Written By Gayle Fisher
I’m still waiting for the autumn rains. We have had some cooler nights, but the lack of rain has me depressed. I have stopped walking through the yard since every plant needs a drink of water. I do have a few plants that still look okay: Cosmos, Golden Rod and Sedum.
Sedum should be on everyone’s list that needs a tough and drought tolerant perennial. Sedums, also called Stonecrops, have fleshy leaves that are oval and somewhat flattened. This family has only a handful of plants tall enough for use as a bed or border plant. The majority of these succulents are low-growing ground covers that are perfect for rock gardens. The reason that this plant survived this dry summer is that succulents are members of the cactus family, and as the name implies, it has thick, fleshy tissue for storing water. This is a tried and true perennial, so your mother, grandmother or garden center will be able to show you this hardy plant.
The best-known sedum for borders is ‘Autumn Joy,’ a hybrid also sold as ‘Herbsfreude.’ This plant gives us three seasons of interest in the garden. In summer, the gray green foliage produces a two-foot tall and two-foot wide clump. Late summer, it will produce a broccoli-like cluster of flower buds that open in the fall. The flowers start out as pale green buds, open to dark pink and gradually age to bronze. I leave mine holding their red-brown, eight-inch-wide heads until early spring. They dry perfectly in place so that you can enjoy their color all winter, even peeking through the snow. Then in the early spring, I cut the flowers and foliage back to the ground.
The best time to plant tall sedum is in the spring. Space the clumps about two feet apart; you can plant them closer if you want them to fill in quickly. I had a single clump of ‘Autumn Joy’ given to me. After it became established, I continued dividing it until I now have an entire bank that welcomes fall each year. Sedum likes full sun and well-drained soil. They can also make it in dry, poor, soil but cannot adapt to a wet spot. The wet ground tends to rot the crown or the roots. A dark, shady spot will also kill this plant.
Sedums are ideal for the low maintenance landscape. Once established, their water needs are minimal. They don’t require an annual feeding or staking. Pests or disease do not trouble them. A little mulch will help with the weeds, but it isn’t necessary for sedum to thrive. Dig and divide the clumps if they outgrow their space, but otherwise they don’t need regular division. Propagation is easily achieved either by division or cuttings. Divide the clumps in the spring or fall, or take cuttings anytime that the plants are not in flower. They will root easily in a 50-50 mix of perlite and vermiculite (Potting soil available at local stores).
You can combine late blooming sedum with other fall blooming perennials such as asters, coneflower and ornamental grasses. All of these plants are basically undemanding and are ideal for a low-maintenance landscape.
As I stated earlier, sedum ‘Autumn Joy’ is carefree except for the one that grew in my late mothers’ yard. She had a large clump beside the front porch of my childhood home. Disease and insects were not a problem, but children and dogs were. The location must have been cool, because she forever had to run a dog out after it had dug a bed and broken part of the stems off. This plant does break easily. Another problem she encountered was that we liked to jump off the end of the porch across the top of the sedum plants. Unfortunately, some of us were poor jumpers, and she lost parts of the sedum to a child’s butt. The last peril that the sedum faced was that grandpa showed us how to make a frog tongue from the leaves. You break off a leaf, bruise it carefully with your fingers without breaking the top membrane, then you can stick your tongue inside and blow, and you have created a frog tongue. If you penetrated the membrane, you had to start over, which used up even more of her leaves. When childhood friends came to visit, they had to be instructed in this frog-tongue art. Even with these extra adversities, Mom’s Autumn Joy sedum continues to perform today.