2015 Summer Regional Report - Mid-Atlantic
It’s summer and the living is not so easy right now for most of us farmers. The heat and the general exhaustion of the season are starting to wear us down. But it’s so important to keep your eye on the ball right now and prepare for big autumn tasks that will set you up for success in the seasons to come. One of the most important things to do in the fall is plant perennials. Fall-planted perennials typically suffer less transplant shock since the weather is cooler and rainier, and they have a whole winter to put on root growth before the next hot summer.
We plant all our perennials in woven black fabric for easier maintenance and moisture retention. Once they are established, we rarely, if ever, irrigate the perennial plantings. I’m of the mindset that they either sink or swim on their own since I would rather have our irrigation system focused on the annual plantings that really can’t produce well without it, especially in an extra hot and dry year like we are having this year.
If you’re just getting started or want to augment your existing perennial plantings for cutting, here are five that you may not know but that I couldn’t live without. My favorite perennial plug supplier is North Creek Nurseries here in Pennsylvania. They happen to specialize in natives to the U.S., and I love that four of my five favorite perennials are such.
Mountain Mint Pycnanthemum muticum is a native to the Northeast, and produces robust and abundant foliage, equally perfect for market bouquets and bridal bouquets. It gets at least 24” tall (often taller) and has stiff, slender stems that, unlike typical culinary mints, hold up out of water once they’ve been hydrated properly. While it’s tempting to start cutting this foliage earlier in the spring when you’re desperate for filler, it’s best to wait until it matures to the silvery bract stage, when it’s much sturdier. We typically harvest two big flushes of stems during the season, one in late June and one in early September. In between, there are always a few stems to be had to add that special touch to designs. One criticism of mountain mint you may hear is that it spreads readily. We’ve not experienced that, likely because we cut it so much that it doesn’t have extra energy to run. Even if it did, I’d be thrilled! We never have enough!
Blue Mist/Blue Bead Shrub
Caryopteris ‘Longwood Blue’ has been a staple around Love ‘n Fresh Flowers since day one. I discovered this fragrant and refreshing little shrub while working at Longwood Gardens and immediately tested it as a cut. Turns out it’s awesome! The fine gray foliage on its long slender woody stems is perfect as a fluff-er in mixed bouquets. It has a very long vase life. But the delicate, true blue flowers that come at the end of August when everything feels so tired and hot are really the treasures. The flowers should be harvested in bud stage. If they open on the plant too much, they will shatter easily. So you’ll find yourself with a lot of Caryopteris all at once, but it’s never hard to find a way to use it up.
False/Wild Indigo Baptisia australis is another awesome native and one of the hardest-working plants at our farm. In spring, it puts out beautiful flower spikes in shades of yellow or purple. I’m a big fan of the Prairieblues series for its dusky hues. We leave about half the flowers on the plants, though, as we love the green seed pods that form for our June wedding work. Then the rest of the year we’re using the abundant foliage for mixed bouquets and wedding designs alike. The flowers and foliage can be a bit tricky to hydrate, but once they are, they hold for ages in the vase. Harvesting should be done in the early morning, and the flowers and foliage should both be stored in the cooler overnight before being put to use. One criticism of baptisia is that you have to wait at least three years before starting to harvest, but it’s totally worth the wait. Once you have an established patch, you’ll never know how you lived without it.
Joe Pye Weed Eupatorium dubium ‘Little Joe’ is another secret native cut flower rock star. It has a delicate umbel of creamy pink flowers in late summer and autumn that are superb in mixed bouquets and design work alike. The first flush of sturdy straight stems is hip-high, and then it re-blooms throughout the autumn with shorter side shoots. We never seem to have enough even though the patch gently spreads each year. For our purposes, we like the flowers best in bud stage as it’s a bit cleaner looking. If you want a more rustic, wildflower look, let them fully open on the plant before harvesting. And if you weren’t already convinced, Eupatorium is very drought tolerant and a huge butterfly magnet.
Alumroot/Coral Bells Heuchera villosa ‘Autumn Bride’ is always a surprise to anyone who comes to visit the farm and sees that we are growing a big patch of it. While this native’s short stature makes it useful only for design work, we would be lost without it in late spring/early summer when it’s hard to come by good foliage. This particular cultivar is decidedly larger than most Heuchera, and it has a good six-inch stem on a wide leaf. It’s fantastic for designing centerpieces, particularly because the bold broad leaf is a nice contrast to the other finer, delicate textures of spring. In the autumn, this aptly named cultivar sends up beautiful, tall white flower spikes that are great for mixed bouquets or wedding work.