The Great Pumpkin: The Inside Scoop

By Melinda Heigel, EMGV

Fall on display at the Durham Farmers’ Market. (Image credit: Melinda Heigel)

Today, October 26, is National Pumpkin Day. This time of year, the pumpkin is ubiquitous–dotting roadside stands, church lawns, farmers’ markets, heaped in huge boxes in grocery store aisles, and of course on many front porches. There’s even a giant pumpkin contest annually at the North Carolina State Fair. A true staple in our cultural landscape, their happy colors advertise the literal fruits of gardeners’ labor during the long summer growing season. In addition to its starring role as the jack o’lantern at month’s end, there’s a lot to discover when it comes to this fall icon.

Impacting Economies and Researching New Cultivars

Pumpkins aren’t just child’s play at Halloween; they occupy an important role in agriculture. Annually, the US produces 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkins. In 2016 the value of North Carolina’s pumpkin crop exceeded 15 million dollars, and the demand for fall pumpkins only continues to increase. In 2017, North Carolina was the fourth largest pumpkin grower in the nation. Pumpkins tend to grow best in the higher elevations of western North Carolina where the soils and climate lessen disease pressures and equal more robust harvests. Research institutions like North Carolina State University (NCSU) and University of Tennessee perform trials to test new cultigens of pumpkins based on yield, disease resistance, size, and traits like color, shape, handle characteristics (that’s the stem or, in botanical terms, the penducle— the plant part that connects the pumpkin to the vine). Since pumpkins are a growing business, you may be surprised at all the selections available now compared to the “old-fashioned” orange pumpkins many of us recall from childhood. The traditional orange look (even with new and emerging cultivars in that category) is still the favorite, comprising 80 – 90% of the market, and 10-20% are known as “heirloom” pumpkins, although new varieties are constantly being bread. Jonathan Schultheis, a professor and Extension specialist in the Department of Horticultural Science at NCSU, says when it comes to pumpkins, consumers are drawn to “the weirder the better.” 1

(Left to right) “Traditional-style” pumpkins at a local roadside market in Boone, NC. Finding the next popular pumpkin. Pumpkins in joint variety trial conducted by North Carolina State University and University of Tennessee include ‘Blue Doll,’ ‘Warty Gnome,’ ‘Silver Moon,’ and ‘Warty Goblin.’ (Image credit: Melinda Heigel and “2019 North Carolina and Tennessee Pumpkin Cultigen Evaluations,” Schultheis, et al.)

“Squashing” Myths and Discovering Origins

With all this talk about new pumpkins, is there a true traditional variety? The word pumpkin is a catch-all term which includes many types of winter squash that are members of the genus Curcubita (in the same Cucurbitaceae family as melons, yellow summer squash, zucchini, and cucumbers). The large orange pumpkin types are generally the species C. pepo and are bred more for their appearance than their taste. Some folks define a pumpkin by its orange color alone. Other winter squash like C. moschata and C. maxima can be commonly called pumpkins, too. Don’t be fooled though; the canned product we all buy in the grocery store for making Thanksgiving pumpkin pie is is C. moschata, and usually is identified as a species of winter squash more like butternut or acorn squash types. If you prefer to cook your own pumpkin, choose one that you will find labeled as a pie pumpkin or sugar pumpkin. These tend to be milder and sweeter in taste. These tend to range between 6 and 8 pounds.

As evidenced through archeological research, pumpkins and winter squash are native to the Americas, including what is now the southwestern area of the US to as far south as Colombia. Researchers report that Native Americans began cultivating these as early as 3500 B.C. and ate the fruit and seeds. They also used dried pieces of rind and fruit to weave utilitarian items such as mats. Pumpkins played an important role in indigenous farming practices, as well. Well before Europeans came to the Americas, native peoples employed the “Three Sisters” method, which is a sustainable practice that promotes long-term soil health and increased yield through companion planting with corns, beans, and pumpkins. Each “sister” had an important job in this trio: corn providing a natural trellis for the beans to climb, beans fixing nitrogen in the soil to increase future soil fertility and providing support to the corn, and pumpkin and squash vines providing a living green mulch for the corn and beans slowing water evaporation and suppressing weed competition.

