the 1/2- to 1-inch-long petals of Chinese witch hazel and its hybrids are lemon yellow (with a citrusy scent to match), but sometimes stray into other colors. Among the most outstanding of this wonderful group of large shrubs are:

Chinese witch hazels
Chinese witch hazels are known for their lemon-yellow flowers.

Arnold Promise’, which opens its large sunny-yellow flowers relatively late in the witch hazel season, from late January to late March.

Aurora’, whose orange-tinged, golden-yellow flowers are among the largest and most abundant of the lot. Like most cultivars, it flowers from early January to early March or so.

Diane’, a coppery-red-flowered selection that also features outstanding bright orange to red fall foliage.

Primavera’, noted for its pale moonlight-yellow flowers and its exceptional fragrance.

Strawberries and Cream’, named for the delicious intermingling hues of its pink, yellow, and maroon flowers.

Vernal witch hazel in snow
Vernal witch hazel is a yellow-flowered Ozark native that’s smaller and denser than Chinese.

In USDA zones 4 and 5a, where Chinese witch hazel and its hybrids are marginally hardy, consider instead the U.S. native Hamamelis vernalis, commonly known as vernal witch hazel. Somewhat smaller and denser in habit than Hamamelis mollis, this 6- to 9-foot-tall shrub typically bears orange-yellow blooms with stubby ¼- to ½-inch-long petals. The cultivar ‘Amethyst’, in contrast, offers flowers of a striking mauvy maroon that’s unlike anything else in the witch hazel tribe. Another marked departure from witch hazel norms is ‘Quasimodo’, a semi-dwarf selection that tops out at 4 to 6 feet tall. Some forms of vernal witch hazel also bloom exceptionally early, including ‘Beholden’, whose pale orange flowers debut as early as November.

As companions to your witch hazel collection, consider the following winter-blooming shrubs.

Winter Heath

Winter heath with pink and white blooms
Winter heath is evergreen and has very lovely small pink or white blooms.

Winter heath (Erica carnea) is a low, hummock-forming, 8-inch-tall evergreen shrub with small needle-like leaves, this European native covers itself with small flask-shaped flowers from midwinter to early spring. Cultivars include ‘Springwood Pink’, with lilac-pink blooms on vigorous spreading plants; ‘Springwood White’; and the relatively petite, rose-pink-flowered ‘Vivelli’.

Japanese Camellia

Japanese camellia
Brilliant red flowers and lush evergreen foliage make Japanese camellia a star in the winter garden.

Japanese camellia (Camellia japonica) is another reliable winter bloomer. “Hardy camellia” may sound oxymoronic, but in fact some members of the tribe can withstand remarkably low temperatures. Japanese camellia is undoubtedly the hardiest of the genus, with plants of Korean origin flourishing in Zone 6 or even Zone 5. Camellia japonicaBloomfield’ features brilliant red flowers, lush evergreen foliage, a large, dense, rounded habit, and rock-solid Zone 6 hardiness. The single, 3-inch-wide blooms occur in flushes during mild spells in late winter and early spring. The original plant – grown from Korean seed at Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia – is more than 12 feet tall and 6 feet wide. Even hardier is ‘Korean Fire’, which produces smoldering-red, six-petaled, 2-inch-wide flowers. It’s well worth trying in favorable partially shaded microclimates into USDA Zone 5a.  Plants grow to 10 feet tall and 6 feet wide.

Black Pussywillow

Pussywillows
Pussywillows of all types look beautiful in late winter.

Black pussywillow (Salix gracilistyla ‘Melanostachys’) has large, mitten-like, black-purple catkins line the maroon-tinged stems of this wonderful pussywillow in late winter and early spring. It’s hardy to Zone 4. Equally arresting (and hardy) is ‘Winter Glory’ (aka Salix chaenomeloides), with even larger catkins of the typical silver-gray color. Both these shrubs grow to 10 feet tall or so, and benefit from a hard early-spring pruning every couple of years. Give them full sun and moist humus-rich soil.

Winter Honeysuckle

Winter honeysuckle
Winter honeysuckle is especially fragrant!

Winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima). A welcome sight and scent in the late winter garden, this East Asian native perfumes the air with small white blooms that open on mild days from midwinter to early spring. A deciduous, 6-foot shrub in the colder sectors of its zone 5 to 9 hardiness range, it behaves – or rather misbehaves – as a moderately to highly invasive 8- to 12-foot evergreen in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast. It’s thus best reserved for northern U.S. gardens. Its hybrid Lonicera × purpusii (including the cultivar ‘Winter Beauty’) does much the same thing. All forms of winter honeysuckle favor full to partial sun and well-drained, average to fertile soil.

Cornelian Cherry

Corenlia cherry flowers
Cornelian cherry has yellow winter flowers and edible summer fruits.

Cornelian cherry (Cornus mas) is a large shrub or small tree from southern Europe and western Asia covers itself with clusters of small acid-yellow flowers in late winter and early spring. The common name refers to the fleshy edible fruits that ripen red in summer. Don’t be deceived, though; this “cherry” is actually a member of the dogwood tribe. The East Asian native Cornus officinalis is similar, but also features handsome exfoliating bark and a slightly earlier bloom time. It’s also a bit less hardy, to Zone 5 rather than Zone 4. The award-winning ‘Kintoki‘ is known for its superior floral and fruit displays. Both species like full sun to light shade and do well in most soil types.

Winter Jasmine

Carolina jessamine flowers
Carolina jessamine can start blooming in late winter down south and continue to spring.

Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum). The bright yellow flowers of this scrambling East Asian native resemble those of Forsythia, but open weeks earlier. Its lax green 10- to 15-foot stems are useful for trailing down a bank or wall or for training on a trellis. Flowering may occur somewhat later in the zone 5b to 6a fringes of its hardiness range. Gardeners in Zones 6b and up can grow the somewhat similar Carolina jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens). Its wonderfully scented winter-to-spring flowers, evergreen foliage, and native origins compensate for its relative winter-tenderness. In colder climes it works well as a greenhouse subject, which can be moved outside with warmer weather. Both winter jasmine and Carolina jessamine do well in most types of soil in full to partial sun.

Black Plants for Goth Gardens

Black Plants for Goth Gardens Featured Image

What better way to celebrate the Halloween season than to design and plant a Goth Garden? Admit it: you need one.

Of course, you’ll also need plants that look the part. Spiky or bizarrely shaped or ghostly hued plants are obviously essential (a contorted beech – Fagus sylvatica ‘Tortuosa’ – would fit to a twisted tee). Most of all, though, you’ll want some black flowers – or as close to black as you can get. The possibilities are surprisingly many.

Molly Sanderson Viola (Viola ‘Molly Sanderson’, Zones 5-10)

Black pansies
Black pansies look the part in cool fall plantings and may even survive through winter.

Plum-black miniature pansies envelop this winsome – but slightly spooky – little perennial in spring, and again after the return of cool weather in fall. Each flower flashes a sunny-yellow eye, accenting and enhancing the surrounding blackness. The blooms are darkly adorable in combination with ‘Jack Be Little’ mini-pumpkins. Available as plants or seed, ‘Molly’ is a short-lived perennial that often persists by sowing itself about. It’s longest-lived (and evergreen) in areas with mild summers and moderate winters.

Black Sprite Mountain Knapweed (Centaurea montana ‘Black Sprite’, Zones 3-9)

The spidery purplish-black flowers of 'Black Sprite' in summer
The spidery purplish-black flowers of ‘Black Sprite’ appear in summer.

Spidery-petaled midnight-purple flowers open from cobwebbed buds in late spring and early summer over contrasting clumps of gray-green leaves. At 18 inches tall, the flower stems are somewhat shorter than those of standard-issue violet-blue-flowered Centaurea montana. Cut them black after bloom, and you’ll be rewarded with a second round of sinister flowers in summer. As with ‘Molly Sanderson’, this sun-loving, relatively short-lived perennial usually stays in the garden via self-sown seedlings.

Chocolate Cosmos (Cosmos atrosanguineus, Zones 7-10)

Dark-chocolate colored cosmos flowers
The dark-chocolate colored flowers of this cosmos are fragrant and summer blooming.

