Like me, you are probably feeling a bit depressed at the thought of your garden’s painstakingly planted scenes deteriorating over the next months. Yes, of course you can plant some spring-blooming bulbs, but you will have to wait a good six months (and endure a lot of awful weather) to see them! Please, don’t despair just yet. There are bulbs that bloom in the fall. Asters, mums and fall foliage—we’re used to that (especially in New England). But these are real, honest-togoodness bulbs that will bloom after everything else in your garden is either dead, turning colors, or producing berries (not that those last two tricks are anything to dismiss out of hand).
A few hours work planting these beauties, and next autumn you will be pleasantly surprised to see them poking their brand new heads up through the detritus of your summer garden. Plant these earlier than you would the spring bloomers. They need more time to settle and grow in to their new homes; you may even get flowers your first autumn. And don’t forget the cardinal rule of bulb-planting: plant more—lots more—than you think you need. No one ever complained about having too many bulbs.
Try these pairings:
Hosta plantaginea + Lycoris squamigera + Sporobolus heterolepis
A member of the amaryllis family and a disappointment to our deer and rodent gardening companions, Lycoris squamigera is a drought and heat-tolerant, low maintenance bulb with the risqué nickname “naked ladies.” Hailing from Japan, it is also sometimes called the “surprise“ or “magic lily,” because its foliage appears in spring and dies back in summer. But to my mind the most apt common name is “resurrection lily,” as it will revive both itself and your fading garden one last time before winter sets in.
When choosing a site, keep in mind that the foliage arrives in spring and quickly dies back so choose companion plants that will disguise or distract from the unsightly fading foliage. In sun, plant the bulbs behind or between low-growing clumping ornamental grasses, so the flowering stalks appear to float above a grassy cushion. Sporobolus heterolepis (Prairie dropseed) is a good choice with tall, open, pinkish-brown flower panicles on slender stems. Or try Eragrostis spectabilis (purple love grass) which has shorter pinkish/purple flowers that form a misty cloud. For partial shade, a logical choice is fragrant Hosta plantaginea.
Blooming in August to September, lycoris rises on bare stalks 18–24 inches, with each bulb bearing four to seven funnel-shaped, fragrant rosepink flowers. Open woodland gardens, meadows and wild areas are all appropriate locales for this bulb, which grows well in sun to partial shade. Lycoris is easy to grow in organically rich, medium moisture well-drained soils. Bulbs should be planted 5–6 inches deep and 6 inches apart in the fall. It will naturalize by bulb offsets.
A Mediterranean native and amaryllis family member from the Iberian peninsula, 4-8 inches tall Leucojum autumnale (syn. acis autumnale) or the “fall snowflake” produces small white bellflowers in late September and October. The cultivar “September snow” is pure white; other forms of the species may be pink-tinged. A dainty bulb with dark green, grass-like foliage in fall and winter, it begs to be planted en masse.
In sun, the native Aster oblongifolus “October Skies”, with its clear blue blooms, makes an entrancing companion.
Planting the snowflakes in a groundcover of sedum “Angelina”, which in fall adds orange tones to its summer gold, makes a knockout mass planting with the asters behind. In dappled sun, triycyrtis (toad lily) would make a dramatic backdrop.
Plant the fall snowflake in sun to partial sun and average moisture. It can handle dry soils when dormant.
There’s nothing funnier than watching a seasonally confused squirrel mistaking a bright yellow Sternbergia lutea for a tasty spring crocus. A member of the amaryllis family, it is resistant to deer, voles and confused squirrels. Also known as the “golden crocus” or “winter daffodil,” sternbergia produces single blooms on short (4 inches tall) stalks in September and October, followed by narrow foliage which will persist until spring.
Plant Aster oblongifolus ‘October Skies’, a lovely clear blue native aster, behind your sternbergia for contrast and add a stand of native Amsonia hubrechtii, with its golden fall foliage, for an amazing tableau. All three plants are drought tolerant and low-care, with similar cultural requirements.
A Mediterranean native, sternbergia prefers hot and sunny conditions, with moderately fertile and very welldrained soil, particularly in winter. It will not thrive in an irrigated landscape. It may not survive winter in USDA Zone 6 unless sited in protected locations. Try growing it at the south-facing sunny edges of woodlands. A loose mulch over in winter (such as evergreen boughs laid on the ground) will help, and a bit of lime will make it even happier. Left alone, the plants form slowly increasing clumps over time, and self-seeding may also occur.
Story by Joanne Neale
Nova (CC by 3.0), TANAKA Juuyoh (CC by 2.0), Steven Severinghaus (CC by-NC-SA 2.0)
jam343 (CC by 2.0), Sten Porse (CC by 3.0), Courtesy of Proven Winners
Ivo M. Vermeulen, Courtesy of New York Botanic Garden, Secundum naturam by Public Domain, peganum (CC by-SA 2.0)