Two planting diagrams of Native American “Three Sisters” planting technique. (Image credit: Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cornell Garden-Based Learning)

This October, as you are shopping for that perfect pumpkin, remember that you might be buying a hot new variety that has emerged from highly technical breeding and research while at the same time also honoring one of our most traditional native crops.




Resources and Additional Information

To go into depth on the research of new pumpkin cultigens, visit North Carolina State University’s 2019 website for variety trials.

For more information on how to grow your own pumpkins and winter squash, Clemson University’s Home and Garden Information Center offers a comprehensive online factsheet.

Explore the history of the pumpkin with University of Missouri’s site and learn about the legendary tale that inspired jack o’ lantern, pumpkin facts, and more about pumpkin growing in your home garden. (Note: Some sources, such as this one, list the C. maxima not the C. pepo as the most well-known orange pumpkin.)

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Best Practices: Planting Trees and Shrubs

Without question, October is THE time to plant woody ornamentals, and that makes Andrea Laine’s former post from 2017 a must-read for gardeners. If you want to enhance your landscape with trees and shrubs, do yourself and your plants a favor and plant now! Andrea shares her top 5 tips for success. Plus we’ve added some new resources below.


by Andrea Laine, EMGV

Late fall is a great time of year to plant trees and shrubs. The timing enables roots to grow into the surrounding soil before stress due to new foliage growth and high temperatures occurs.

Follow these five best practices to give your new trees and shrubs the best start possible.

(1) Test the soil. For best long-term results, test the soil in the area where you intend to plant and follow the advice in the soil report you receive from Agronomic Services.* Soil sample supplies may be picked up from the Cooperative Extension Office at 721 Foster Street in Durham. The master gardener on duty or extension office staff can help you understand how to complete the sample and paperwork.

(2) Purchase smaller plants. Smaller-sized plants adjust to transplanting better than larger ones. I also favor smaller trees and shrubs because they require smaller holes be dug, are less expensive, and I get a kick out of watching them grow.

This newly planted Camellia sasanqua ‘Yuletide’ (foreground) was purchased in a 1 gallon container. Someday it will be 10 feet tall with a narrow upright growth habit. Much sooner, perhaps even this season, its red blooms will grace my landscape.  I mark my new plantings with an orange flag to help protect them from being trampled by non-gardeners.

(3) Dig a wide hole. Most new roots will grow horizontally from the side of the root ball. Give them plenty of room by digging a hole three times the width of the root ball with the sides of the hole sloping toward the bottom. The depth of the hole need only be as deep as the current root ball. Use the soil you dug to make the hole to fill in around the root ball. If your soil is compacted you may choose to add organic matter, such as compost, to aerate it. If so, keep it to a minimum (less than 20 percent) and be sure to mix the compost thoroughly with the existing garden soil. The idea is to improve, not replace, the existing soil.

(4) Loosen the roots. Containers confine plant roots to such a degree that the roots begin to grow in a circle. To help them find their way out of that pattern, make a few vertical cuts around the root ball and gently splay the roots away from the center. I am able to do this with my hands, but I tend to buy smaller plants. Don’t be afraid to use a knife if you need to cut through a larger root system.

(5) Water consistently. Getting a new tree or shrub into the ground does not signal the end of the job! New plantings require more frequent watering than established trees and shrubs. Don’t sabotage your garden’s success by neglecting this important point. For one to two weeks after planting, water daily. For three to 12 weeks after planting, water every two to three days. Thereafter, water weekly until established. Give your plantings extra tender-loving care for one to two years after getting them in the ground. During periods of drought, newer plantings are the ones I make sure to hand water.

A newly planted Fothergilla ‘Mount Airy’ which is suspected to be a cross between Fothergilla ‘Gardenii’ and Fothergilla ‘Major.’ It will mature to 5 feet and was in a one-quart container when purchased. It was also growing a bit sideways so I decided to add a loose stake to encourage more upright growth.

After you have completed all five steps, be patient. It may not seem like your plants are doing much, but they are. During the first year, the roots will be far more active than the parts of the plant that are visible above ground. If you’ve followed the above advice and given them great soil in which to live plus consistent watering for the first two years, they will be grateful and will reward you by growing strong and healthy for years to come.



Resources and Additional Information

For information on tree planting techniques, see Missouri Extension’s factsheet

North Carolina State University has a great website and full video series on tree selection, planting, and care. Click on the video below to view the introduction to the series by Dr. Barb Fair.


For help with planting shrubs the right way, see Clemson University’s factsheet 

Planting Shrubs Correctly

Interested in learning more about planting trees and teaching others how to plant and protect trees in Durham County, NC? Keep Durham Beautiful offers a program in conjunction with Durham County Extension office on how to become a local “tree keeper” volunteer

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Foliar Fungi in the Fall Garden

Understanding and Controlling Powdery Mildew and Fungal Leaf Spot Diseases

by Melinda Heigel, EMGV

Eastern Caesar’s Amanitas (Amanita jacksonii) emerge in a local pine forest. (Image credit: Melinda Heigel)

When most of us hear the word fungi, we instantly think about mushrooms. And while that is indeed the right classification, fungi come in myriad forms, from mushrooms to microscopic molds, and affect the landscape in many ways. There are over 100,000 identified fungal species, and experts estimate there are 5 million or more world-wide. Fungi are amazing and perform some pretty vital tasks. Unlike plants, fungi have no chlorophyll and cannot produce their own food, so they produce enzymes that break down organic matter like plant material and dead animals for energy. Known as saprophytic fungi, this type of fungi play an important role as master decomposers in the soil-food web. And the byproduct of their digestive work is nutrient-rich organic matter that promotes the healthy soil–the kind gardeners covet. By the nature of their parts (specifically threadlike structures called hyphae), some fungi help soil particles bind together which promotes good water penetration of the soil, while also improving the soil’s ability to hold onto precious water, too. Some, like mycorrhizal fungi, invade vegetable, shrub, and plant root systems and work cooperatively with plants to help deliver nutrients from the soil. Other mycorrhizae grow on the surface of roots and are best known for their symbiotic relationship with trees. So these fungi in your soil are natural, beneficial, and wondrous things. They signify healthy living soil.

Mycorrhizal fungi, seen here in what appear to be swollen “knots” on the root structure, help expand plants’ root systems. (Image credit: NCSU Soil and Crop Science News)

But, alas, some types of fungi pose problems for gardeners, as roughly 85% of all plant diseases are fungal. Some of these pathogens can present challenges to our desire for picture-perfect gardens. There are a host of fungal diseases that affect plants differently–cankers, wilts, and galls. But two common and often innocuous fungal diseases gardeners will see in the late summer and fall on leaves are powdery mildew and leaf spot diseases.

Powdery Mildew

Timing and Causes

Late summer to fall is high season for powdery mildew. One major factor in this timing is humidity–something our region knows well. Most fungi need water to thrive, but powdery mildew can get all the moisture it needs from high humidity, aided by cooler nights. These conditions are most favorable to the development of the pathogens’ air borne spores, the means of reproduction. The infection process starts when spores land on leaves. These spores can overwinter in the soil and persist on living or dead infected plant material. So winter temperatures or a hard frost aren’t a slam dunk for eliminating this problem. Fallen leaves and debris allow for overwintering.


Powdery mildew is very common and easily recognizable. There are many different but related fungi that cause powdery mildew, and many plants are susceptible. You’ll often find it on crepe myrtle, zinnias, phlox varieties, and cucurbits like squash and cucumbers, roses, bee balm, and dogwoods. No need to dive into each of them as many are host-specific pathogens. Just know that if the leaves of your annual, perennial, shrub, tree, or even vegetable plant appear to be dusted in white talcum powder or have white or gray spots, as they say, “A fungus is among us.” What you are actually seeing are the hyphae structures of the fungus growing on the leaves. Sometimes, the pathogen initially hangs out on the underside of some hosts’ leaves where it’s cooler. That’s a great place to scout for early infestations. Use a jeweler’s loupe or magnification and look for the start of colonies on lower leaves where the problem often begins. Sometimes you will find discoloration on the tops of the leaves (yellow or purple spots) prior to the powdery spotting spreading to all the leaves.

Leaf Spot Diseases

Timing and Causes

Just like powdery mildew, the fungi that cause leaf spot diseases rely on moisture. Generally initial infections begin unbeknownst to the gardener in the spring and often become most evident with wet weather and/or the start of fall. There are numerous fungal pathogens that cause leaf spot on plants including those found in the genera Cercospora, Alternaria, Anthracnose, Corynespora, Cylindrocladium, Cylindrosporium, Fabraea, Marssonina, Phyllosticta, Pleospora, and Septoria–just to name just a few. Some are equal-opportunity ‘infectors’ and can affect many types of plants while others only target one particular plant. The organisms responsible for these diseases survive on infected leaves and twigs that have fallen to the ground and can become soil-bound. Easily spread by wind and water that splashes up onto new growth, the reproductive fungal spores germinate, these leaves become impacted, and the cycle begins again.


Leaf spot diseases pretty much look like their name suggests: they are concentric spotty lesions on leaves. Typically they have light brown centers ringed with darker borders, ranging from dark brown to black. If you’ve ever heard of the term blight, that’s simply what happens when there are so many lesions close together that unite and cause a large dead patch on leaves. Often leaf spot diseases are found on ornamental shrubs like acuba, mountain laurel, hydrangea, rhododendron, roses, and peonies. Many other plants like trees and vegetables are also susceptible.

Control and Mitigation

While there are scores of fungicides on the market that gardeners might be tempted to employ to address foliar fungi, the good news is that’s probably not necessary in the home garden. Unless you have a high-value plant, like a long-lived cutting from your grandfather’s garden, using chemicals is generally not necessary.1 Gardeners can control both these fungal pathogens surprising well with some simple cultural and mechanical practices instead of chemical ones, two pillars of integrated pest management (IPM). 2 Here are a few tips to keep in mind.

(1) Plant and prune to ensure good air flow. When pants, shrubs, vegetables, and trees are planted too close together or the plant itself is too dense, this creates a perfect environment for the introduction of diseases as well as insects. Plants in these environments become stressed, have to fight for water, and become more susceptible to infection. Likewise good air circulation speeds up drying and that helps reduce excessive moisture on leaves. Proper spacing and especially with vegetables, trellising and staking, will help keep lower leaves from touching the soil where these fungal pathogens live.

(2) Buy healthy plants that are disease free and choose disease-resistant cultivars. Some plants are more susceptible than others to powdery mildew and leaf spot diseases. Do your research and rely on plant pros at your local nursery for guidance. Clemson University’s Home and Garden Center has great list of ornamental cultivars that are resistant to powdery mildew:

