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Backyard Wildlife: Plant perennials in September

Bumblebees are among the most important pollinators of crops and wildflowers. Yellow, blue and purple blooms attract them.
Bumblebees are among the most important pollinators of crops and wildflowers. Yellow, blue and purple blooms attract them. SALLY GOUW

As September approaches, many gardeners pay less attention to the outdoors, with plans, perhaps, for planting tulip bulbs or reseeding patches of lawn as the weather turns cool.

Yet, late summer and early fall can be an ideal time to devote some extra energy to a wildlife garden, ensuring that birds, insects, reptiles and small mammals are cared for year-round.

Gardening columnist Nancy Brachey of Charlotte wrote a book in 2001 called “Nancy Brachey’s Piedmont Gardening,” which became my guidepost when I was trying out the nuances of gardening in Raleigh after moving from Nashville, Tenn. Much of her sanity-saving advice remains relevant to me today – particularly bits about getting a strong start on your growing plans by taking a “critical look at the landscape” in the fall and her admonition to replace “problem plants” with something “healthy, the right size and beautiful.” And, I would add, wildlife-friendly.

One benefit of gearing up your gardening duties in the fall is economic. End-of-summer sales at area garden centers tend to offer healthy perennials at bargain prices. That’s because many flowers and woody perennials, including popular native species, don’t look their best as fall approaches. Exhibiting signs of a natural dormancy period, many plants will be passed over by appearance-minded shoppers, resulting in bargains now and rewards come spring.

Grant Parkin, a natural science educator at the N.C. Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, says most native plants benefit from fall planting.

“By planting in September or October, you are giving plants a chance to establish a good root system by spring,” Parkin says. “That way they will be able to withstand the 90-degree temperatures and dryer conditions of summer.”

So in between the bulb planting and grass seeding, it pays to find time to pick up and plant a few new perennials to replace non-native plants or fill in empty spots in your wildlife garden.

Among species Parkin recommends for fall planting in the Triangle is Joe-Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum), whose late-blooming pinkish flowers are magnets for pollinators including butterflies and bees.

A reliable spring bloomer is the Serviceberry (Amelanchier), a woody perennial whose April flowers attract pollinators. Its early to midsummer fruit is enjoyed by birds and many other animals.

As for fall-bloomers, Parkin recommends Purple aster ( Aster patens) or Goldenrod ( Solidago), both easy to find in the Piedmont region.

If you are interested in attracting specific types of wildlife – bees, for example, or hummingbirds – you may want to consider these tips from Parkin for choosing new plants. Look for tube-shaped red flowers if you want hummingbirds to flock. Butterflies prefer reds and oranges, and bees are particularly attracted to yellow, blue and purple.

“Variety is key – the more different things you can have, the better,” Parkin says.

More resources

To see, learn more about or buy some of these native plants, visit the N.C. Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill’s annual plant sale, which is open to the public from 9 a.m. to noon Sept. 27, Parkin says.

The N.C. Agricultural Extension Service offers an extensive list of wildlife-friendly plants in its online publication Landscaping for Wildlife with Native Plants. (Find it at http://tinyurl.com/l9g6udb.) The American beautyberry (Callicarpa Americana) and strawberry bush (Euonymous Americanus), as well as Catawba rhododendron (Rhododendron catawbiense) are among the common species recommended for wildlife habitats, providing animals winter cover, producing fruits, nuts and seeds, creating nectar for insects, and/or offering host sites for butterfly larvae.

Another fun source is an app called BeeSmart Pollinator Gardener. After downloading the application to your smart phone, just type in your ZIP code to get a list of generally available plants known to attract pollinators and thrive in your neck of the woods.

By submitting my west Raleigh ZIP code, I get a varied list of suggestions that includes blue wild indigo (Baptisia australis), bashful wakerobin (Trillium catesbaei), evening trumpetflower or Carolina jasmine (Gelsemium sempervirens) and lobed tickseed (Coreopsis auriculata).

This app also lets you sort by the type of pollinator you hope to attract: bees and wasps, butterflies and moths, hummingbirds, etc.

So as summer’s chores begin winding down, go ahead and flip your gardening calendar over and start digging deeper into the wonderful world of backyard wildlife.

Elder: wildlifechatter@gmail.com