Late Season Bloomers
Late summer is a season of exuberant bloom in the garden. Flowering plants put on a dazzling show to attract insects foraging busily in anticipation of autumn’s approaching chill. There are many perennial plants available to add color (and attract pollinators) to the late-season garden.
If planting a bee-friendly garden is important to you, you’ll be pleased to know that many of these late-season bloomers are much-loved by bees and other pollinators, particularly those in the daisy family (Joe Pye weed, boltonia, asters, perennial sunflower, helenium and goldenrod) and sedums. Many of them also serve as a food source for birds who will eat the seeds from spent flowers if stems are left uncut after blooms fade. Finches are particularly fond of these late-season treats.
The habit of these plants tends toward informal, and some are tall enough to provide height in the garden. Planting these selections with other late summer flowering plants and perennial grasses results in a natural, meadow-y look. To integrate them with more formal plantings, choose shorter species or cultivars.
In most cases these plants come in a variety of sizes across species and cultivars but are of similar quality in garden performance.
Japanese Anemones or windflowers are the queen of the late-season garden, with clouds of pink or white flowers held above coarse foliage. There are several species and cultivars available and all are robust garden performers. Suitable for sun to part shade in moist soil, they will naturalize into nearly carefree patches. Deer resistant too!
Asters* & Boltonia
If you were to compare the masses of small daisy-like flowers of Asters and Boltonia side-by-side you could probably tell that are closely related. Boltonia is a native plant, and most of the asters are also. Most prefer average to moist soil in full sun to part shade, though wood aster will tolerate full shade (Not to be confused with the ‘Wood’s’ cultivar asters, which do best in full sun only.) Highly attractive to butterflies and deer resistant.
(*Most of the common garden asters have been renamed Symphyotrichum by taxonomists. You will likely find either botanical name on plant labels for the next several years)
This is one of the few plants in this list where your varietal options are limited…to one. But it’s a lovely one, with true blue flowers that complement the more predominant yellows and oranges of late summer. Even after bloom, the foliage flushes red in fall for a continuing show. Hardy plumbago (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides, also known as leadwort) is low growing and makes a great ground cover or container plant. Deer resistant.
The native perennial sunflowers (Helianthus sp.) lack the giant flowers of their annual cousins, but make up for size with quantity. All have sunny golden daisy flowers and bloom for several weeks in late summer. And just like the annual sunflowers, the blooms are irresistibly cheerful and make great cut flowers. Most of the helianthus take full sun and average soil, with some species tolerating wet soils and some preferring part shade, so check the label for specifics. Also deer resistant.
Bonus plant: Smooth Oxeye (Heliopsis) is so similar in flower and habit to Helianthus that they can be hard to tell apart. Heliopsis is also a fantastic garden choice, though it’s not considered deer resistant.
The fall blooming sedums are fantastically attractive to bees and butterflies of all types. Flowers are pink to bronze-pink and are long-lasting. Sedums do well in dry areas and are mildly deer resistant (though sometimes not bird resistant). Left standing, the dried flower stalks provide winter interest.
The leaves of Helenium were dried and used as snuff in colonial times, leading to the alternate and unfortunate common name of sneezeweed. “Helen’s flower” sounds so much better! Helenium has flowers with very prominent centers and three-lobed petals. Another deer resistant native and great cut flower, Helenium can range from yellow to orange to red. Average to moist soil and full sun.
Although it doesn’t look it, goldenrod (Solidago sp.) is very closely related to asters. Great for naturalizing or in a mass, the spray form of the flowers also serves as a nice contrast to other perennials and grasses. Goldenrod will grow in a number of tough situations including dry sun, though you’ll see best results if supplemental water is available in dry periods. Be aware also that there are spreading and clumping types of goldenrod. If you want to use it in a situation where it must be polite to the neighbors (its or yours) choose clumping varieties.
Joe Pye weed
Joe Pye (Eupatorium* sp.) has undergone a garden transformation, morphing from a very tall native wildflower that sometimes topped 9 feet, to include varieties of a more manageable garden size-around 3 to 5 feet. Mauve flowers top sturdy plants; their height puts the butterflies that love them at eye level for close-up viewing. Does need slightly moist soil to avoid leaf scorch in dry full sun conditions. Full to part sun.
(*Like the asters, the Joe Pye weeds have recently been reclassified by taxonomists, mostly to the genus Eutrochium. Plant labels may show either name.)
The Best Ferns for Your garden
No shade garden or shady container is complete without a fern-or an assortment of them. The soft texture and graceful form of ferns provide a beautiful contrast against coarser shade plants like hosta, heuchera and hellebore. Some are year ‘round garden workhorses with evergreen fronds providing winter interest. Others display attractively shaded fronds for a splash of subtle color. Most ferns also work quite well in containers, and can function either as a thriller, filler, and/or spiller depending on the growth habit.
This versatile family of plants generally prefer part to full shade and average to moist soil that has been amended with organic material. Ferns are quite resistant to most pests (including deer!) and diseases and require little maintenance beyond removing old fronds. Be sure to water newly-transplanted ferns regularly for the first year until they establish a good root system, and during particularly dry weather after that. Despite their many garden plusses, most ferns are not drought tolerant.
Here are a half-dozen beautiful ferns that are easy to grow and easy to find. Try a few in shady areas, grouping three to five plants of the same type together for maximum impact.
2’ x 2’, part to full shade, evergreen in mild winters, moist soil. Dark green glossy fronds resemble a collection of holly leaves.
18” high x 24” wide, Drought tolerant once established. Finely textured olive-green fronds with rust-colored rib.
Height to 4’ x 2-3’ wide. Full shade to part sun, tolerates more sun in moist soils. Adaptable to very wet conditions. Very dramatic in a mass, great at the back of a shade garden.
24" x 24", full shade to part sun. Evergreen, tolerates dry shade once established. Resembles a Boston fern in form and frond shape.
18” x 18”. Full shade to part sun, average to moist soil. Named for the flush of autumnal pink/bronze color on new fronds in spring.
Japanese Painted Fern
Athyrium nipponicum var. pictum
18” x 18”. Full to part shade, average to moist soil. Stunning silvery and burgundy fronds provide color in shady areas.
Holly fern: By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Tassel fern: By harum.koh from Kobe city, Japan [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Ostrich fern: By Matti Virtala (Own work) [CC0] via Wikimedia Commons
Christmas fern: By Mr. Granger (Own work) [CC0] via Wikimedia Commons
Autumn fern: By Liam Kaplan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Japanese painted fern: By ideonexus (Own work) [CC BY 2.0], via flickr
Make Your Late Summer Garden Look Better Fast!
Is your garden looking a little rough around the edges now that summer is here in full force? You’re not alone. Vacations that take you away from regular garden chores, high temperatures that make you not want to leave the AC, and summer weather that alternately cooks your plants with sun and pounds them with rain…no wonder your garden is not at its prime.
With a whole new season of fall flower planting approaching (and cooler weather!), you probably don’t want to put too much effort into a complete overhaul, but you still want things to look a little better. Here are a few things you can do to get your garden from “eyesore” to “not too bad” for the next few months.