Plant Varieties Resistant to Powdery Mildew

Species Resistant Cultivars
Kousa dogwood, Cornus kousa‘Milky Way’, ‘Milky Way Select’, ‘National’
Cornus florida x kousa hybrids‘Aurora’, ‘Constellation’, ‘Celestial’, ‘Stellar Pink’
Flowering dogwood, Cornus florida‘Cherokee Brave’, ‘Springtime’, ‘Pygmy’, ‘Jean’s Appalachian Snow’, ‘Karen’s Appalachian Blush’, ‘Kay’s Appalachian Mist’
Crepe Myrtle: The Lagerstroemia indica x faurieri hybrids‘Apalachee’, ‘Fantasy’, ‘Hopi’, ‘Miami’, ‘Osage’, ‘Tonto’, ‘Tuscarora’, ‘Tuskegee’, ‘Wichita’, ‘Acoma’, ‘Sioux’, ‘Natchez’
Phlox‘David’, ‘Delta Snow’, ‘Natascha’, ‘Robert Poore’, ‘Shortwood’, ‘Katherine’, ‘Glamour Girl’
ZinniaPulcino and African varieties, Zinnia angustifolia, Profusion Cherry, Profusion Orange
Hybrid Tea Rose‘Duet’, ‘Eiffel Tower’, ‘Grand Slam’, ‘Mister Lincoln’, ‘Tiffany’, ‘Jamaica’, ‘Matterhorn’
Floribunda Rose‘Golden Slipper’
Grandiflora Rose‘Camelot’, ‘Queen Elizabeth’, ‘John S. Armstrong’, ‘Pink Parfait’
Rugosa Rose‘Rugosa Alba’, ‘Blanc Double de Coubert’, ‘Fru Dagmar Hastrup’, ‘Topez Jewel’, ‘Alba’, ‘Alba Semi-Plena’
Monarda‘Marshall’s Delight’, ‘Cambridge Scarlet’

(3) Keep it tidy. Gather all fallen leaves in the fall and once more in the spring (when the disease cycle starts again). This helps reduce the number of spores that are in the soil. If you notice some early infected leaves, remove them to increase control. You can also prune out any infected parts of the plant as well. Clean your pruners well afterward and remove and dispose of the infected plant parts in a plastic bag. Also, keeping plants mulched helps as this can keep spores from splashing up onto your plants during rainfall.

(4) Keep plants happy. Proper pruning, watering, weeding, light conditions, and healthy soil (fertilizing based on soil test results) are all important factors for vigorous plants. An added bonus is that healthy plants are often less susceptible to disease and, if infected, can bounce back.

(5) Avoid overhead watering. For both these pathogens, excessive moisture encourages infection. If at all possible, water plants at the soil line and keep the leaves dry. Drip irrigation is great for this. If you must irrigate overhead, try reducing the frequency and do it very early in the day so the leaves and stems have plenty of time to dry.

(6) Rotating crops. For the home vegetable gardener, crop rotation matters when thinking about fungal pathogens, especially leaf spot diseases. Many fungal diseases attack vegetables within the same family (such as Mustards (Barsssicaceae) like kale and collards or Nightshades (Solanaceae) like tomatoes and peppers). In addition to planting disease-resistant cultivars, moving crops to different locations in the garden helps to alleviate the build up of family-specific fungal pathogens in the soil.

Powdery mildew and leaf spot diseases are easy to spot in your landscape. As you tend your garden this fall, hopefully these simple measures can pay off in the spring to keep these fungi at bay.



1–If considering the use of fungicides, proper identification of the pathogen and strict adherence to label instructions are musts. Chemical controls typically need to be applied prior to the first sign of infection and followed-up with a disciplined treatment regime to be effective. It’s always good practice to consult the NC Agricultural Chemicals Manual first (

2–Integrated pest management is a method of controlling pests like these two fungal pathogens. The main idea is that multiple forms of mitigation (cultural, mechanical, biological, and chemical) work best when performed in concert.

Resources and Additional Information

Did you know? North Carolina State University has a Plant Disease and Insect Clinic that works in conjunction with local extension offices to help home gardeners diagnose plant problems. To learn more and how to submit questions, see their website

For more information about soil fungi, this USDA site offers a good overview

Clemson University’s Home and Garden Information Center has a thorough factsheet on powdery mildew

University of Maryland Extension’s website talks in depth about fungi and shrubs

Check out Missouri Botanical Garden’s excellent piece on leaf spot diseases for the home gardener

North Carolina State University has a comprehensive vegetable pathology

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October To Do in the Garden

By Gary Crispell, EMGV

Bold colors and striking flowers of the tough-as-nails marigolds (Tagetes sp.) in the fall ACG. (Image credit: Gary Crispell)

I reckon we have seen the last of September and quite possibly the last of the 90-degree days.  So, I have mixed feelings about all that.  Being a devotee of the ancient Egyptian god, Ra, I rather like a temperature in the nineties.  Being a gardener, I prefer a little more rain a lot more regularly.  Camelot anyone? 

