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Great Gardening: Joys of the October garden by Sally Cunningham

Not just this year but every autumn I see flowers blooming in my yard and wonder why so many people give up on the garden so soon. Why isn’t an October garden a popular thing, or at least a garden we tend all through September in the hope of a few more weeks? Aren’t there some people who have a summer cottage somewhere else, or who travel all summer, or who just started late this season – and wouldn’t they enjoy a late season display? The Western New York weather isn’t always like the October of 2016, but almost always we have perennials and some annuals that look wonderful late in the fall, many of them even better after a frost or two. I think most folks just don’t know how beautiful an October garden can be.

My October perennial bed
It was an unexpected delight this morning to carry my coffee cup outside to walk around my garden wearing a summer robe and slippers. As usual, I noted two ways I could look at this garden. From one angle I could see lots more to do – some plants to cut back, some weeds to dig up or cover with mulch, bulbs to plant, and a water garden pump that needs cleaning. But I have learned to forgive myself many imperfections, and this garden is for pleasure and for learning, not to live up to some list of standards or to impress anyone. So I took the other viewpoint and decided simply to enjoy it awhile, to just be there. I watched the birds and the frogs, and appreciated the amazing number of plants that are flowering still – in mid-October.

I do think it would be cool to plan a garden specifically for fall-blooming perennials. My own fall bloomers are scattered around a couple of large perennial/shrub beds, but I love the idea of staging them to bloom together in a truly showy bed. I would start with the five listed here, since they are dependable, easy and deer proof. Any of these would be fine placed randomly around the yard but they would be even better clustered together.

Aconitum napellus, A. carmichaelii (Monkshood). Also called Wolfbane, this perennial is steeped in folkloric and literary references as it is severely toxic (especially the roots). Chemicals in the leaves can cause skin irritation. Ancient warriors supposedly dipped their spears in the plant extracts to poison their enemies. Whether you grow poisonous plants is a personal choice – many popular plants are potentially toxic – but I have enjoyed monkshoods for decades. They have an acrid taste and smell, so accidental poisoning is extremely unlikely, even with animals. Deer and rabbits avoid them. (In case of accidental ingestion, consider it an emergency.)


The monkshoods in your garden center are most likely Aconitum carmichaelii ‘Arendsii,’ which is especially desirable for late season blooms. The flowers are deep blue, hooded, and grow on spikes 3 or 4 feet tall, rather like delphiniums. Leaves are glossy, mid-green and lobed. They grow best in part shade or sun. (For lovers of blue, these flowers are much easier to grow than delphiniums, which are typically short-lived in most soils in WNY.)


Anemone japonica (Japanese anemone): Why they aren’t a staple of every garden is beyond me, but sometimes I hear “Oh they spread so much.” I think that’s a good problem, easily remedied – just pull out a few and share them. They spread best in rich, moist soil, but do fine and barely spread in my clay-dominant soil. Light shade or sun is fine, as long as they get water during drought periods. The flowers are pink or white, on airy stems about 3 feet tall. Familiar cultivars are ‘Honorine Jobert,’ ‘September Charm,’ ‘Pamina’ or ‘Whirlwind.’


Boltonia asteroides (False aster). I was so pleased to see these in a perennial garden this summer in the Hudson River Valley, and I even exclaimed out loud, Boltonia! It’s a native plant, about 4 feet tall, that is covered with small, bright white flowers—loved by pollinators. All asters do best in full sun. Another Boltonia may also be available if you’re lucky, called Boltonia asteroides ‘Snowbank.’ It is low-growing, less than 7 inches tall, and makes a stunning ground cover or front-of-border plant.


Sedums. The huge genus Sedum includes some 400 species that come mostly from mountain areas where drainage is excellent. Many are low-growing ground covers. For rich, fall colors choose the 2- to 3-foot Sedum spectabile cultivars such as ‘Autumn Joy,’ ‘Autumn Fire,’ ‘Carmen,’ ‘Frosty Morn’ and ‘Matrona.’ They are attractive all season and loved by pollinators. By fall most show pink and rose colored flowers. Plant in sunshine.


Chelone lyonii ‘Hot Lips’ (Turtlehead) or Chelone glabra (White turtlehead). Turtleheads are native plants, and some cultivars including the popular ‘Hot Lips’ are now readily available in garden centers. Insect pollinators as well as hummingbirds love all of them, and humans are particularly charmed by their little turtle faces. It’s an easy plant for part shade or full sun – if it gets enough moisture. This year some deer chomped my large clump in half (unexpectedly as they are usually not touched) so now I have a short October patch of pink flowers.

The rest of the garden
Other plants were stunning this month in addition to those late-flowering perennials, if you weren’t too quick to clean up your planters and window boxes. For many years some garden centers have promoted frost-hardy plants for early spring as well as fall containers (Angelonias, pansies, Lobularia and more), but still relatively few people seem to use them in cold weather. Some salvias only look their best now, and begonias – especially ‘Dragon Wing’ – will remain unbelievably bold and gorgeous, at least until a frost gets them.

Meanwhile, ornamental grasses are at their best. Great shrubs – viburnums, Itea, Enkianthus and Forthergilla – are just beginning to show foliage colors. And bright color is popping out in the woods and fields and in our landscapes.
But let’s talk about autumn leaves another day. In my garden it’s still summer and I plan to savor all I can.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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