If you are observant, you will notice that the light is beginning to shift
in the wild garden. The autumnal equinox is just around the corner, a time
when gardeners celebrate the end of the season and harvest. But for many
beautiful plants and interesting critters, autumn is just the beginning.
The autumnal equinox usually
occurs around September 22nd, and is the point at which the earth’s axis
is tilted such that hours of daylight and darkness are equal. It also means
that fall has officially begun. Although parts of my garden look terribly
ragged now, I don’t seem to notice as fall bloomers begin to take center
stage. Tiny wild asters, as well as the showier cultivated ones, are starting
to bloom and the foliage seems to lay a lacy camouflage over other spent
plants. In another week or so, goldenrod will bloom. Goldenrod is not the
same as ragweed, which is a different species. Both asters and goldenrod
are vital nectar sources for migrating monarch butterflies.
One of the highlights of fall
is the majestic sunflower. In addition to traditional yellow, there are
now many cultivars in different fall-like color combinations... browns,
oranges, golds and burgundies. I always plant a row of the tallest variety
I can find, which eventually creates a fast food restaurant for goldfinches.
Although the birds (and squirrels) will soon peck them to shreds, the show
will have been worth the wait.
Chrysanthemums have always been
a mainstay of fall gardens, but most have been overly hybridized to a point
where they provide very little habitat value. I prefer to plant sedums
instead. These tough, compact fall bloomers are beautiful, provide important
nectar for insects and also hold their shape well for winter interest.
The clear pink variety “Autumn Joy” is widely available.
Another spectacular late blooming
plant is pineapple sage. This tender herb has leaves that smell like pineapple
when crushed and the plant produces tubular, scarlet blooms that rock the
September garden. And of course, tubular scarlet blooms are total magnets
for migrating hummingbirds.
Plants that are past prime bloom
can also add beauty to the fall garden. As the flower petals of coneflower
and black-eyed susan fade, the bristly center cones elongate and create
amazing shapes in the changing light. Those cones also provide important
food for migrating songbirds. Even some annuals that suffered through the
dog days are now refreshed by cooler nights and ready to give it one last
In another few weeks, the days
will get noticeably shorter and many critters will take their cue…squirrels
will build their cache of nuts and seed, songbirds will migrate and insects
will find a cozy place to spend the winter. The wild garden is alive all
year long, even in Western New York.