When spring arrives, everything is fast and furious; foliage and flowers emerge and unfold, growing in leaps and bounds like young children who are in the springtime of their lives. Autumn, which arrives this week, lingers; it begins unofficially in August with cooler mornings and the dimming of the sun. Shadows deepen and reflect the structure of the trees; and as the leaves fall, the beauty of the bones of the garden returns. Plenty of work still must be done before the winter rains, but the pace reflects the feeling of the season, slow and intentional — the frenzy is over.
Planting will begin in earnest around the garden while the soil is still warm and the daytime temperatures cool. Despite this change in mood, there are still perennials peaking during this early stretch of autumn.
The long-awaited blooms of Sedum ‘Herbstfreude,’ more commonly known as Sedum ‘Autumn Joy,’ are now in full bloom, with flower heads that reach about 5 to 6 inches in diameter. These giant heads are made up of tiny star-shaped flowers. The flower begins showing in midsummer when creamy pink buds appear. As they open, they take on a cherry-rose color, and now — at the peak of the flowering season — they sport coppery-red hues. Soon they will fade to a mahogany, and the masses of butterflies and other pollinating insects that feast on these flowers will find a place to overwinter or die. The seed heads left to dry are a great food source for birds during the autumn months.
All Sedums are known as stonecrops because they are native to rocky mountain regions in the Northern Hemisphere. There are about 400 species that range in size from ground-hugging to taller varieties such as ‘Autumn Joy,’ which reaches a height of 3 feet. They have succulent leaves, which indicate their ability to withstand drought conditions.
Even though they come from rocky areas, they are very adaptable to the home garden. They thrive in full sun and heat, and they are not fussy about soil type. Since many soils in Contra Costa County are heavy clay, it is best to water infrequently and deeply.
There are other great cultivars of this species, which include Sedum ‘Matrona,’ which has gray leaves and beautiful burgundy stems with pale pink flowers. Growing near the second path in the EBMUD garden is a variegated variety called Sedum alboroseum ‘Frosty Morn.’ That plant’s leaves are edged in chartreuse, which highlights the pale pink flowers.
Sedums are great additions to other fall bloomers, such as Aster cordifolia ‘Little Carlow’ and Perovskia atriplicifolia (Russian Sage).
Sedums make great cut flowers, as they can last for weeks in a vase if the water is changed frequently. Trimming a little of the end each time the water is changed will allow the stem to take in more water. Care for Sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ includes cutting back after blooming. At the Gardens at Heather Farm, we allow seed heads to stay on until late winter, when new growth begins at the base of the plant.
— Patrice Hanlon