It is the late summer doldrums. Not yet fall, with the colors of foliage season, and not the burst of beautiful blossoms that begin in spring with daffodils and tulips and last through day lilies, oriental lilies and roses.
Gardens look better in spring and early summer for a couple of reasons. First, most flowers bloom in spring. But spring is also when most people think about planting gardens. When they go to the nursery to buy plants, they are drawn to the ones in bloom.
If your garden lacks color, I advise a plant-shopping trip now to your favorite local garden center. The ones you buy will have time to root, and if you water them until the first frost, should survive this winter in good health,
But first walk around your garden, without tools for weeding and deadheading. Look at the places that are bare. Look at plants you should take out because they are no longer working for you — too big or leggy or you’ve just gotten sick of them.
I’m going to suggest some tried and true plants. Most will bloom this year, although some might have already bloomed at the nursery — where bloom time is sometimes earlier than in home gardens.
A favorite is eupatorium, common name joe pye weed, although there is nothing weedy about this plant.
The common plants, mostly native, grow up to 8 feet tall, with many in the 5-foot range, although there are some popular dwarfs, such as Little Joe and Baby Joe that are less than 3 feet tall. The flat-topped blossoms range from fuchsia and purple to light pink and white. Most are Zone 4, require six hours of sunlight daily and begin blooming right about the end of August.
There are a couple of unusual cultivars. One, called Chocolate, has bronze-purple foliage and white blossoms, and another, Mist Flower, has fluffy lavender flowers that come in July or August and last through October. These two are Zone 5.
Echinacea and rudbeckia are two natives needed for the late-summer and fall garden, and both are sometimes called coneflowers, for a large cone-shaped center surrounded by daisy-like petals.
Allan Armitage, the herbaceous plant expert who spoke to the Maine Landscape and Nursery Association last winter, said the purple and white varieties of echinacea live much longer. But echinaceas do come in a rainbow of colors including red, orange, yellow and everything in between.
Rudbeckia is commonly called black-eyed Susan, and usually grows about 2 feet tall with a black or brown cone and yellow-orange petals. The most popular variety is Goldsturm, which will stay in blossom for months, but the most dramatic is Herbstonne, which can grow to 6 feet tall, with blossoms that are up to 4 inches wide with green cones. In addition, Cherokee Sunset has double blossoms that provide a different look. Autumn Colors has some reddish-orange in the petals that looks good but is short-lived, but does self-sow.
Anemones are beautiful flowers, but somewhat confusing. Some bloom in the spring, some in the fall and one called Snow Drop will bloom in the spring and in good years rebloom in the fall.
One of the best is Honorine Jobert, which has pure white flowers with yellow centers and is taller than most anemones at 3 feet. Several others that bloom in fall are various shades of pink.
Russian sage, with the botanical name perovskia, is grown mostly for it lovely gray, aromatic foliage, but it does have some fluffy lavender blooms late in the season.
Autumn clematis is a plant that makes a statement if you have a good place for it to climb. Two of the best vines for late summer color are Sweet Autumn clematis, which has white flowers, and Rebecca, which has bright red flowers with yellow anthers.
Fall-blooming sedum have been growing in popularity over the past 10 to 15 years. They will come into bloom in late August, and stand tall in the garden at about 1 to 2 feet tall all through the winter. Autumn Joy with purple flowers is probably the most popular, but others have some brighter or more unusual colors, including Black Jack, Brilliant and Matrona. Check out what your nursery has and go with what you like.
Montauk daisy is another good-looking late bloomer. It looks a lot like the Shasta daisy, but blooms in late August and will last throughout the fall and doesn’t require as much dead-heading as Shastas.
Nancy and I have been buying one perennial hibiscus a year for the past few years, and we love their huge flowers very late in the year. It is one plant that strangers walking by will comment on, an absolutely striking, tropical-looking plant. If you do plant a perennial hibiscus, keep in mind that, since it blooms late, it also appears very late in spring. Mark the plant’s spot in your garden, and wait for it to pop up.
You can’t talk about late-blooming plants without mentioning chrysanthemums and asters. They both are hardy perennials, but many people treat them like annuals, popping them in the garden in September and letting them die, because they planted them too late in the season and didn’t water them as they should.
Asters are natives, and can grow from a foot to 5 feet tall. They have purple, pink and sometimes white flowers. One of the best is Alma Plotschke, which has magenta flowers, but there are many others.
Chrysanthemums come in a variety of colors: gold, yellow and a good pink one called Clara Curtis. If you have some that have lived from previous years, you probably should have cut them back in June or early July so they branch out and don’t get so tall that they flop over in the wet and windy fall weather.
If you’re thinking of buying potted chrysanthemums from your garden center, remember to keep them watered and deadheaded until the end of the season. The earlier you put them into your garden and the more attention you give them, the more likely they are to come back next spring.
All of these plants will extend the season. The memories of these blossoms might be just enough to get you through the cold winter, but it is too early to start thinking about that.
Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He can be contacted at 767-2297 or at: