by: Brent Heath, Co-Owner Brent and Becky’s
Fall is one of my favorite times of year to play in the garden—there’s just so much to do! This week, I just seeded in my radishes, kale, broccoli, collards, and beets, and I’m looking forward to my fresh supply of vegetables all winter long. Of course, I’m also keeping busy with my flowers and foliage, too, because garden beauty isn’t just for spring and summer. Here’s what blooming right now and what to plant in the fall!
Dahlias are a beloved favorite not just for us, but also for pollinators. They are heavily visited by butterflies this time of year as they make their way south. With the cool nights, they are really beginning to bloom out beautifully once again. They will continue to do so until the frost comes at the end of October or early November, so long as you regularly deadhead. Simply trim off spent blooms to encourage them to use their energy to produce even more blooms that will keep those flying flowers in your garden all season long.
Colocasia—or as you might know them better, Elephant Ears—are really in their prime right now. In particular, my ‘Thai Giant’—all the way from Thailand!—is doing splendidly, with its 6-foot-tall leaves making a big show right now. While the cooler weather is keeping them quite comfortable, they are used to living in a more amenable climate. However, there's plenty you can do that will make a big difference in their performance this fall and into winter.
Make sure your colocasia have plenty of water—they’ll even do well in pots submerged in water, they love it that much. Compost is also essential to keep them well-fed and growing right up until frost. Then, when the frost hits them and the leaves go brown, take them into the garage for winter storage. Keep them in their pots in that just about freezing temperature to keep them dormant, and occasionally add some water, so they don’t dry out.
Colchicums, also known as “Naked Boys”, are other real showstoppers this time of year. Among some of the most misunderstood bulbs, colchicums may look like crocuses, and a lot of companies will actually call them “fall crocus”, but they are actually part of the lily family. They also carry some pretty incredible benefits and features, too. They contain a chemical called “colchicine,” which is used as an ingredient for medicinally treating gout—God hope you’ll never get it, but if you do, you now know it makes the symptoms better!
Colchicine can also be used in horticulture, too, and it is the treatment applied to diploid daylilies and hostas to transform them into tetraploids—it’s pretty neat!
Colchicums are triggered to bloom in cool temperatures, so when planted at this time of the year, they will bloom quite quickly. They are hardy in most of the country—between zones 4 and 8—and are incredibly shade-tolerant and entirely critter-proof. Colichums come in a pleasing variety of colors, from white to pink to purple, and offer both single and double blooms, so there’s bound to be a selection for every garden to keep blooming until November.
Now, while many companies may call colchicums “fall crocus,” there actually are real fall crocuses in the iris family. They look almost identical to spring crocus, but as you might have guessed, they bloom in autumn. One of the most amazing fall crocuses is the Crocus sativus, which has a very interesting bright red, split pistol. When plucked, the pollen will actually turn your fingers orange! Why? Well, this pistol is the source of saffron, which is mostly from Spain, but is now being produced in Texas and even in Vermont! If you’ve never tried it, it’s a fantastic cooking spice that also offers some medicinal value. However, it takes a great deal of pollen to get a full serving of saffron at home—over 260,000 plants go into just 1 lb of the spice!
Your fall crocus will prefer to be in a relatively well-drained site with lots of sunlight. Many varieties will even have winter leaves, which are a treat in the snowy weather, but will need an evergreen canopy to shield them from the frost. Plant them on the south- or east-facing side under an evergreen that has been trimmed up to have higher ground clearance. This way, they will still get the benefit of the sunshine without the chill.
Cyclamens are another amazing fall-planted variety that offers shooting star-like blooms followed by beautiful winter leaves. They are among the most shade-tolerant of plants and are listed as hardy between zones 6 and 9—though I believe that’s a bit conservative, as the best planting I’ve ever seen was in the Denver Botanic Garden! Not only are they shade-tolerant, but they can also handle dry soil and look particularly great planted under amaryllis, as the leaves make excellent groundcover.
One of the best features they have, of course, is their ability for naturalization. Cyclamen seeds have a sugary elaiosome that attracts ants to pick them up, carry them away, and bury them for later, so they’ll spread quite well in the garden if you let them!
Another member of the amaryllis family, sternbergia lutea is another early-blooming flower hailing all the way from the Middle East. They look just like a giant, yellow crocus and—just like their fellow amaryllis family members—are critter-proof. Mine are just coming into bloom now, so if you plant them now, you should expect to see their cheery blooms as early as October, probably.
Of course, fall is also the time to start thinking about next spring. So, I recommend getting your ideas together, making a plan, and marking as you plant, so you won’t forget where you put things when the snow finally melts. If you haven’t already gotten your fall-planting bulbs, now’s the time to get your orders in. We’re shipping hot and heavy right now, so let’s get those gardens going!
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