As the sun gets lower in the sky and our days slowly begin to get shorter, plants are reacting to these subtle, seasonal changes by curbing their eagerness to please and focusing instead on hunkering down for the long haul. Right now, it’s less about the show and more about making it to the next main event. Perennials are starting to show signs of slowing down on the song and dance routine and are beginning to focus on getting some of their energy back. This may sound discouraging, but it’s only natural. It’s how perennial plants have been doing business for thousands of years, long before we made them objects of our desires and whims. But it’s not all doom and gloom.
As you know, perennials go dormant in the winter, and before they do they experience (how shall I put this?) a period of non-performance in attractiveness, that is to say, they begin to lose their good looks. The plants here at the nursery are no different. No matter how long perennials have been bred to perform for us they still are, after all, living things that are governed by the rules of nature. They have jumped through hoops while being confined to a pot, their feet bound, with only enough soil to hold a small portion of what they need. Some of them have bloomed, been trimmed, were given food, and have shown utter resilience in the face of challenging heat. It’s pretty remarkable.
So what does it mean when you plant perennials that appear less-than-stellar at the end of the season? To put it very simply, it takes an enormous amount of energy for plants to branch, leaf, and particularly flower. The more well-rooted a plant is, the better the show of leaves and flowers will be. You see, fall is the time of year when a plant switches its efforts from up top to down below – a move that allows it to survive the otherwise terminal winter temperatures. Ideally, plants work best when they are focusing either on the roots (and crown), or the foliage, but not both simultaneously. This is the key to fall planting. By letting the plant act solely on root and crown development in the fall/winter, you have effectively given the plant an unhindered opportunity to create a large, thriving network of supplies to pull energy from when it starts the business of performing again in the spring. This ultimately means that your patience will be rewarded with a bigger, and better show.
I stumbled upon a quote the other day attributed to Henry David Thoreau, (word of warning: I was unable to find any original source for it other than self-help books and motivational speakers – not a good sign – but I think the sentiment is a good one so I will risk repeating it here), “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” This is the time of year when your imagination will take you far. Do not underestimate a plant’s potential. What may seem like a plant with shortcomings is in fact an enduring perennial. For you, the reality of your efforts in the garden today shouldn’t be judged by what is immediately in your hand, but rather, by what will be there for you next year.
And for us, fall’s imminent arrival does not mean that the party in the garden is over. As we plant people well know, the process of creation is never ending, and we live in a climate that affords us the ability to plant well into fall and sometimes winter, as long as the ground isn’t frozen. So, don’t stop planting now. Keep your garden shovel handy, and revel in the milder temperatures.
We still have beautiful plants in the Perennials Department, but don’t pass the less-than-perfect plants by as being has-beens or wash-outs. These plants are incognito seasoned performers just waiting to be liberated so they can get prepped for next year’s show. We just know it’ll be a good one.
by Constance Cleveland, Behnke’s Perennial Buyer