Place the word “tough” in front of a word and oftentimes you get a negative meaning. Meat. Disposition. Decision. Childhood. No one likes tough meat or a tough childhood for that matter! But put it in front of “plants” and every gardener listens. Tough plant you say? To survive in my garden, you (the plants) gotta be tough. I’m not a plant coddler but instead subscribe to the Joan Crawford school of gardening. So when I was planning my side yard last winter, I focused on tough plants for a fall garden. It’s very specific, but being specific keeps me on point and narrows my focus. With so many plants from which to choose, it’s easy to get overwhelmed.
Here’s my criteria: 1. I want flowers until frost. 2. I want to to see them from inside the house. 3. I want to do as little as possible to keep them gorgeous. 4. I want pollinators to like them too! A lot of wants but if you know what you want, what you don’t want becomes crystal clear.
Tough could also mean aggressive in the garden and none of what I’m going to show you has that quality. Aggressive can be a good thing when you’re trying to cover an area quickly without concern for the wellbeing of other occupants. My goal however, is a garden where everyone plays nicely together. Aggressive spreader means more work, so you won’t find THAT kind of plant in this post. Believe me, I have a few. Mint and Lysimachia come to mind.
I don’t have the time or the desire to fuss over plants and I suspect you probably don’t either. Beyond the first month or so after planting, rain is the only hydration they get.
The side yard garden is viewable from our west-facing windows and I’m constantly looking out as I by pass by them. It’s the space that used to be occupied by my redbud tree and a beautiful little shade garden beneath it. It’s sun. All. Day. Long. So the space had to change to suit sunnier digs. It was sad to say goodbye to the redbud, very sad, but the loss became an opportunity to fill the space with flowers that would give me a beautifully low maintenance fall garden. Notice I didn’t say “No maintenance.” There’s no such thing.
No doubt the unseasonably warm weather we’ve had here in northern Illinois prolongs the bloom. But all are currently in flower in the middle of October and I think these garden workhorses deserve the fall spotlight. If plants came with an easy button, these would certainly have it.
What’s not to love about Japanese anemone aka windflower? It was the 2016 Perennial Plant Association Plant of the Year and I’m blown away with its performance. Maybe it wouldn’t be such a big deal if they’d been in the ground for a few years but it’s more like a few months and three little plants exploded with the most gorgeous white flowers. They’ve been flowering and dancing on the wind for weeks with no end in sight. The buds just keep coming. That’s Honorine Jobert at the top of this post, too. Since she likes the area beneath the tricolor beech so much, I expect she’ll spread and I’m glad for it. I could use more fall garden color in other places.
Symphyotrichum aka Aster
Honestly, I don’t know why asters were reclassified into several other genuses. Aster was so much easier to say, let alone remember, compared to this particular aster’s new genus, Symphyotrichum. For this purpose, we’ll go with aster and keep it simple.
With the rabbit pressure in my garden, I wondered how the Woods Light Blue asters would do. I’m happy, make that ecstatic, to report they’re doing just fine. A little tired out, but pretty. Asters are to rabbits what flame is to moths. Irresistible. The trick to keeping the bunnies at bay was a monthly spray of Plantstydd on newly emerging foliage. It’s the only thing that works to ward off these destructive little beasts. I prefer the granular form to the liquid but it’s what I had available. Both work equally as well. The granular has a much more tolerable odor than the liquid.
Woods Light Blue Aster, at 15 inches tall and wide, is a perfectly compact dwarf variety I used to skirt an arborvitae. I planted it ten years ago and only just last year decided it needed a skirt. Funny how things suddenly occur to you, isn’t it?
For the front of the border, I went with Apricot Drift roses that have flowered non-stop since planting in May. Mind you I’ve deadheaded regularly to keep them flushing out new buds. Interestingly, the other roses, with the exception of the rugosas, were attacked by rose slugs that made them quite unsightly for several weeks. The Drift roses were unscathed. I’m not sure why that is but it’s a nice little feather in their cap. I think next year these roses would look lovely with a patch of yellow bee’s knees petunias planted nearby. I saw them while visiting the Gardens at Ball this past July and I absolutely fell in love. This bed could use a happy dose of yellow!
I have plenty of Magnus coneflowers and they spread quite willfully on the other side of the garden. For this space, I wanted something that would glow at night and The Price Is White echinacea from Proven Winners had me at hello. Massive, pollinator friendly flowers atop thick sturdy stems. I’ll take five. They’ve bloomed steadily and the butterflies seem content. I’ve not been a vigilant deadheader as I was with the roses, not sure why, but they’ve continued to bloom in spite of my offense and the fall garden is brighter at twilight because of them.
Are you thinking, salvia? Really? Yes, really. I’ve grown plenty of salvias, cut them back after that first flower and received a mediocre encore. Think ‘May Night’. They rebloomed but it was nothing like that first flush. Salvia ‘Back to the Fuchsia’ is an entirely different beast. And I mean that in the best way. The second flowering was impressive and much like the first. Not to mention they are a pollinator magnet. Most mornings, I find at least one sleeping bee among the gorgeous, bright flowers. I love the juxtaposition of shapes in the garden. The upright wand-like form of this plant pairs well with disc-shaped flowers like the coneflower I mentioned a moment ago.
All in all, I’m really pleased with this new area in my garden. Letting go of my beloved shade garden was a hard thing, but it opened the door to experimentation with new plants, new growing conditions and a sense of renewal in a space whose main attraction (the vase-shaped redbud) had declined seemingly overnight. These flowers, despite being brand new here, have hung in to the very end. They’ve done everything I’ve asked, leaving me with one final “want.” That they return next year. Isn’t that the want of every gardener? Unless, of course, we’re talking about mint.