Though not the most exotic flowering plant, this member of the Asteraceae family is a charming, reliable performer.
Mums come into their prime when other flowering plants are about finished for the season. A kaleidoscope of vibrant colors, including yellow, orange, bronze, scarlet, salmon, pink, purple, and white may be chosen to give your garden renewed impact as the season changes. They also make good cut flowers, perfect for fall decorating arrangements. Propagation is easy, by rooting cuttings, and, in larger specimens, by dividing clumps.
Chrysanthemums come in a variety of forms, including single, double, daisy-like, cushion, or pompom-shaped flowers against a compact mound of deeply cut, dark green foliage. Most familiar are the thickly-petaled, cushion-shaped blooms of the hardy garden mum. Planted in the spring or fall, perennial varieties, and even some considered to be annuals, may continue flowering throughout a milder winter here in western Oregon's Willamette Valley, if we don't have any serious freezes. Keeping plants mulched year-round is always a good idea to help them through extremes of temperature, heavy rain, and drought. In areas with colder winters, treat mums as an annual, to keep potted up indoors, or planted in the flower bed for one glorious season.
Full sun, ample water, and a few applications of fertilizer now and then produce sturdy plants and a profusion of blooms. Some mums can grow to shrub size in the garden, if you let them. Pinching back the tips of new leaves as they begin to appear maintains the desired shape and size of the plant.
When mums finish flowering and are ready to enter dormancy, cut the plants back to a few inches from the ground. The plants will emerge again in the spring, and bring a new season of vibrant blooms.
In the same family as mums, Aster, meaning "star", is also a fall-blooming beauty, and may be cultivated in the same manner. As with many plants, extensive and colorful varieties are available, with slightly different requirements, growth habits, and flowering times. My aster has been going strong in full sun for several years, with dark green, finely cut leaves, and delicate, single-rayed purple flowers with golden yellow centers. A favorite of butterflies and bees, it usually blooms in late summer, and keeps flowering well into the fall months. This year, by June it had become a huge, shrubby plant, threatening to crowd out the neighboring heather, phlox, and lavender. Though already loaded with buds, I took the drastic action of cutting it back by half, hoping it would still flower this year. Sure enough, now, in mid-September, the aster is again abundantly budded and on the verge of bursting into long-lasting blooms. Once the showy display is finished, I'll cut it back to about 6 inches, and wistfully look forward to its return next year.
Other returning perennials in the garden, too, may be cut back by about half before flowering, or even during if they're getting too big for their britches. They may not flower on schedule, or might even skip a season, but you'll be glad you did it, and it frees up that much more room for new plants!
Another lovely ornamental for fall is Physalis, the Chinese Lantern Plant, not to be confused with Abutilon, which is a flowering maple also called Chinese Lantern. The latter is in the Malvaceae family, an evergreen, shrubby vine that grows to an average of 10 feet tall and wide.
The Chinese Lantern Plant is a member of the Solanaceae family. Small, white, summer flowers on bushy, dark green leaves morph into papery, translucent, orange-red "lanterns", each about two to three inches long, encapsulating a bright red berry. Beware, though. This striking perennial beauty spreads by profuse, creeping, underground roots, each one containing stems that branch off into new plants. These pop up throughout the flower bed, and are very hard to remove completely. On a personal note, I do wish nurseries would provide advisories on plants that easily become invasive.
Too much of a good thing is not a good thing, as I have learned the hard way.
That said, Chinese Lanterns are too lovely to be banished altogether. Planters are the solution to keep their rampant growth from taking over the garden. Put a few of the plants in a pot or basket, and arrange it on your front porch with bales of straw, pumpkins, cornstalks, and a potted mum or two, and celebrate this colorful harvest season.
By the way, if you're shopping for new plants to boost your garden's pizzazz, this is a great time of year to find bargains wherever plants are sold. Some plants may have gotten leggy; some root bound in their pots. A root bound plant is not necessarily a problem, as long as the roots are white and healthy. If they've grown out of the holes on the bottom of the pot, remove the plant from the container and slice off about a third of the root ball. When roots are growing in a tight spiral, gently loosen and separate them before replanting to encourage their downward growth. To rejuvenate leggy annuals already in the ground, and the spindly ones you just rescued from the garden center, cut them back by about half. You'll be rewarded with new, lush growth and a fresh burst of flowers to extend the season.
Summer may be slipping away, but it's still great gardening weather! Plant some annual companions that grow throughout the fall to complement your perennials, such as cheery, low-maintenance zinnias and marigolds, to name a few. The bright autumn colors of continuous blooms against vivid green foliage lights the way as the days grow shorter.
There are many more choices for the fall garden than mentioned here. The trick is restraining the impulse to bring them all home!