What should you plant for pollinators to bloom during the late show–that short or long time period between hot, hot days and the first freeze? Worked into this post are my favorite fall-blooming flowers for pollinators. Many of these were chosen specifically to extend the bloom season as long as possible. We invite pollinators to our gardens by growing plants they love all summer. We plant natives to draw them in as adults and larvae–a good thing–but sometimes we forget about the great journeys some of them must make for winter–or, feeding them until they sleep the big sleep.
Begin with asters like the one above. There are so many native and non-native asters from which to choose. I grow several including ‘Alma Potschke’, ‘September Ruby’ and ‘Bonnie Blue’ which I added this year. I already grew ‘October Skies’, heath aster, a pink heath aster, ‘Hella Lacy’, ‘Bluebird’ and some others including a climbing aster, Aster carolinianus, Russell Studebaker gave me last year. Thank you again Russell!
Most asters in the U.S. are no longer part of the true aster family, but instead are listed as Symphyotrichum, I call them asters here for simplification. Who can type that word over and over let alone pronounce it?
Depending upon the variety, asters have different bloom times and flowers of different sizes. This is important because smaller hoverflies and tiny bees favor the smaller blooming asters like the heath asters and S. drummondii. If you want larger flowers, may I suggest ‘Hella Lacy’, ‘Bluebird’, ‘September Ruby’ and ‘Alma Potschke?’ Monarch butterflies seem especially attracted to ‘Bluebird’s’ large blooms.
‘October Skies’ has medium sized flowers. ‘Hella Lacy’ and ‘September Ruby’ are nearly finished, but my willow aster, S. prenanthoides hasn’t even started. Every aster I have is wonderful. Many are blue. Some are pink. Some are hot pink, and others are white. If you live locally, try Bustani Plant Farm in the fall for asters. He has a nice selection, and yes, I grow them all. Plant Delights also has a great selection.
We owe it to our bees, birds, moths, wasps, butterflies and hover flies to grow plants that will feed them up until the big freeze.
Native mountain mints are also great pollinator plants. In fact, mountain mint is one of my best pollinator magnets because it blooms all through summer and into fall. However, it is a mint so keep that in mind when you plant it. Some of the asters, like drummond’s aster and willow aster, are also quite aggressive in wetter areas. Try planting them in dryer areas.
I think I love my pollinator posts best. A little bit about the process to get these photos of big burly bumblebees or the tiniest hover fly first, I have to wait until the sun comes up and warms the creatures’ wings which can make it difficult to get the pure colors. I usually look about the day before to see which plants are getting the most pollinator action–kind of like a singles bar on Saturday night. Because the pollinators are very aware of me, I walk by and then come back to sit down. At first, they fly away. I hold the camera in my hands and extend the lens so I won’t jar them when they come back. It’s very heavy so I brace myself to get a clean shot. Before long, a few “brave” bees fly in and resume their activity. Bumblebees are always ready to get back into the thick of things.
I work hard to compose the shot, but you don’t have long because they flit back and forth among the flowers, and in the fall, they seem to sense the urgency. I set the camera on continuous shooting so that I can capture them in flight or even crawling from flower to flower. I thank my lucky stars that digital cameras are now the norm. By looking so closely, you see all kinds of things like one bee bumping another, or one cleaning her little face. Time slows down, and they rhythm of life hums along.
I may sit in one spot for ten or fifteen minutes trying to shoot this one or that. They would rather I leave them alone. They don’t know that I’m trying to raise awareness of them and their benefit to gardens everywhere.
I saw a Monarch the other day, first in Guilford Gardens when I visited, and later in my own garden. This has troubled me ever since. I told Claire this morning as I drove her to school that in my childhood, I would see waves of orange in late summer and fall. Monarchs floated across the sky and were a common occurrence. It was nothing to see hundreds of them, but they were always awe inspiring. I also saw so many migrating birds, black as pitch against the blue.
I plant for adult pollinators and their young, and yet, I still don’t seem to have enough milkweeds for my Monarchs. I will try to do better next year. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the Monarch I captured nectaring on a sunflower in Guilford Gardens. I think the backlighting was magnificent. Although sunflowers don’t normally bloom in the fall, you can sow successive seed plantings and have sunflowers all summer and fall. You just have to remember to put in the seeds which is something I have a hard time doing.
You might not think of crapemyrtles when planning your fall garden, but you should. Check out the honeybee flying in the top photo. He spent a lot of time working over this very dwarf crapemyrtle. Here’s another shot of the same honeybee coming in for a landing. Since I don’t keep bees, one of my neighbors must. I need to find out so I can buy some honey.
Mums are also wonderful plants that help out our pollinator friends. I have several garden mums too, but none of them are blooming yet. They seem a little late to me this year, but I’m starting to see color on the buds. It won’t be long now. Here are a few photos from previous years.
The silvery leaves of Dendranthema pacificum are attractive even when it isn’t in bloom.
You may not consider salvias when planning for fall, but some continue to bloom until a freeze providing nectar for bees. Salvia ‘Mystic Spires Blue’ is one of these, and the bumblebees are constantly sipping nectar from it. Other salvias, like S. vanhouttei, don’t begin to bloom in my climate until late summer, but they are worth the wait. Below, a bumblebee is piercing the bloom to rob nectar from the flower because it can’t fit inside the small tubular blooms of S. hyb. ‘Wendy’s Wish.’ The next time you’re in the garden sit very still and try to catch your bumbles doing something similar. It’s fascinating. I learned about nectar robbing from my friend Gail in her post, Nectar Robbers.
I hope this post convinces you next spring to add some plants specifically designed to bloom in the fall. Having a four-season garden is all about planning. If you have holes that need filling, please consider high nectar plants like the ones above for your garden. Your pollinators will thank you by visiting again and again.