The Season's Best Perennials

They're beautiful, affordable, come back year after year, and they're blooming their heads off right now.
Steve Bender

The hot month of August is a bit like a Sunday sermon--sometimes it seems to go on forever. But just when you think you'll spend eternity shuttered inside an air-conditioned room, September turns down the thermostat. It's fall outside, the days are cooler, and the flowers are simply killer. Asters, mums, sedums, and fall sunflowers. For these and many other perennials, now is their time to shine.

So why aren't you planting? Maybe you're not sure what a perennial is (it's a nonwoody plant that comes back every year, provided you don't subject it to polka music). Or perhaps you're worried that September is too late to start. Worry not. Garden centers know that instant color sells and are awash in blooming potted perennials. Give them sun, good soil, and enough water to get established, and they'll bloom for weeks this autumn and many autumns thereafter. Here are a few of my favorites.

Love Your Mum
Many of us grew up thinking mums were the autumn perennials. We bedded them out, enjoyed their color for a few weeks in fall, then felt ripped off when they didn't bloom again in spring like pansies. So we dismissed them as too much trouble. In the process, however, we forgot about the good garden mums--the abundant, mounding, durable types that bloom for decades with minimal care. I especially like daisy-type mums in the peachy-apricot-orange range. So I covet the peach-orange blooms of 'Pumpkin Harvest' and the apricot-pinks of old 'Sheffield Pink.' But I also tout the new My Favorite Mum Series, particularly 'Autumn Red.' Without the slightest pruning, it forms a solid mound 18 inches tall and 36 inches wide and bears thousands of showy red blossoms with yellow centers. It's a champ.

Master the Aster
New England asters sound as if they would melt in our Southern summers. Not so. In fact, they're tough, dependable, and trouble free. Their blossoms resemble daisy mums in form, but asters usually grow loose and tall (good for the back of the border) and offer the blue and purple colors mums lack. Favorites include 'Harrington's Pink,' 'Hella Lacy' (purple), 'September Ruby' (red), 'Alma Potschke' (salmon-rose), and 'Purple Dome.'

Sedum Is Believing
It's hard to imagine another plant that gives you as much show for as little work as 'Autumn Joy' sedum. This hardy succulent tolerates heat and drought and has no serious pests. All it wants is sun and good drainage. Broccoli-shaped clusters of pale pink flowers sit atop gray-green foliage in late summer. In fall, flowers change to rose, brick red, and finally copper-bronze. Butterflies love them. Use sedum in mixed borders, masses, rock gardens, and planters.

Anemone Is No Enemy
Say "uh-NEM-oh-nee." Now you understand the clever subtitle and also how to pronounce this fall jewel's name. Japanese anemone, a hybrid of several species, offers handsome, maple-like foliage. Every autumn, long, upright wands rise from the leaves, bearing silky blooms with green eyes surrounded by yellow or orange stamens. They make excellent cut flowers. Anemones like moist, fertile, well-drained soil and light afternoon shade. 'Honorine Jobert' (single white blooms) is my top pick, but I also recommend 'September Charm' (single rose-pink), 'Bressingham Glow' (semidouble raspberry-pink), and 'Queen Charlotte' (semidouble pink).

Obedience Is Mandatory
Know how the obedient plant ( Physostegia virginiana) got its name? If you point an individual flower in one direction, it remains there. That's all that's obedient about the plant, though. Give it rich, moist soil, and it spreads aggressively. Still, its 10-inch spikes of pink or white blossoms make good cut flowers and add long-lasting color to the fall border. If it spreads too much, dig up what you don't want, and share it with someone you like--or even someone you don't.

Here Come the Sunflowers
Most of you have planted those giant annual sunflowers with heads as big as Luciano Pavarotti's. But you've probably missed out on perennial sunflowers. Their blooms may not be as huge, but one plant can produce hundreds, and the show goes on for weeks. Swamp sunflower ( Helianthus angustifolius) and willowleaf sunflower ( H. salicifolius) look similar, though the first one blooms later and has wider leaves. They're both tall (definitely for the back of the border) and feature multitudes of 3-inch yellow daisies with brown centers. They spread quickly in moist, fertile soil, so they'll always be with you--unless you like polka music.

"The Season's Best Perennials" is from the September 2002 issue of Southern Living.