This Mexican native earns its common name not from the black-maroon color of its daisy-shaped summer flowers, but from their delicious chocolate-laced fragrance. Appearing on 2-foot stems in summer, the flowers are at their most prolific in sunny sites with fertile well-drained soil (amend overly heavy soils with Fafard Premium Natural & Organic Compost). In colder regions, lift the frost-tender, tuberous roots before the ground freezes in fall, and overwinter them in open paper bags in a well-aerated location. Plants will winter in the ground into USDA Hardiness Zone 7 if heavily mulched with pine needles or straw in early winter.

Voodoo Lily (Sauromatum venosum, Zones 6-10)

Dragon arum
Dragon arum has a striking black flower.

An altogether different sort of fragrance wafts from the gratifyingly grotesque spring “blooms” of voodoo lily. Standing 2 feet tall, each inflorescence comprises a central sooty-purple truncheon (the “spadix”), cowled by a lime-green, black-mottled “spathe”. Their macabre coloration – and fetid scent – is a clarion call to carrion-feeding insects. Huge horseshoe-shaped compound leaves with fanned lance-shaped leaflets push up from the underground tubers after the flowers collapse. Famed plantsman Graham Stuart Thomas aptly described this as the flower Beelzebub would present to his mother-in-law. Or he might have been referring instead to dragon arum (Dracunculus vulgaris), another dark member of the arum family that is similarly bizarre and slightly more cold-tender (USDA Zone 7 rather than Zone 6). Both are must-have plants for partly shaded Goth gardens. Plant the tubers in early spring.

Black Widow (Geranium phaeum, Zones 4-9)

'Samobor' flowers
Near-black flowers make the early summer bloomer ‘Samobor’ uniquely beautiful.

Given the name – and the shadowy deep-purple flowers with back-swept petals that nod ruefully from 2-foot stems in late spring and early summer – this is another must-have. The relatively large, lobed, maple-shaped leaves form an attractive foil for the flowers. Look for ‘Raven’, which has especially dark-hued blooms, and ‘Samobor’, whose leaves are generously marked with dark purple splotches that echo the flowers. All forms are tough perennials that tolerate shade and drought and are hardy to USDA Zone 4.

Black Lenten Rose (Helleborus x hybridus (black varieties, Zones 4-9)

Black hellebores
Black hellebores look very striking in the late-winter landscape. (Image by Kenpei)

Indispensable shade perennials that bear saucer-shaped blooms in late winter and early spring, the swarm of hybrids known collectively as Lenten roses come in numerous near-black forms. They’re also prized for their verdant, hand-shaped, evergreen leaves, which sometimes are splashed with silver. Many of the blackest varieties – including ‘Black Diamond’, and the double ‘Dark and Handsome’ – can be purchased as seed or plants, and vary slightly in flower color. Give them partial shade, humus-rich soil, and a top-dressing of Fafard Compost for optimum performance.

Persian Lily (Fritillaria persica, Zones 5-8)

Blackish bells
Tall spikes of blackish bells make this arguably the most striking flower of the bunch.

In mid-spring the large, skunky-scented bulbs of this Central Asian native send up 30-inch spikes of nodding chocolate-purple bells dusted with a silvery bloom. The cultivars ‘Adiyaman’ and ‘Senköy’ are especially dark-hued. Persian lily is excellent for combined with “black” tulips such as ‘Queen of the Night’ and ‘Black Parrot’. All the above appreciate full sun and fertile well-drained soil.

Fall is the best time to plant not only Persian lily but also most of the other black-flowered beauties described above. Get them in the ground now – amending with Fafard compost and topsoil as required – to get your Goth Garden off to a great start!

Bright Fall Flowers for Hummingbirds

Bright Fall Flowers for Hummingbirds Featured Image
Mexican bush sage is one of the best bright fall flowers for hummingbirds.

Bright tubular flowers are nectar-filled beacons of hope for hummingbirds making their fall journey south. North American hummingbirds begin their great migration in late summer–some starting as far north as New Brunswick, Canada. It’s a long journey; an adult ruby-throated hummingbird can travel up to 20 miles and consume twice its weight in nectar and insects per day. Good food sources are essential, so reserve some space for their nectar-rich flowers in your fall garden. The beautiful blooms come in flaming colors, so it’s no chore.

Hummingbird Mints that Keep on Blooming

Young broad-tailed hummingbird taking nectar from Mexican giant hyssop
Young broad-tailed hummingbird takes nectar from Mexican giant hyssop.

