Perennials Archives

Fall Color for Shady Spots

I’ve reported on on my favorite plants for fall color in sunny spots and as promised, here are my faves for shade.


Coleus come in dozens of colors and patterns.  Mine are just now, in late October, losing their leaves.  They’ve looked big and bold and colorful all season, until let’s say m id-fall.


Begonia grandis.

Begonia Grandis blooms from September through fall.  The foliage is gorgeous all season.

Japanese Anemone in mid-October.

Japanese Anemones look great here at the National Gallery’s Sculpture Garden with petunias.

Hakonechloa Grass.

Hakonechloa Grass doesn’t bloom, but its gold foliage looks great all season and the dried foliage looks lovely in the winter, too.  Behind it is a shrub that’s colorful in the fall and winter, too – the  Acuba.

‘Ice Dance’ Carex.

Carex is the name of a large genus of grass-like plants (technically called sedges, not grasses) and many are evergreen, like the ‘Ice Dance’ variety above.  It’s been a primary groundcover in my shade garden for decades now.  It brightens up even the darkest spot.


Oakleaf Hydrangea at Brookside Gardens.

The glorious Oakleaf Hydrangea  is one of my all-time favorite shrubs and it’s famous for its four-season interest.  The photo above demonstrates its fall glory and coming up next, with no leaves in sight, is its lovely exfoliating bark.

Encore Azaleas

Encore Azalea is a repeat-blooming shrub was highly recommended to me just yesterday by a Prince George’s Master Gardener.  She told me that hers are blooming like crazy even now, in late October.

Posted by Susan Harris.  Photo credits:  Encore Azaleas.  All others by Susan Harris.

Fall Color in the Smithsonian Gardens

Another installment in what’s turning out to be a series of articles about fall color in the garden, this one the result of my trip to the Mall over the weekend.  So what better place to start admiring the gardens of the Smithsonian than their Butterfly Habitat Garden?  It’s along 9th Street between Constitution and the Mall, and since it was created in 1995 it’s become awesome.

Horticulturist James Gagliardi has been in charge of this garden since June of 2011.

James here tells me he’s entertaining a whole lot more questions from passersby than he did in his last job at River Farm in Alexandria.  In fact, sometimes Smithsonian gardeners have to hunker down and look as busy as possible when the public passes by, just to get through their through list of chores.

I love the combination of well established perennials and colorful, dramatic annuals, like the red Canna and the Lantana that’s still blooming like crazy (in pink and orange) in mid-October.

James shows me another cool annual – the Gomphocarpus.  Its common name is Hairy Balls.  Seriously.

Above, a favorite perennial of mine – Amsonia hubrichtii, which will turn bright orange any day now.  It sports tiny blue flowers in early summer, and is a tough native in our region.

Of course a butterfly habitat garden is going to have lots of asters, and they’re going to look great in October.

Next door, the cafe at the Sculpture Garden (the one with the skating rink) has these gorgeous Mandevilla vines growing along its facade.

Along Constitution Avenue I spotted this fabulous garden in front of the Museum of American Natural History.   Great mix of sweet potato vines and coleus, with others I didn’t recognize.

UPDATE:  In a comment, the Smithsonian’s supervisory horticulturist Jonathan Kavelier tells us “these plantings also include Amaranthus and Cuphea as well as many other annuals and tropicals. The cycad is Zamia furfuraceae.”  Thanks!

Here’s another view of the American History gardens, with a close-up of the bizarre-looking cycad.  In the front are two sweet potato vines, and the taller purple plant is Persian Shield.

Finally, I always stop in at the Ripley Garden when I’m anywhere near it because it’s usually gorgeous, and always interesting. In the front is probably the annual Penta.

I DO know the purple plant here is an elephant ear. The red flowers in front? I don’t know.

In front, a Variegated Tapioca Plant. Behind it, an annual hibiscus.

You’ve probably noticed the Variegated Tapioca Plants at the front entrance to our Beltsville store.

Posted by  Susan Harris.

How to grow mums that come back every year

Ever heard of Dendranthemas?  Me, neither.  They used to be one of the types of Chrysanthemums but that genus was split in 1961 and now we have this new term for them.  Other terms include “perennial chrysanthemums” and “garden mums,” as opposed to what are sometimes called “florist mums.”

I became interested in this new name and the plants behind them after discovering them in the Behnkes Perennial Department the other day.  From the photos on the signs, they resemble daisies and indeed daisies used to be in the same genus before the “splitters” of  the hort nomenclature world got hold of them and declared them something else.  (They like to keep us on our toes.)  Other dendranthemas have double flowers and that look exactly like the mums we’re used to seeing this time of year.

