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Native Gardening With Jimmy: Appreciating your autumn garden

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Posted on: November 9, 2023


In the autumn, each gardener privately celebrates a festival of reflection and recognition. We look back on spring, when we hoped that dormant roots would emerge as promised. We remember with joy and heartbreak the heights our gardens reached in summer, dense foliage crowned with every color of flower, only to witness those flowers now fading and drooping against their neighbors. Now we stand at  our doors, gazing at a paradise lost. But this is not the end; each fall we can still turn to what remains in our gardens and recognize how much we have to appreciate.


A monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) chrysalis hanging from a cutleaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) stalk

The cooler days invite quiet strolls among declining stalks and flattened foliage. The faded flowers have sharp brown seeds for hungry birds — or seeds on fluffy tails waiting for a stiff breeze to take them away. I often grab a few seeds and think about where I might like to see more of that plant. I scratch the dirt bare and lay my seeds down firmly, even stepping on them to ensure good contact with the soil. After that, it’s up to the seed to decide if it likes where I put it.

Our trees turn vivid colors in autumn, but remember to observe your herbaceous plants as well. Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand County Almanac, once observed, “the blackberries burn richly red on every sunny day from first frost to the last day of the season.” Indeed, red, yellow, purple, brown and black spread like cool fire through a native garden. Those of us who grow Virginia creeper (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) are rewarded with crimson leaves, the same leaves that famously encircle the great seal of Virginia and fly on the state flag.

Native shrubs turn such a variety of colors. Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius) and elderberry (Sambucus canadensis) turn yellow, while arrowwood (Viburnum dentatum) and black chokeberry (Photinia melanocarpa) turn red. Other natives grow magnificent berries, like purple beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) and red winterberry (Ilex verticillata); the berries of both are high in fat to power migratory birds.

Many new native gardeners find it challenging to recognize the ways that their garden supports wildlife in the autumn. A stem will turn black or brown, but a closer look may reveal  larvae, a  caterpillar or a chrysalis firmly attached and waiting for spring. In fact, more than half of our Maryland butterflies overwinter on stems in our gardens. The stems may eventually collapse into the leaf litter on their own, but removing them prematurely puts these delicate creatures in peril. Consider leaving stalks where they are unless they are blocking a pathway. I have found giving up this little bit of control over my garden invites a wider sense of sharing the space with wildlife.

If you would like a last jolt of vibrancy in your garden, consider planting some of our natives that flower late in the season. Of all the herbaceous plants, goldenrods (Solidago species) support insects the most, and many goldenrods are late bloomers. Bluestem goldenrod (Solidago caesia), fragrant goldenrod (Solidago odora) and showy goldenrod (Solidago speciosa) bloom into October, while rigid goldenrod (Solidago rugosa) and coastal goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens) bloom as late as November. You can see  bees gathering their final stores for winter from these important plants. You can even see  these tired bees taking naps among the golden flowers on cold or rainy fall days.

Asters create a dynamic contrast with their goldenrod cousins. In the shade, white wood aster (Eurybia divaricata) and heart-leaved aster (Symphyotrichum cordifolium) have graceful white blooms through October. Sun-loving varieties — the smooth aster (Symphyotrichum laeve), New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae) and New York aster (Symphyotrichum novi-belgii) — brighten shorter days with a range of pale blues to vibrant purples through October, too. To feed the last of the bees, consider a heath aster (Symphyotrichum ericoides), which will bloom as late as November.

As we move through fall and into winter, remember to reflect on the past growing season and consider those to come. If you’re just starting a garden, spend time researching and ask fellow gardeners for advice. Try putting a few plants in the ground now, so you’ll have something to look forward to and motivate you in spring. You can safely plant up until the ground has frozen.

If your garden is already established, now is a great time to scan your space for areas that could be more dense, more vibrant or have a more continuous succession of blooms. Native plants may be scarce at retailers in late fall, so make a list for now and plan a winter sowing project (or wait for the spring sales). Then take a break, reflect and spend some quality time with a hot autumnal beverage.



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