Hummingbird mints (Agastache spp.) bloom from summer to fall and have fragrant foliage and flowers. The southwestern orange hummingbird mint (Agastache aurantiaca, Zones 4-9) is one of the prettiest with its loose spires of bright orange blooms. Try the 2.5-foot ‘Coronado’ with its silvery foliage and profuse tangerine-orange flowers. Mexican giant hyssop (Agastache mexicana, Zones 7-10) produces tall spikes of bright pink flowers on 3-foot plants. Both Agastache bloom into fall, adding bright pops of color that are sure to lure many hummingbirds. Deadhead regularly.

Mexican Cigar Flower

Ruby-throated hummingbird male feeding from a cigar plant
A ruby-throated hummingbird male feeds from a cigar plant.

Vermillionaire® Mexican cigar flower (Cuphea ignea Vermillionaire®, Zones 8-11) is a bushy tender perennial that will bloom from summer to frost. Its numerous, orange-red, tubular flowers are excellent hummingbird food. Another added bonus is that the cigar flower is exceptionally heat and drought tolerant. It will shine through the worst of the summer weather and keep on shining when it cools down.

Hybrid Foxglove

Hummingbird flying towards a Digiplexus
Digiplexus are nonstop bloomers that flower right up to frost.

One of the coolest new perennials in recent years is Digiplexus, a hybrid cross between the spring-flowering European foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) and Canary Island foxglove (Isoplexis canariensis). Brilliant raspberry-pink flower spikes cover the impressive Digiplexus ‘Illumination Raspberry Improved’ from summer to frost. It will overwinter in Zones 8-11, and hummingbirds can’t get enough of the blooms.

Cannas

Canna 'Striata'
Canna ‘Striata’ are some of the best cannas for bright fall color. (Image by Jessie Keith)

Cannas tall and short have colorful flowers that hummingbirds cannot resist. Whether you plant them in containers or gardens, they make a nonstop garden statement. My garden is never without ‘Striata’
(syn. ‘Pretoria’, ‘Bengal Tiger’). Its 4- to 5-foot plants have yellow-striped leaves and electric orange flowers. Gardeners with less space can try the 2-foot ‘Cleopatra‘, which has red and yellow flowers and green foliage with purple blocks of color. It grows beautifully in pots filled with Fafard® Ultra Container Mix with Extended Feed. Right after the first frost, I cut my cannas back, dig the tubers, and store them in my cool, dark basement through winter.

Salvias for Hummingbirds

Ruby-throated hummingbird male feeding from Texas sage
Ruby-throated hummingbird male feeding from Texas sage.

Late-blooming salvias are some of the finest flowers for traveling hummers. Each fall, my Hummingbird Forest Fire Texas sage (Salvia coccinea Hummingbird™ ‘Forest Fire’) looks the best in September. Its wands of deepest red flowers wake up late-season gardens. I also grow the pink-flowered ‘Brenthurst Pink’ Texas sage, which blends well with soft-colored plant compositions. Both of these plants are easily grown from seed in spring.

Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha, Zones 8-10) bears its arching spikes of small, fuzzy, purplish-red flowers in fall. Make space for the bushy, 2- to 3-foot plants through summer. When they produce their big show of flowers, you will see that they were worth the wait.

A young ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) feeding from the flowers of pineapple sage
A young ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) feeding from the flowers of pineapple sage.

Another salvia with fall-only flowers is the herbal Golden Delicious pineapple sage (Salvia elegans Proven Accents® Rockin’® ‘Golden Delicious’). Each large, bushy plant is covered with soft, golden leaves that smell of mint and pineapple. They can be used to flavor drinks, tea, and desserts. Mid-fall is when the real show begins when contrasting spikes of scarlet flowers appear. The hummingbird flowers are also edible to humans.

Hummingbirds live for five to nine years, and once they find a good yard filled with their floral foods, they will return to it. Adding any of these colorful flowers to your fall garden will extend its value to hummingbirds down to the last flowering day of the season.

Everblooming Summer Vines for Gardens

Everblooming Summer Vines for Gardens Featured Image
Common (pink and purple) and blue morning glories are two everblooming summer vines.
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Savvy gardeners know that flowering vines do more than just hang around. No matter how thick their stems, vines are masters at pulling their weight in the garden, brightening vertical spaces, and providing small-space gardeners with a larger plant canvas.

