by Sally Cunningham

The summer gardening season, so long awaited, seems to pass so quickly—especially if people think of Labor Day as the end of the season. It is not!

In Western New York, our yards and gardens can be productive and enjoyable well into September (and sometimes beyond). Many plants do best when nights are a bit cooler, soil temperatures lower, and autumn rains begin. Also, these weeks are often very comfortable for homeowners and gardeners to get outside and do the work. Just consider late August as “mid-summer” and you’ll be surprised at how much you can still grow successfully. 

Shopping Tip

Many gardeners have great spring and early summer gardens because they shop and fall in love with certain plants in spring—the plants that are in bloom. A visit to professional garden centers and nurseries now (when there is typically less traffic) will surprise you with flowering plants (perennials and shrubs) that you may never have seen before. If you can choose and plant wisely, you can enjoy some new bursts of color now, and you will have a much better late season landscape next year. When you’re out there, also notice the fruits and vegetables you wish you were growing at home. (Below, find suggestions for plants to add for late season beauty.)

In the Vegetable Garden

For many crops it is harvest time, but that can be an extended period. It does not mean that we should close down the garden. For cold-sensitive plants you may want to keep sheets or tarps standing by, to cover them when the first cold nights threaten.

•  Tomatoes will keep producing until nighttime temperatures tell them to shut down. If you see that the plants are browning and giving up, or you hear that the first frost is looming, you can gather all the green tomatoes and store them out of the sun to ripen at their own pace. You can also pull the plants out and hang them upside down (garage, barn, or porch) and the tomatoes will continue to color up. (The ripening mechanism is already in place and the fruits do not need to be in the sunshine.) 

• Carrots and some other root crops can remain in the soil for many weeks to come, and they continue to get sweeter.

• Salad greens and spinach are “cool-season crops” and will love growing in cooler weather until true frosts. The problem is that they don’t grow well (and become bitter) in heat. So start some greens from seed in the shade every couple of weeks from late August onward. 

• Squash and pumpkins have had a fabulous season in many gardens, and there is no rush to harvest the produce. Most of these vine crops store better if they have been left on the vine to mature fully. Winter squash and pumpkins are ready for picking when the stems become shriveled and easy to pluck. (It is wise to have picked zucchinis and summer squash before they are club-sized!) Acorn squash for instance should be dark green, the skin very hard, and the bottom portion touching the ground shows yellow or orange coloring. Don’t wait too long since squashes are all “warm-weather plants” and will be damaged by frost.

• Basil, the most popular of herbs, has no tolerance for the least hint of frost, so keep cutting and enjoying it until the meteorologist warns of nighttime temps around thirty-two degrees.F.

In the Flower and Shrub Garden 

A common saying is that June is for Perennials and September or October are for Bulbs. I would add that almost any time in the growing season  is for perennials– if you can water well and tend them.) But there’s more: 

Late Summer is Planting Time Too!

In addition to cooler weather, usually ample rain, and nice working conditions, here are some other reasons:

1 – You can see what late-season flowering plants look like, by browsing good nurseries and garden centers. You can plant perennials, shrubs, and trees now.
2 – You are aware of the gaps in your landscape and flower beds: Where was color missing? Where could you use some height or a ground cover? What has done poorly (or is boring) that you could replace? 
3 – You may find deals or good prices, but there is a caveat: Good nurseries and garden centers usually move the tiny perennials that became root-bound (in six-packs or 3-inch pots) into large pots with good potting soil. If they have started to grow their root systems they may be excellent finds. I just recommend that you avoid the plants with the tiniest, cramped roots at this time, because they may not be substantial enough to get established and help that plant through the cold winter. (If you’re a rescuer, don’t hesitate to try though. Your TLC could work!)

Excellent Perennials and Shrubs for Late Season Beauty

Depending upon your background as a student of perennials and shrubs, some of these may be less familiar and worth discovering (and planting) now. As always, read the labels and do research concerning their site and care needs, and their habits. Put spreading plants where they can spread, and observe the future size of these at maturity!

Dependable Late-blooming Perennials for WNY

Anemone japonica (Japanese anemone) 

Aconitum (Monks’hood)

Echinacea purpurea (Coneflowers)

Hakonechloa macra (Hakone Grass, Japanese Forest Grass) 

Hibiscus moscheuto (Hardy Hibiscus)

Lobelias for both sun and shade—blue to red

Perovskia (Russian Sage)

Phlox panulata

Pycnanthemum muticum (and other species of Mountain Mint)

Rudbeckia laciniata ‘Herbstonne’ (also native Black-eyed Susans)

Sedums (hundreds os species)

Vernonia (New York Ironweed) 

Veronicastrum (Culver’s Root) 

Shrubs

Aronia (Chokeberry)

Callicarpa (Beauty Berry) 

Caryopteris (Bluebeard)

Clethra alnifolia (Summersweet Clethra)

Hibiscus syriacus (Rose of Sharon)

Hydrangeas 

Rhus aromatica (Fragrant Sumac)

Vitex (Summer lilac)

Late Season is for Lawns for sure! 

(See John Braddell’s article with full information.)

Next month… More about planting trees and shrubs for the future, and how to succeed with the late-season planting.