Ron Kujawski | Garden Watch: Black-eyed Susans make gardens pop in the fall

We really don't need the calendar to let us know that autumn begins this coming, Friday, Sept. 22. Yellowed and browned leaves of bearded iris and daylilies, red and purple spots on the foliage of disease-ridden peonies, and faded flowers and browned seed pods of other herbaceous ornamentals are visible reminders of the change in season. While many appear disheveled in their steady progression toward senescence or dormancy, a few continue to attract our attention. One in particular gives me a visual punch in the eye. Its common name is black-eyed Susan, which refers not to any pugilistic tendency of the plant, but rather to the black or dark brown cone in the center of a bright yellow daisy-like flower.

As is often the case with the use of common names for plants, black-eyed Susan may refer to one of several plants within the genus Rudbeckia. There are the short-lived perennials Rudbeckia hirta, which is usually grown as an annual or biennial, and my personal favorite, Rudbeckia triloba, named for its three-lobed lower leaves, and the longer lived perennial Rudbeckia fulgida. Bypassing this lesson in botanical nomenclature, just know that black-eyed Susan blossoms will dazzle in an otherwise fading landscape. She is also an ideal choice for the less-than-energetic gardener as she will tolerate a wide range of environmental conditions. Black-eyed Susan grows best in full sun, but will endure some shade, as well as being drought-tolerant.

The arrival of autumn offers an opportunity to coerce a friend who currently grows one of the perennial types to divide some plants for transfer to your garden. If the friend is reluctant, you'll have autumn and winter to intimidate uh, convince him or her to share a division or two in spring.

FALL CHORES AWAIT                                                   

I'm sure no arm-twisting will be needed to encourage gardeners in pursuit of these tasks:

- Prepare a site for next spring's strawberry plants. Turn over the soil and work in 1 to 2 pounds of 10-10-10 fertilizer per 100 square feet or incorporate a generous amount of well-rotted manure. Then plant a cover crop of winter rye using a rate of 1/4 lb. of seed per 100 square feet of garden area. While you are at it, sow a cover crop in other vacant areas of the garden. Turn under the cover crop in early spring.

- Cut down corn stalks, chop them up and bury then in the garden or add them to the compost heap. Don't leave the stalks intact since corn borers overwinter in the stalks.

- Dig and divide bearded iris if you didn't get to it last month. As you dig up the iris rhizomes (the thick underground stems), sort out the decayed portions and those infested with iris borers.

- Transplant trees and shrubs from one area of your grounds to another. I'm not suggesting that plants be moved around as you might furniture, but if some moves are necessary there's no better time. Concentrate on moving evergreens first since they need extra time to renew roots damaged in transplanting. However, if you can't get to it by early October, wait until spring to move evergreens. With deciduous woody plant material, transplanting can be undertaken up to late October. A mulch of wood chips or pine needles applied to the ground around newly planted or transplanted trees and shrubs will insulate the soil for a while, allowing a little extra time for root growth. Water these plants occasionally if Mother Nature isn't cooperating.

- Store your leftover seed packets in canning jars and place the jars on the bottom shelf of your refrigerator. It's important that the air in the jars be dry. Place a couple of tablespoons of powdered milk, wrapped in tissue paper, in the jars as a dehydrating agent.

- Buy some extra spring flowering bulbs for forcing indoors this winter. Not all varieties are suitable for forcing, so check the label on the bulb box at the store for the word "forcing". Among my favorites for forcing are miniature daffodils such as Tete-a-tete, Little Gem and Little Beauty.

- Try growing star jasmine as an indoor plant. Place it in the bright light of an east or west facing window, keep the soil on the dry side through early winter, and you should be rewarded with fragrant blossoms by early spring.                                                                      


On a personal note, best wishes to Elisabeth Cary, former director of education at the Berkshire Botanical Garden, on her retirement after an extraordinary career. During her tenure, Elisabeth created or introduced an amazing array of educational programs for adults and young folks.


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