Everblooming or nearly everblooming annual vines give the most colorful bang for the gardener’s buck and also delight the pollinators that flutter and fly to them.  The range of choices is large, from the intricate blooms of climbing nasturtium (Tropaeolum Group) to the old fashioned charm of annual morning glories (Ipomoea purpurea).  Most annual vines climb and twine with their own steam. All the gardener needs to provide is support in the form of a trellis, pergola, tuteur, or fence.

To give your vine the greatest chance of success, consider the amount of available vertical space, as well as sun and shade levels. Most flowering vines need full sunlight to look their best. At planting time, whether planting seeds or seedlings, amend the soil with Fafard Ultra Outdoor Planting Mix, to increase fertility, in addition to a slow-release fertilizer formulated for flowering plants.

Vines with Old-Fashioned Charm

'Heavenly Blue' morning glory
Arguably, the best blue morning glory variety is the classic ‘Heavenly Blue’.

The cheerful common morning glory (Ipomoea-purpurea) and blue morning glory (I. tricolor) are probably the best-known annual vines.  These familiar cottage-garden favorites feature funnel-shaped flowers that bloom from mid to late summer through frost, with new blooms opening each day against a backdrop of medium green, heart-shaped leaves. Common types bloom earlier than blue and come in a range of colors from white to red, pink, and purple, with some bi-colored varieties.  Flower throats may be white, yellow, or even pink, like those of the white-flowered ‘Dolce Vita’. The heirloom variety, ‘Grandpa Ott’s’, features purple petals accented with brighter red-purple star-shaped markings.  Blue morning glories have larger flowers that start blooming later and come in shades of sky blue and white. The impressive ‘Flying Saucers’ is splashed with blue and white stripes.

'Grandpa Ott's' morning glory
The heirloom common morning glory ‘Grandpa Ott’s’ features purple petals with red star-shaped markings.

Grow morning glories to full sun and with well-drained soil provided with average moisture.  The large seeds are easy to sow directly into the garden right after your area’s last frost date. Nick and soak them the day before for faster sprouting. The plants are liberal self-seeders, so one package of morning glory seeds may give you many years’ worth of climbing displays.

If you live with children or pets, it is wise to remember that morning glory seeds are toxic if ingested.

Vines with Drama at Dusk

Moonflower (Ipomoea alba)
Moonflower (Ipomoea alba) has huge, fragrant white flowers that unfurl at night.

Moonflower (Ipomoea alba) is morning glory’s night owl cousin, with huge ivory funnels that glow and become fragrant at night. Pollinated by nocturnal moths, the blooms open at dusk and close up the following morning.  Though they are night bloomers, moonflowers need full sun in the daytime, along with good soil and irrigation. Twining up a trellis, moonflower can climb 10 to 15 feet during the growing season.  Like other members of the Ipomoea clan, it may also self-sow but less aggressively.

Vines with Tropical Flash

Blooming nasturtium climbing on an old weathered wooden fence
Blooming nasturtium climbing on an old weathered wooden fence

The heirlooms in Jewel of Africa mix are climbing garden nasturtiums (Tropaeolum majus).  Over the course of summer, the vines can reach up to 8 feet tall, covering a fence or trellis with distinctive flowers of ivory, yellow, orange, and red.  Some are exuberantly bi-colored.  And the flowers are not the only part of the show.  The leaves, which look like scalloped saucers, feature white marbling.  For a more classic looking climbing nasturtium, try the 4 to 6 foot ‘Spitfire‘ that features lots of tangerine orange flowers.

If your drains well and is on the lean side, nasturtiums will not mind. Rich soils yield more vigorous vines with more lush foliage, while those with less fertility yield less robust growth but more flowers. These natives of the Andes mountains do not favor high heat, but once established in sunny spots, they can tolerant some drought.  Nasturtiums are champion multi-taskers too. If you can bear to pluck them off the plants, the flowers are edible, adding a peppery note to summer salads.

Black-eyed-Susan
Black-eyed-Susan are vigorous climbers that can cover trellises in no time.

Another eager climber is black-eyed Susan vine (Thunbergia alata), which grows three to 8 feet tall at maturity.  The most common variety boasts five-petaled, tubular flowers that glow in golden orange with black centers, a combination reminiscent of its namesake, perennial black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta).  If you are planting several black-eyed Susan vines and want some color contrast, pick a seed mix that includes varieties with flowers in cream, orange-red, and yellow.  All have the same dark centers.  A large container with two or more varieties trained up a small trellis makes an excellent summer display. The elongated triangular leaves are toothed and somewhat coarser in appearance than those of morning glory or nasturtium, but black-eyed Susan vines compensate with an abundance of flowers.  Grow them in partial to full sun, with regular watering and feeding.

Firecracker vine blooms
No flowering vine has blooms quite as remarkable as firecracker vine.

Firecracker vine (Ipomoea lobata) is another flashy performer for full sun that can climb up to up to 15 feet during its late summer to fall flowering season. The stems are adorned with green leaves shaped like elongated hearts. The flowers are tubular and borne on arching stems. Like any good fireworks display, firecracker vine is full of surprises. Its blooms are color changers, morphing from red to softer yellow over the life of each flower.  This changeable nature means that firecracker vines look different from day to day, with a multi-colored effect that draws the eye and holds it.

Favorite Fragrant Early Spring Flowering Shrubs

Favorite Fragrant Early Spring Flowering Shrubs Featured Image

Some shrubs produce flowers that do more than draw the eye; they also delight us with their delicious scent. The most obvious examples are hybrid tea roses and common lilac (Syringa vulgaris), which owe a good deal of their renown to the legendary bouquet of their blooms. Yet many other shrubs offer equally alluring fragrance, often at seasons when lilac and rose are at a lull.  Here’s a seasonal summary of a few of the best.

Asian Witch Hazels

The orange-red Hamamelis x intermedia 'Jelena'
The orange-red Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’ is a reliable late-winter bloomer.

Asian witch hazels (Hamamelis x intermedia and H. mollis) – The ribbon-like yellow, orange, or red petals of these large shrubs unfurl on mild days in late winter (this year, they started blooming in mid-January here in balmy Rhode Island). Plant Asian witch hazels to the south of paths, doorways, and other winter viewpoints, where their gossamer petals will glow against the slanting rays of the winter sun, and where mild southern breezes will waft the flowers’ lemony scent to passersby. Witch hazels offer a bright encore in fall, their leaves assuming sunset tones that distantly echo the hues of their winter flowers. Hardy from USDA Zones 5b to 9, they succeed in full to partial sun and in just about any soil that’s not soggy or parched.

Winter Honeysuckle

Winter honeysuckle blooms
Winter honeysuckle blooms are delicate, white, and highly fragrant.

Winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) – A welcome sight and scent in the late winter garden, this East Asian native perfumes the air with small, white, funneled blooms that open on mild days from January to early April. A deciduous, 6-foot shrub in the colder sectors of its zone 5 to 9 hardiness range, it behaves – or rather misbehaves – as a moderately to highly invasive 8- to 12-foot evergreen in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast. It’s thus best reserved for northern U.S. gardens. Its hybrid Lonicera × purpusii (including ‘Winter Beauty’) does much the same thing. All forms of winter honeysuckle favor full to partial sun and well-drained, average to fertile soil.

February Daphne

February Daphne blooms
The flowers of February daphne bloom before the branches leaf out.

February daphne (Daphne mezereum) – Intensely fragrant mauve-pink flowers crowd the naked, erect branches of this sparse, 3- to 4-foot shrub in late winter and early spring – a bit later than its common name would suggest. White-flowered cultivars are also available. Poisonous red fruits follow the flowers, and sometimes give rise to volunteer seedlings. A long-time garden favorite in its native Eurasia as well as in the U.S. and Canada (where it’s hardy from zones 4 to 7), it does best with plenty of elbow room, humusy well-drained soil, and full to partial sun. Give it a late-spring top-dressing of Fafard® Premium Topsoil to keep its roots cool, healthy, and happy.

Spring-Flowering Viburnums

The classic Korean spice viburnum
The classic Korean spice viburnum has clusters of powerfully sweet-scented spring flowers.