The Accidental Cottage Garden (ACG) would agree with the more rain more often thing.  It is sadder than “normal” (which is currently undergoing a redefinition).  Most of the perennials have given up and gone into early hibernation.  The only three left are the oft mentioned Chrysanthemum x ‘-Don’t-Have-A-Clue,’ hardy ageratum or blue mist flower (Conoclinium coelestinum or Eupatorium coelestinum–take your pick), and gallardia (Gallardia pulchella).  The marigolds (Tagetes x hybrid) and zinnias (Zinnia elegans ‘Canary’) have come back after some rain and much needed dead heading. The dependable sedum (Hylotelephium ‘Herbstfreude’ AUTUMN JOY) is showing off with deep red blooms. And that’s all, folks.

Despite the dry conditions, fall bloomers like (top left to right) chrysanthemum, hardy ageratum, and (bottom) sedum in the ACG continue to brighten up the place. (Image credit: Gary Crispell)

The gardening season starts to wind down in October unless you are doing some extensive landscaping.  So, here’s the list of stuff to keep you off the streets for another month.


Keep leaves from accumulating on newly seeded or overseeded lawns.

Keep those same lawns moist until germination then be sure they get 1” of water per week, ½” per watering.

Continue mowing cool season lawns (fescue, bluegrass, perennial rye) at 3 ½” to 4”.


We are essentially done here except for spring-flowering bulbs (daffodils, tulips, crocuses, etc.).  Incorporate a little balanced fertilizer (10-10-10 or equivalent) into the soil in and around the planting hole.

Store leftover fertilizer in a dry place for the winter.


FALL IS FOR PLANTING!  It’s the truth in this part of the world.  It is especially true for containerized and B&B (balled and burlapped) nursery material (trees and shrubs).  Planting them now gives them the opportunity to grow sufficient roots to withstand our now inevitable summer dry spells.

Want some color through the winter?  Think pansies.  This hardy member of the Viola genus will cheerily grace your yard with an almost endless display of delightful color throughout the winter.  The sooner you plant them the more able they will be to survive the coldest North Carolina nights.  One caveat; deer find them irresistible.  They’re like dessert after a hearty meal of azaleas.

Spring-flowering bulbs should be planted this month.  They need a period of cold before sprouting.

Peonies can be planted/transplanted now.

 If you are not planting a fall veggie garden, consider planting a cover crop such as red clover (Trifolium pratense) or winter rye (Secale cereale).  These plants are nitrogen-fixing (They add nitrogen to the soil) and can be tilled in in the spring.  Win, win, win.

Do you have a cold frame?  Now is the ideal time to plant a salad garden to keep you in greens all winter.  Leaf lettuces, green onions, spinach, radishes & carrots will keep you eating healthy ‘til spring.


Wait until after a killer frost (which used to come in October, but may no longer arrive until November).  Climate change.  Adapt or find a good therapist. 

After said frost it will be time to finish cleaning out the perennial garden.  Cut them back to an appropriate height which may be all the way to the ground.  Some plants have a “best” height and sometimes you get to decide (or guess).

Root prune any shrubs or trees that you want to move in the spring.


Hopefully by now most of the pests have gone into overwinter mode.  There are a couple that you can still do battle with.  Lace bugs, especially on azaleas and pyracantha, can be active all winter whenever the leaf surface temperature suits them.  The other treatable pests are the scale insects found most often on euonymus and camellias, though they will occasionally find other plants to their liking.  I had some on a Japanese maple (Acer palmatum) in a previous garden.  Both of these pests can be treated with a horticultural oil that will smother all the stages of their life cycle.


Are you starting new plants from cuttings?  Be sure to check them at least twice a month for overall health and vigor.  Water as needed.  (That’s PRN for the medical gardeners out there.)

If you are one of the fortunate few with a rhubarb patch now is a good time to divide the plants.  It really prefers colder climes than USDA Zone 7.  Rhubarb is a favorite in this house, but ain’t no way we’re movin’ north far enough to grow it.  Been there.  Done that and did NOT get the tee shirt.


