Hal Prince, the legendary Broadway director and winner of 21 Tony Awards, was famous for his knockout finales. With the audience pumped-up, the dropping of the curtain only solidified the euphoria. Everyone left the theater on a high, happy to savor quieter times ahead.
That lesson is likely to have been gleaned from nature. The chill in the air, the shorter days, the disappearance of many vibrant colors seem somehow comforting, I suspect, because the blaze of autumn foliage brings down the gardening year with Broadway pizazz.
There’s more, however. We really don’t think about it much, but there are many plants that wait until growing season’s end to burst into bloom.
I once knew a gardener in Tacoma who had cultivated a show-stopping fall perennial border. He planned the spectacle of spring from rhododendrons to bursts of bulbs but basically ignored June, July and August. Why? His children were out of school in summer, and the family was hiking, boating, on the tennis court and golf course. No time for gardening, not really home enough to savor the explosions of bloom.
Come September, however, he wanted to be able to look out at his garden and see sweeps of color, the likes of which everyone bragged about in late spring and through summer. Japanese anemones, rudbeckia, mums, sedums, asters, golden rod and dahlias filled beds at the entry and encircled the lawn behind the house. It was a collection of bloom and color that rivaled anything, any time of year.
You’re too late for this kind of garden this year, but the good news is that you can have it to enjoy next autumn if you get going now. October and early November are prime planting months.
First, stroll the neighborhood, notebook or phone camera in hand, and see what is in bloom. You’ll be amazed. Here and there will be all sorts of floriferous outbursts. The trick is in gathering them and massing them, just as you would earlier bloomers. Plant-identification apps like PictureThis allow you to snap a shot of a plant you see and — voila! — back comes the botanical identification, often with tips and growing instructions. Also, Graham Stuart Thomas’ “Perennial Garden Plants” is an indispensable reference for anyone interested in flower gardening, a must-have for every serious gardener’s library.
Next, go to nurseries. Look at what is in bloom and for sale. Talk to the staff. You can coordinate flower color, plant height, leaf textures and colors as you eyeball the offerings there, in full bloom, in nursery cans.
Once home, the old planting adage applies: a million-dollar hole for a $10 plant. Dig out a spot for the plant that is about 30 percent wider than the circumference of the pot in which you bought it. The hole should be just deep enough that the top of the plant’s root ball sits at the surrounding surface of the bed, or no more than an inch below.
Fill the empty hole three times with water, allowing it to thoroughly soak in before you fill it again. This fully saturates the soil around the new planting. Take the plant out of the container, squeeze the root ball repeatedly and vigorously to loosen the roots. Set the plant in the ground, fill in the soil and water thoroughly again, adding more soil, if necessary, as it settles. Cover the area above the root ball with a layer of mulch.
When cold weather turns the plant brown, cut it back, leaving about 4 inches of stem. This will keep you and animals from walking on the crown. Next spring, as the new shoots emerge, the cluster of old upright stems will protect the new shoots. Keep the plants watered through summer. When next fall arrives, it’s curtain up on the last act, headed into the finale.
Hal Prince was once interviewed and shared how he coped with the opening of a Broadway show. He’d always schedule a meeting with a producer for the morning after opening night. If the show bombed, he had a next step set up. If the show was a hit, he could ride more swiftly into the new project. Sage advice. Always focus on the next project.
Following the autumn finale, bulb planting, and garden clean-up, next are holiday decorations and the gem-like joys of the winter garden. Then comes spring, summer, autumn and the cycle is complete.
Curtain up! Light the lights! You’ve got nothing to hit but the heights. It’s show biz, and who knows? You might pick up a horticultural Tony. Whatever, you’ll never lack for a reason to sing and dance in your garden.