‘Golden Autumn’ days Sunflowers make perfect late-bloomers for garden
Looking for good deer-resistant late-blooming perennials? Just as the sunlight softens in fall, two dynamic sunflowers begin their display.
The first sunflower was introduced to me by Harry Stowe, one of Nevada County’s foremost flower growers, whom I first met in the early days of organizing the Growers’ Market.
Harry was an influential member of the steering committee for the market, and a regular grower at the market for many years. His stall was always among the most colorful and intriguing as he brought his garden to share, offering vegetables, plants, and a seemingly endless supply of cut flowers.
Harry was in his late 80s when he pulled into my driveway one beautiful spring day, a box of Helianthus maximilianii in the back of his truck. “You don’t have this, and you should,” he stated simply. It was true, but how did he know that? His own garden was 15 miles away, and he had not visited mine in years. He placed the box of slightly wilted plants (April really isn’t a good time to be digging up perennials) in the middle of the driveway, and with a smile drove back to his own garden, where I am certain there was much to be done.
Harry’s sunflower, as it came to be known in my garden, spread happily (even aggressively) in my good garden soil. Its attractive gray-green foliage is beautiful in the herbaceous border. Strong stalks hold multiple leaves, 8 to 10 inches in length, giving the effect of lush foliage. And the deer never browse on it.
As summer ends, those stalks lengthen and soon a tight cluster of buds forms at the end of each stalk. By September, golden sunflowers brighten the garden, the 3 to 4-inch flowers continuing to open in October.
Also in October, another deer-resistant Helianthus gives a spectacular show of gold for several weeks. Helianthus angustifolius is difficult to find in nurseries and not even listed in my copy (2001) of the Sunset Western Garden Book. Very easy to propagate from cuttings, if you know someone who is growing this lovely perennial, take a vegetative cutting next spring or early summer when the plants are 2 to 3 feet tall.
This sunflower is not a spreader, but each year, the plant will increase in size. At maturity Helianthus angustifolius will have a crown of 2 to 3 feet. This is another beauty during the growing season, its very strong upright stalks covered with dark-green narrow leaves. Toward the end of summer, the stalks lengthen and begin to arch.
At blooming stage a mature plant may take up to five feet of space in the border, and while that may sound like a lot, it’s worth it for the glorious display of golden sunflowers. In Penn Valley, where the deer test gardeners’ patience, this perennial stops traffic when it blooms!
Sunflowers love the sun, and because both of these bloom so late in the season, plant them where the fall sun will be the strongest for best bloom. Good soil, with plenty of compost, colloidal phosphate, and oyster shell are essential for best performance, and irrigation should be a deep soaking once a week during most of the growing season.
If this is too much gold for you (some gardeners really don’t like the “hot” colors), try the late-blooming bluebeard (Caryopteris incana) or hardy plumbago (Ceratostigma willmottianum), both deer-resistant perennials with blue flowers. Or grow them all, and join in the fall spirit with a mix of blue and gold!
Carolyn Singer is the author of “Deer in My Garden, Vol. 1: Perennials & Subshrubs,” a guide to the selection, care, and landscape use of deer-resistant perennials. She has been gardening in the foothills for 29 years.
Free public workshops
UC Master Gardeners NID Demonstration Garden- Rain or shine
“Working with CA Native Plants,” 9:30-11:30 a.m.
“Winter Composting,” noon-1 p.m.
“Winter Maintenance & Winterizing Your Garden,” 10 a.m. to noon
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