Besides snow skiing and outdoor ice hockey, what isn’t appropriate for a delightful October day?  Ok, I’ll limit the list to gardening activities (mostly).

Make a compost pile out of the inevitable leaf collection on your yard.  The landfill doesn’t need them.

GET A FREE SOIL SAMPLE NOW! (For information on soil testing, go to )There is a monetary charge for them between November and April.

Clean and fill bird feeders.

Clean out any unoccupied bird houses to get them ready for winter boarders.

Dig up tender summer-flowering bulbs (gladiolas, dahlias, caladiums, etc.) and store them in a cool dark place where random rodents can’t access them.

Clean and lubricate lawn and garden equipment that won’t be used again until next season.

Go for a hike in the woods.  The Eno River is especially lovely in the fall.

Fire pits and s’mores come to mind.  (I said mostly garden stuff.)

Find some kids and carve pumpkins (around the fire pit with s’mores and hot chocolate).

Enjoy the crispness of October ‘cause it’ll be cold soon.

Happy October, y’all!


Resources and Additional Information

Clemson University’s Home and Information Garden Center’s factsheet on pansies and Johnny jump-ups offers information on planting, care, and variety selection

For a comprehensive look at planting spring-blooming bulbs, see the online version of the The North Carolina Extension Gardener Handbook

Penn State Extension’s “Tips for Planting Cover Crops in Home Gardens” provides a great overview

For tips on how to clean your bird feeders and keep them disease free, consult the link from National Audubon Society

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Specimen Spotlight: Late Bloomers that are Right on Time

By Melinda Heigel, EMGV

Fall has arrived to the cheers of many. And although the crisp air brings with it the promise of brilliantly-colored leaves and happy faces of blotch pansies and Johnny jump-ups, I have a wistful feeling for summer when my garden is most vibrant with bright blooms. Of course there is a season for everything, but to my way of thinking, Mr. Shakespeare summed it up well: “Summer’s lease hath all too short a date.” But not to fret. There are plenty of “late-bloomers” out there that help extend the feel of the summer season just a little bit longer….

Autumn Rain Lily (Zephyranthes candida)

The autumn rain lily Zephyranthes candida shines in mid-September and makes for an impressive landscape when planted en masse. (Image credit: Melinda Heigel)

There are over 70 species of what is commonly referred to as a rain lily from both the Zephyranthes and Habranthus genera, and their bloom times vary. (They get their name from their propensity to bloom in their native habitat after rainfall.) But the white Zephyranthes candida is a late summer and early-fall perennial stunner. The showy star-shaped flowers (1-3″ wide) resemble the crocus. The rain lily’s growing habit is tightly clumping with grass-like leaves that are semi-evergreen in most of the Southeast. This plant is a low grower–excellent for front of the border specimens and fantastic for lining walkways. A native of Uruguay and Argentina, this bulb performs well in Zones 7-10 and is low maintenance, easy to grow, and has no serous pests. While it can tolerate partial shade, full sun is best for optimum flowers. Like all bulbs, well-drained soil is a must. Shielding the plant from hot afternoon sun extends blooming. Plant these bulbs in the spring after danger of frost has passed.

Yellow Autumn Crocus (Sternbergia sp.)

A member of the amaryllis family, yellow autumn crocus (Sternbergia lutea), also know as fall daffodil, is a cheery addition to the fall garden scape. (Image credit, left to right: Melinda Heigel and Nicholas Schwab CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Crocus-looking flowers typically scream spring, but not Sterbergia. There are many species of this bulb, but if you want a fall bloomer, don’t choose spring bloomers Sternbergia vernalis or Sternbergia candida. Other species of Sternbergia1 lend a bright yellow punch to your garden when many summer plants begin to die back and, depending on the weather, bloom through September into early October. Originating in North Africa and Southern Europe, these flowers start out as little yellow cups and open into full 6-petal flowers that are 1-3″ wide atop petite erect stems. The overall plant has a clumping form. Like the rain lily, the grass-like foliage can be a colorful gift to the winter garden as the leaves are semi-evergreen, usually fading in the spring. This perennial easy-grower is hardy in Zones 7 and above and prefers full sun (part-shade means less blooming). In Zones 1-6 gardeners need to take care to provide the right conditions for these bulbs to overwinter. There are no serious pest or pathogen challenges with the autumn crocus, and they are resistant to deer and rabbits. These small gems are great for naturalized areas, tight spaces, walkways, borders and in mass plantings. Gardeners can grow yellow autumn crocus by seed or bulb division. The best time for bulb division (the preferred method) is winter, during the dormancy phase.

