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Wednesday, Sep. 9th 2015

September Sedum


September. Time for crisp, cool Fall evenings. Leaves will start to fall soon, though the grass is still green. Pumpkins are on the horizon. Halloween and Thanksgiving are not far away. September is one of my favorite months, for many reasons. In particular, September is the month for sedum to shine.

I’m a huge fan of succulent plants. These are plants that thrive in low moisture environments by storing water in their leaves and stems. This means they prefer neglect as their method of care (Yay!). Until recently, they were reserved for niche collectors and were rather difficult to locate. Lately, they have become mainstream and are easily available, even at the grocery store.

In fact, I have no less than six books on my shelf related to succulents: Hardy Succulents (Kelaidis), Succulents for the Contemporary Garden (Cave), Succulents Simplified (Baldwin), Succulent Container Gardens (Baldwin), Cactus and Succulents: A Care Manual (Mace) and Crazy About Cacti and Succulents (Brooklyn Botanic Garden). Most people think primarily of barrel cacti when they consider succulents, but there are so many more forms available for the home gardener! Many can handle snow and all can handle heat and drought. Most prefer full sun.    

Fall, however, brings the showy border sedum varieties into full beauty. As perennials, they die back to the ground in the winter, but emerge in the spring with the daffodils as little round tuffets of fleshy, blue-green, basal plant growth. Left alone without any additional water, Sedum spectabile and Sedum telephium will grow 28 to 36 inches tall.  Their lovely inflorescences (often more than 5 inches across) are open for weeks—maybe even the whole month. Usually pink or coppery in color, they attract a great variety of pollinators (butterflies, honeybees, etc.) to the late season garden. For those of you interested in sustaining the honeybee population, this is an excellent plant to cultivate for the last little bit of nectar before winter sets in.

You’re probably most familiar with Sedum ‘Autumn Joy.’  This cultivar was introduced in 1955 and continues to be relatively maintenance free. “Relatively” because if the plants get too much water (as was the case this year), they can be overcome by their own weight resulting in lodging (flopping) to the side. This can be disappointing. I planted ‘Autumn Fire’ in my home landscape with the understanding that it was supposed to be less likely to lodge. It, sadly, was not in my well-watered yard. However, a little maintenance can help the plants stand up under the weight of their flowers. It’s scary, I know, but you’ve got to cut them at the base at least once between May and June (hedge shears or hand pruners work great for this task). I’ve been experimenting with this in my yard. They were truly glorious the first year, except for the few plants that lodged. So, the second year I cut them back to about six inches once in May. They still flopped. The year after I tried cutting them to the ground once. It was better. This year I cut them back to the ground twice (beginning of May and end of June) and they’ve stayed a tidy 15 inches tall with no lodging. The idea behind this is that by cutting the stems there are more branches supporting a greater number of smaller inflorescences. Spread out the work of flowering over more stems. The volume of flower show is the same, but the distribution is slightly different.

Meanwhile, my neighbor down the street does no maintenance and his sedum look fine. The only difference, I think, is neglect. I have got to do more of that!

So, I’ve been admiring other sedum varieties lately. Some are statelier in stature with fewer, but sturdier stems. Others are lower to the ground, serving as groundcovers. I like them all and I keep loving all the new cultivars that are released every year. They’re kinda like Lay’s potato chips: You can’t just plant one.

I haven’t decided if I like the short height of my sedum plants this year or prefer to let them get taller. I think I’ll probably lean toward cutting once (at the base) and living with a little lodging if it happens. Or, maybe just water less.  How about that? Ultimately, I enjoy them enough to keep playing with the maintenance. I take pleasure in gardening and all the tasks that come with it so I’ll keep tinkering. Fortunately, sedum is one of the few plants that can thrive with either neglect or love. Can’t argue with that.

(Cheryl Boyer)

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University of Missouri Extension Master Gardener Program