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Make your garden even more welcoming to birds and butterflies: turn it into a certified wildlife habitat.
It may be cold outside, but that doesn’t mean you can just forget about your garden in winter.
Keep all of your tools performing at their best.
They’ve had to endure several months of hot and steamy weather, many days with little to no supplemental water, and after blooming their hearts out they’re just plain tired. Heck, this describes most gardeners, too, right?
Just because most perennials are winding down and looking a little leggy doesn’t mean you can’t continue to have gorgeous blooms for another few months. With a little planning, you can layer in perennials that pick up the slack and come into their own right about now, with wake-me-up colors, too! Think lipstick red, burnt orange, jewel-box purple, sunshine yellow – this is not the time for spring’s pastels!
One of my all-time favorite late bloomers is the Willow Leaf Sunflower (helianthus salicifolius). This tall beauty grows 4-6 ft. by 3 ft. wide, and is covered with a mass of 2” yellow flowers from late summer through the end of fall. Wispy willow-like leaves surround the tall, slender stems, making it a standout vertical accent for the back of the bed. And little birds just love to hang on to the end of the slender stalks, swaying gently in the wind, and nibble at the leaves.
Another fall-bloomer that dares you not to stare is the towering 6 ft. Pineapple Sage (salvia elegans). While this may be considered an annual herb in colder climates, here in California it reliably returns year after year. Not only are the bright green leaves delicious in iced tea (or eaten raw, as my daughter has done ever since she could walk!) but starting in August, and lasting all the way through November, a massive cloud of tiny bright red tubular flowers will rise above your planting bed attracting butterflies and hummingbirds alike.
I like to plant Purpletop Vervain (verbena bonariensis) right next to the pineapple sage and let their tall and wiry stems mingle together. While this verbena blooms throughout the summer, it’s worth mentioning as a fall bloomer as it continues its non-stop performance all the way through November. Best planted in the hottest and driest spots in your garden, thriving on little to no supplemental water. But be cautious where you plant it, as it can reseed aggressively. Growing to an impressive 4-5 ft. tall, it tucks nicely into perennial borders as it stays a manageable 2 ft. wide. The tall yet airy form of this architectural plant adds vertical interest to a garden bed without looking dense and out of place.
Another towering beauty is the ‘Chocolate’ variety of White snakeroot (eupatorium rugosum). This variety has dark green and maroon leaves which contrast beautifully with its profuse clouds of pure white blooms that appear in the late summer and fall. Skyrocketing to 6-ft, the airy stems of this perennial will need staking to remain upright, but other than that it’s maintenance free. Not nearly as invasive as other eupatoriums, this one will remain a tidy clump for years to come.
If towering plants aren’t your thing, a more manageable medium-sized perennial might be one in the Sedum family. Two favorite varieties of mine are Sedum ‘Autumn Fire’ and Sedum ‘Matrone’. Both are attractive in the garden throughout the spring and summer, with their bluish-green leaves forming neat and tidy mounds. But it’s in the late summer and fall that they finally come into their own when they burst into a dark pink explosion of dome-shaped flowers. The vibrant pink color soon fades to a warm shade of rust, so appropriate for fall. This plant may require a little staking once it’s in full bloom, but that’s about it. Otherwise it’s fairly low-maintenance that’s perfect for a sunny, dry spot in your garden. In winter, the flowers turn to seed-heads, providing much needed food for hungry birds.
So right about now, when the temperatures soar and gardens are fading, don’t forget a trip to the nursery to spice things up for another few months!