All of these tough perennials are deer-resistant, great for cutting, and bloom from early fall until frost on 3′ tall bushes.  The plant can be made shorter and bushier by cutting them back half-way or even sheared to the ground (advice varies) in early summer – before July 4.  They can also be kept at their best – and shared with friends – by dividing them every three years or so.

They’re on sale – 1/2 off – and there’s a nice choice:

– Clara Curtis, a favorite of horticulturist Carol Allen, has single blooms in a salmony pink.

– Cambodian Queen has single pink blooms, sh own below left.

– Brandywine Sunset has single peach-colored blooms.

– Mei-kyo has double lavender blooms.

– Venus has single pale pink blooms.

– Yellow Sheffield has single yellow with pink overtone.

About those “Florist Mums”
But how about the common mums we see everywhere in the fall, the ones that are so often tossed, grown only as annuals?  I asked Carol Allen about them and she swears that they come back every year for her, so come to find out, they’re perennial, too.  In subsequent years they won’t be quite as short and full as they are when you buy them because they were carefully raised to look that way, but if you cut them back once or even twice before that July 4 date, they’ll do very well in your perennial garden.

Just a few of the color choices available right now.

Posted by  Susan Harris.

Fall Color for Sunny Spots

Welcome to Old Greenbelt!

Last Sunday I was manning the information booth at Greenbelt’s Farmers Market when a gentleman stopped to ask if anyone knew what colorful plants were growing in the median strip along the main street into town – the spot shown above.  Well yes, I happened to have photographed it and could list the plants he’d been admiring for months:  crape myrtle, Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ and two annuals:  petunias and New Guinea impatiens.

The color-seeking gardener seemed disappointed by my answer.  He doesn’t want to “fool with annuals.”  So I rattled off names of shrubs and perennials for fall color and promised him a blog post here on the subject, with photos.  So here are some of my favorites, first for sunny spots like the median strip above.

Asters! In purples, pinks and even white. Many of them are native.

Tall Sedums look great well into the fall.

Goldenrods are going strong now, and they’re native.

Japanese maples and mums at Brookside Gardens.

(In the photo above the mums are probably best grown once, as annuals.  But there ARE chrysanthemums that come back reliably every year.)

Drift roses bloom through Thanksgiving.

These days I’m growing Drift roses, like the ones in the breeder’s photo above, but many of the new and super-popular landscape roses bloom until early winter.  We’re still seeing Knockout roses blooming all over town, and Flower Carpet, too.

Amsonia hubrichtii in November at the Scott Arboretum.

And let’s not forget that fall foliage isn’t just in trees.  To my eyes, nothing’s more dazzling than Amsonia’s fall display.

Next up, fall color for shadier spots.

Posted by  Susan Harris.

Bees! And Hummingbirds, too.

The butterflies are mostly gone for the season, but bees are still going strong. And nowhere do I see more evidence of that than in the Perennials Department at Behnkes, where I took these photos and could have bee-watched all day. The big, furry

bumblebees are especially fun because besides being big, they’re nice and slow. Also, apparently unbothered by nearby humans with cameras.

Bumblebees on Agastache ‘Purple Haze’ and ‘Blue Fortune’.

I asked Perennial Department staffer Karin whether they ever sting anyone and she’d never heard of that happening. She was stung here once, though, not by the friendly bumblebee but by a wasp, and only because she grabbed it mistakenly when picking up a pot by the rim. Karin is called upon regularly to assure some bee-anxious visitors, especially kids, that left alone, bees are far too busy feeding to bother with attacking us humans.

Honeybee and Bumblebee on Sedums.

Bees and butterfly on Asters.

Honeybees on Coreopsis and an Echinacea variety.

I didn’t see any hummingbirds among the perennials the day I visited, so asked Karin about her own hummer sightings. She told me that late afternoon is prime hummingbird time in the nursery, and that these plants are their favorites: Penstemon, tubular Agastaches, Lobelia cardinalis, Monarda, the annual ‘Blue Black’ Salvia, and the summer bulb Crocosmia ‘Lucifer.”

Gotta get more of them for my garden, put them in a prime viewing spot, and wait for the party to arrive. I’m totally awed by seeing them up close, especially after seeing their movements slowed down and up close in this PBS documentary.

Posted by Susan Harris.

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