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The Consummate Fall Show of Leaf and Blossom
Garden Stalwarts Greet the Fall at Hortulus Farm Garden and Nursery
by Jack Staub, Hortulus Farm Garden co-owner, book author and guest columnist - 10/8/2012
It is a fine thing to find, when almost everything else in sight is winding down, showering the ground with spent petals, flinging next year’s seed to the wind, that there are a few garden stalwarts that insist on greeting the fall in bandbox form with a consummate show of leaf and blossom. To me, chief among these are the hydrangeas, about which I have waxed poetic in several earlier columns. However, their show is so extravagant this year with their great clouds and cascades of blossom and, of course, the additional luster of being perfect for picking, drying, and displaying lavishly right through until Christmas descends, that they certainly deserve a further mention here. So there it is. If you don’t have a hydrangea bush, particularly in white or blue, do go get yourself one.
But they are not the entire ball of showy horticultural blossom by any stretch of the imagination. For instance, what on earth would we do without the joy of sedum, and most particularly that stellar creature the sedum spectabile hybrid ‘Autumn Joy” (also called ‘Herbstfreud’) with its lovely melon green, cauliflower-like heads ripening through blushing pink to the final triumph of a rich, rusty burgundy: a more aptly named plant would be hard to conjure. However, there are many beautiful sedums from which to choose, the sedum family numbering more than 400, being anciently creatures of the barren crag and rocky mount, which explains their antique common name "stonecrop", although most are happily adaptable from USDA Zones 4 through 9.
Some other notable members of the sedum spectabile family are the bright, almost lipstick pink variety 'Brilliant', and the enchanting 'Stardust', which boasts pale, almost lunar pink flowers. For burgundy leaf lovers (and who is not?), try the sedum telephium 'Arthur Branch', or ssp. maximum 'Atropurpureum', both with deep purple foliage and fine-looking crowns of pale to dusty pink. Two variegated leaved sedums to note are the sedum alboroseum 'Frosty Morn' with pale green leaves streaked with ivory and heavenly bunches of pale pink flowers, and 'Mediovariegatum' with yellow marginated leaves and a snowy frosting of white flowers.
Oddly, asters were flowers I found charmless and even a bit tasteless for much of my gardening experience, but I am now a zealous aster convert. I believe, historically, I judged them a tad too close to a chrysanthemum to be encouraged, chrysanthemums being, like the marigold, the gladiola, and violent red salvias, some of the few blossoms I cannot seem to admire. Perhaps it was too many garishly bedecked funerals and football game corsages as a child, but I simply find them lacking in the type of garden style to which I aspire.
But now, come fall, the sight of a billow of finely colored, delicately wrought asters in a border or fronting a shrub strikes me as a very welcome sight indeed. Asters really are marvelous creatures, being blissfully soil tolerant, happy in sun or part shade, and almost weed-like in the vigor of their growth. They can range in size from the diminutive Aster alpinus to the taller-than-a-man Aster tataricus, although my favorite is the ubiquitous New England aster (Aster novae-angliae), which produces a veritable cloud of rosy lilac blossom and grows wild from Vermont to Alabama. 'Purple Dome', cultured at the former Mrs. Lamott du Pont Copeland’s Mt. Cuba just down the pike in Delaware, is a recent local hybrid deserving of our note, with a nice compact habit and glorious semi-double purple blossoms.
Other asters to consider must surely include the white wood aster (Aster divaricatus), another northeast native, which is one of the few garden denizens that can handle dry shade with plucky aplomb, sparkling with one-inch white daisy-like blossoms on 3 foot purple stems just about now. Also, consider the heath aster (Aster ericoides), another 13 original colonies’ native, boasting cushiony mounds of tiny white to pink and lavender blooms, 'Blue Star' being my favorite with its fling of almost true blue daisy-like blossoms with sunny eyes.
And finally, for the middle of the border, do acquaint yourself with some of the magnificently tall, dramatically purple-leafed varieties like the two Aster laterfolius types 'Lady in Black' and 'Prince'. Both are highly commendable for their deep burgundy to almost black stems and foliage when grown in full sun, although they will do fine in part shade, and their exuberant cascades of white to pale pink flowers with deep purple eyes.
Let me end this fall blooming paen with one of my favorite flowers of any season: the dahlia. There are hundreds of varieties of these tuber-produced beauties, disporting themselves in virtually every color except a true blue (join the club) and ranging from blossoms less than an inch across to others the size of luncheon plates. In the case of dahlias, one pots up the tuberous roots in winter, keeps them cool but frost-free until they bloom, then plants them out after your frost date to bloom midsummer till frost. After the first light frost, dig them up, dry them off, and repot for next year.
I get mine from Swan Island Dahlias in Georgia, which offers a becomingly vast range and handily and indelibly imprints the name of each variety you order on each tuber so that you are never at a loss for what you have just dug up. In general, dahlias prefer full sun, rich, well-drained soil, and monthly fertilization with a water-soluble fertilizer. Also, pinching out the tips of the main stems once in a while will help produce strong, bushy plants and removing faded blooms will encourage continuous blooming.
I prefer the lowest growing varieties as the taller ones can become impossibly leggy and need strong staking to avoid prostrating themselves too abjectly. I like to plant a becoming range of colors so that, in the aggregate, I can compose a pretty, multi-hued arrangement. Historically, I've planted them in wedges around a central urn in the cutting garden like a color wheel. Last year I planted the pink and white ‘Bitsy’, the salmon and yellow ‘China Doll’, the bright raspberry red ‘Matilda Huston’, the sunny ‘Lemon Tart’, the lavender purple ‘Park Princess’, and white tipped scarlet ‘Yoro Kobi’. A very nice display it made indeed.
Also, around the pool garden in the pockets under the standard hydrangeas, I trialed from seed a miniature sport of the ancient and splendid red blossomed, burgundy foliaged dahlia ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ called ‘Bishop’s Children’. I am happy to report that these have grown to about 2 feet with deep burgundy foliage and multi-colored blossoms of red, pink, salmon, and yellow, providing a quite spectacular show, and they will be wonderful to store for next year.
About Our Guest Columnist, Jack Staub
Jack Staub, horticulturist and co-owner of Hortulus Farm Garden & Nursery is widely considered to be one of the country's leading experts on edible plants and vegetable garden design. His vegetable herb and fruit gardens at Hortulus Farm has been featured in many publications including House & Garden, House Beautiful, Horticulture, and Time-Warner series on organic gardening. Jack is a book author (4 gardening titles, and his 5th coming out this spring) and has frequently written for highly acclaimed publications such as Garden Design, Fine Gardening, Horticulture, Food & Wine and many, many more.
About Hortulus Farm Garden & Nursery
Hortulus Farm, a member of Greater Philadelphia Gardens, is a hundred acre, 18th Century farmstead and nursery operation situated amidst the beautiful, rolling hills of historic Bucks County, PA.
Visit Hortulus this autumn! Open Wednesday and Saturday, 10-3pm, May to October, for self guided touring or to groups of eight or more by appointment. A tour of the Hortulus Farm museum my be added to your tour for an additional donation of $8 per person
For more information, visit www.hortulusfarm.com