Wild Things…
Autumnal Equinox
By Karen Vizzi

     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 go.
     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.

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