Korean spice viburnum (Viburnum carlesii) – The searching clove-like fragrance of Korean spice viburnum’s tubular, pinkish-white blooms is a welcome and warming presence in the mid-spring garden. The domed flower clusters typically open around the first of May in USDA Zones 5 and 6. Korean spice’s hybrid Judd viburnum (Viburnum x juddii) offers similar flowers and grayer, less aphid-prone leaves, in a similar, 6- to 8-foot package. The flowers of fragrant snowball (Viburnum x carlcephalum), another carlesii hybrid, are waxier and of heavier substance, and occur in larger, denser, almost spherical clusters. For tighter spaces there’s Viburnum carlesii ‘Compactum’, which matures at about 3 feet. Most forms and hybrids of Korean spice viburnum prosper in full sun from zones 5 to 8, and turn smoky burgundy tones in fall. Fragrant snowball is slightly less hardy, to zone 6.

Korean Abelia

Korean abelia
Korean abelia can be purchased at specialty nurseries and blooms in mid to late spring.

Korean abelia (Abelia mosanensis, aka Zabelia tyaihyonii) — An unassuming shrub most of the year, Korean abelia grabs sensory center stage in mid-spring when it envelops its branches in funnel-shaped pink flowers. The swarms of beguilingly spicy blooms draw every butterfly (and human) within sniffing distance.  The flowers also attract hummingbirds, desipite the fact that these birds have little to no sense of smell. This 4- to 6-foot shrub makes a great choice for full sun and average to fertile soil in zones 5 to 9.

Caucasian Daphne

Caucasian Daphne
Caucasian daphne is an evergreen shrub and late-spring bloomer.

Caucasian daphne (Daphne x transatlantica) — Late spring is also when this little love begins its lengthy bloom season. Wafting a complex and seductive fragrance containing hints of clove and vanilla, the glistening white flowers flush first in May and June, repeating the performance multiple times throughout summer and early fall. No other shrub in the 3-foot range can surpass it for flower power and scent. The variegated cultivar ‘Summer Ice’ compliments the blooms with white-edged leaves. All forms of Caucasian daphne are ideally suited for planting near paths and patios and other areas where their flowers and scent can cast their spell. Full to part sun and humus-rich, well-drained soil is ideal, as is a niche protected from harsh winter wind and crushing snow loads. Plants are hardy from zone 5 to 8.

Summersweet

The pink-flowered Clethra alnifolia 'Ruby Spice' flowers
The pink-flowered Clethra alnifolia ‘Ruby Spice’ flowers in early to mid-summer.

Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia) joins the fragrance fest in early summer. Its candles of fuzzy white or pink flowers carry a distinctive (and irresistible) scent with root beer undertones. The finely toothed, insect- (and deer-) resistant leaves of this rock-hardy eastern North American native are a lustrous dark green, turning brilliant butter-yellow in fall. Compact cultivars of summersweet (such as ‘Hummingbird’ and ‘Sixteen Candles’) make splendid shrubby ground covers for sun or shade, suckering to eventually cover considerable territory. Full-size, 6- foot varieties such as pink-flowered ‘Ruby Spice’ are among the premier shrubs for the summer garden. All forms do best in moist, humus-rich soil in zones 4 to 8.

Swamp Azalea

Swamp azalea
Swamp azalea grows well in average to moist garden soils with a more acid pH.

Swamp azalea (Rhododendron viscosum) is another summer-blooming native shrub with a wonderful scent (which hints at cloves rather than root beer). It, too, loves moist soil, making it an obvious garden companion for summersweet. Also well worth planting within its zone 5 to 8 hardiness range are several swamp azalea hybrids such as pale-yellow-flowered ‘Lemon Drop’.

Glory-Bower

Glory-bower flowers
The late-summer flowers of glory-bower are attractive and emit a fine scent.

Glory-bower (Clerodendrom trichotomum) — For late-season fragrance there’s this large suckering shrub (which reaches arboreal stature in warmer parts of its zone 6 to 9 hardiness range). The starry pale pink flowers begin in August and continue for many weeks, eventually giving way to blue-black berries nested within showy maroon calyces. This rather rambunctious East Asian native is not for small spaces or for locations where it might invade nearby natural areas (especially in the southern portions of its zone 6 to 9 hardiness range). It tolerates some shade, but prefers full sun.