White Ginger Lily (Hedychium coronarium)

The intoxicating perfume of the white ginger lily flower is sweet and honeysuckle-like. They are are often found in leis. (Image credit: Melinda Heigel)

Our own monthly “To Do in the Garden” writer, Gary Crispell, talked about his love of his yellow ginger lily plant in our September blog post ( This plant can definitely lend a tropical flair to your late-summer and early-fall garden. Asian in origin, don’t let the name fool you; they aren’t lilies at all but instead are related to the ginger roots. There are many cultivars available in addition to the Hedychium coronarium.2 These plants grow from rhizomes (a structure that is much like what we know as a bulb). These plants have large lance-shaped leaves, white showy flowers, grow in impressive clumps 3-5′ wide, and are up to 6′ tall. Full sun and rich, moist and well-drained soil provide the best growing conditions. Most persist best in Zones 8-10 but there are some that do well to remain in the ground in Zone 7 if planted in a protected location with a heavy layer of mulch for the winter. A perennial in the right conditions, these plants die back to the ground annually. One plus in the late season garden is that the flowers are great at attracting pollinators.

Red Spider Lily (Lycoris Radiata)

Also know as hurricane lilies because they emerge when hurricane season is at its height, the red spider lily is a great bulb to underplant in perennial borders; it fills in just as summer blooms fade. Left, the spider lilies shoot up from the ground, and, right, open to reveal their amazing architectural form. (Image Credit: Melinda Heigel)

Like the rain lily, the red spider lily emerges from a bulb and is part of the amaryllis family. Native to Asia, this plant produces stunning airy blooms that lend great color, structure, and texture to the fall garden in late August and September. Full sun to part shade and well drained soil are a must. Don’t worry if they are slow to develop; sometimes this plant takes its time. The flowers emerge on spikes 12-18″ tall. Only after the blooms fade, do grass-like narrow leaves emerge. Like the other plants above, they can provide some green in the dead of winter. Like most bulbs, don’t cut the foliage back until it yellows in the spring; it’s photosynthesizing for the bulbs’ blooms next year. Plant this bulb in fall and if division is necessary, early spring is the right time to proceed. Spider lilies are cold hardy in Zones 6-10.


1–Other yellow autumn crocus include Sternbergia clasuana, Sternbergia greuterlana, and Sternbergia sicula.

2–Hedychium flavens features a yellow bloom while Hedychium auranticum has salmon-toned flowers.

A note on natives:

While I am featuring non-native plants, there are many wonderful native plants that fruit or bloom in the fall with gorgeous color. These include the American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempenvirens), goldenrod (Solidago spp.), a host of asters (look for genera Symphyotrichum and Eurybia as they are native to North America), New York ironweed (Veronica noveboracensis), and sneezeweed (Helenium autumnale).

Resources and Additional Information

University of Florida’s Extension site provides great information on many types of rain lilies, including propagation techniques

To read more on fall-blooming bulbs, read Illinois Extension’s thorough factsheet

For a closer look at ginger lilies, check out Clemson University’s site below

For more information on planting and care instructions for the red spider lily, click on the video below

VIDEO created by Andy Pulte for “Landscape Plant Identification, Taxonomy and Morphology” a plant identification course offered by the Department of Plant Sciences, University of Tennessee. Note: in the video the spider lily is referred to as a surprise lily, another common name for the plant.

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