Hot Colors for Fall
by Barbara Blossom Ashmun (barbarablossom(at)earthlink.net
This fall I have terrific colors in my garden thanks to nature's caprice, my teenage neighbor Gavin Younie, paper Dixie cups, and chicken manure. All of these special ingredients began simmering months ago, and culminated in a fiery fall display. Burgundy-leaved castor beans with bright red flowers, orange, mahogany and yellow sunflowers, and a shrubby black-eyed-susan (Rudbeckia triloba) fill my garden with hot color.
I can only guess that the coneflower made its way to the back yard from the side yard, where it grew against the garage last year. Seeds might have blown around in an autumn wind, or traveled on the cat's fur. For all I know the birds did it. The only thing I can tell you for sure is that I never planted that five-foot tall coneflower smack in the front of the border. The only credit I can take is for not weeding it out. When I first spotted its leaves last spring, I wasn¹t quite sure what it would turn out to be, but it looked more interesting than a dandelion, so I left it alone.
It grew and grew, until I recognized it, and thought, oh no, it¹s going to be too tall for the front of a bed. Wrong. It turned out to be wonderful. Unconventional, perhaps, but its size pairs up perfectly with three tall red-leafed castor beans standing about eight feet away. The coneflower's mustard yellow blooms are a good match for the castor beans' intense red flowers and seed pods. I couldn't have planned it better if I had tried!
I never would have had the coneflower without help from nature. And I wouldn't have had my red-leafed castor beans without a hand from my teenage neighbor, Gavin. One day last spring, he was over checking out the garden to see what was coming up. I was up to my ears in weeds, and bemoaning the shortage of time.
"I'll never get around to planting those castor beans," I complained. "I love them, but I just don¹t have the time to get them into pots."
"I'll start them for you, Barbara," he offered. "It's easy. Just let me have a flat and some potting soil."
We went to the shed and gathered up the materials. A few weeks later, Gavin returned with a flat of castor bean seedlings. What a gift! I watered them with liquid fertilizer, repotted them into individual pots and let them grow up a little more before I planted them out in the garden.
Meanwhile, I had started my sunflowers indoors under lights in paper Dixie cups. Sunflowers aren't crazy about being transplanted, and its easier to carefully peel away the Dixie cup from a seedling without disturbing it than it is to knock it out of a plastic pot. Last year my sunflowers had been disappointing--too leggy and short on flowers, so this year I was determined to make them happy. I figured that since chicken manure had made my roses thrive, it would also boost the sunflowers and the castor beans.
Before I planted these choice annuals, I dug big holes and amended the soil with plenty of manure. I carefully settled the new seedlings into their nourishing homes and built little twig fences around them to keep the cats out, and stop myself from inadvertently stepping on them while weeding. Then I squirted some liquid slug bait around the vulnerable foliage--one bite and those babies would be gone. I fussed a lot to protect my seedlings from danger, but it was all worth it this summer and fall.
Every day I look out on sunflowers as glorious as Van Gogh's. Just beyond their yellow, red-orange and deep burgundy flowers, wine-leaved castor beans full of red flowers, and the yellow black-eyed-susans keep the fire burning. Gavin did his part, mother nature did hers, and I did mine--what a great team.
About the Author
Barbara Blossom Ashmun, author of 'The Garden Design Primer' and '200 Tips for Growing Beautiful Perennials,' gardens, teaches and consults in Portland, Oregon.