Great Gardens: Celebrating Back to School

This is the perfect time of year to plant my favourite ‘back to school’ plants.

You made it. After a summer of juggling schedules around a variety of kids’ (grand kids?) activities and, perhaps, your own work schedule, the summer is ‘over’. The kids head back to school this Tuesday. Don’t you think you deserve a reward? I think that you do.

Many wonderful plants come into their own and look best right about now. It is almost as if your sedum knows that you deserve a break today. It is interesting, I think, that when we are not busy watching and playing with the kids, our attention is diverted to many of the natural features in our landscape. Our powers of observation are sharpened when we have time to ourselves.

This is the perfect time of year to plant my favourite ‘back to school’ plants:

Sedum spectabile. This flowering plant is like an old friend. Plant it in full sunshine and watch it bloom its head off until frost. That’s right, up to 8 weeks of blossoms. Butterflies and bees love it too. You can cut the long stems of this plant and use them indoors in flower arrangements (they last a long time). Grows to about 60 cm high and wide. Hardy to zone 3 [Winnipeg].

New England Aster. We have the Canada goose; the Americans get New England aster. Most days I would trade them. As the name suggests, this is a great garden performer and it is native. Blooms in blue, white or magenta from about now into late October. Another butterfly attractant. Can grow to 1.2 metres tall but most garden cultivars are much shorter, about 40 to 50 cm. Great for cutting to bring indoors. Hardy to zone 4 (Ottawa/Montreal).

Joe Pye Weed. [eupatorium] Not exactly a weed (why don’t they call mint ‘mint-weed’ – now there is a weed!) but it is one of the best perennial plants for attracting butterflies, hummingbirds and bees. Pollinators love Joe Pye because he is loaded with pollen. And the tall, flat-faced flowers are a perfect landing pad for butterflies. Look for rose/purple ‘Baby Joe’ which grows to about 70 cm or the much taller cultivar Little Joe which matures at 120 cm. You can cut Joe Pye weed for use indoors. Each year, the clump becomes a little bigger until, after about 5 years, you will want to dig and divide it. Hardy to zone 4.

Ornamental grasses. There are many ornamental grasses that are just coming into their own this time of year and they often look their best as we enter the cold, pre-winter period of October-November. Look for Maiden Grass [Miscanthus], Northern Sea Oats [Chasmanthium], Switch grass [Panicum virgatum] and Fountain grass [Pennisetum]. All ornamental grasses have their attributes. They have in common, a tendency to attract small song birds while in seed, often right through the winter. I cut mine down come spring for this reason. They all need full sun to perform their best. Some are clumping and stay in one place while others travel by root or rhizome. Be sure to ask when you are buying ornamental grass otherwise you could be importing an aggressive problem for the long term. I prefer the clumpers, by far.

Black-eyed Susan. [Rudbeckia] Truth is, this plant has been in bloom for a month or more already. No matter, it will continue to bloom until the cows come home (or late October, whatever comes first). The longest possible blossom period is featured with ‘Goldsturm’, which is the ‘gold standard’ of rudbeckias. ‘Irish Eyes’ will make you smile. ‘Little Goldstar’ is a great fall performer. Hardy to zone 4. Plant and forget.

Japanese Anemone. Not to be confused with the early spring anemone, these gorgeous white or blue bloomers are a terrific addition to the late season garden. I have some growing just outside of my front door where they greet me with colour until the hard frost of late October in my zone 5 garden. They do spread rather aggressively and each November, before I batten down the hatches for the winter, I remove a huge portion of them, with a sharp spade. It is a wonderful way to release tension and feel good about spending time in front of the TV watching fall football.

The kids are being well looked after by education-professionals. Enjoy your just rewards for getting them there in one piece.

Mark Cullen is lawn & garden expert for Home Hardware, member of the Order of Canada, author and broadcaster. Get his free monthly newsletter at Look for his new best seller, ‘The New Canadian Garden’ published by Dundurn Press. Follow him on Twitter @MarkCullen4 and Facebook.

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