The Flutter of Fall by Patty G. Leander

So long, mosquitoes! One of the reasons that fall gardening is such a wonderful season is because {most} pests tend to quietly fade away this time of year, and the one I am happiest to see go is the mosquito. It’s hard to think of anything that sucks the joy out of being outside more than a single, determined mosquito. Good riddance. I hope their annoying buzz and bite is waning in your outdoor environment as well.


Butterflies love Gregg’s mistflower (left) and tithonias (right).

As the mosquitoes retreat the butterflies arrive in throngs, fluttering gracefully among the flora. We’ve been enjoying the queens and monarchs while they’ve been enjoying the bright orange tithonias in my garden. I highly recommend planting tithonias next year; they are easy to grow from seed and tolerate hot and dry conditions. A good match for summer in Texas!


Butterflies are drawn to the vivid orange blooms of tithonias.

I planted mine in the vegetable garden in late March, between some pole beans and peppers, and they bloomed all summer, growing even taller than the 6’ trellis nearby. They outgrew their space and I had to pull them up in early September to prepare for fall planting; with no effort on my part they reseeded and the resulting plants burst into blooms a few weeks ago. They will bloom until frost, providing a bright accent in the garden, nectar for the butterflies and cut flowers for the house.

Schoolhouse lilies appear like magic in early fall, reminding us that school is once again in session.

Schoolhouse lilies appear like magic in early fall, reminding us that school is once again in session.

Another enjoyable aspect of fall is the seasonal color in the landscape. Just as wildflowers herald spring there are certain plants that announce the arrival of fall in Texas. Year after year, schoolhouse lilies, also known as Oxblood lilies, dutifully pop up, usually sometime in September, along with fall asters, Maximilian sunflowers, Mexican mint marigold and native ornamental grasses.


Fall aster and Maximilian sunflowers harmonize in the garden while gulf muhly shows off its spectacular purple plumes.

The rhythm, color and seasonality of plants is amazing and people who say that Texas only has two seasons – green and brown – just aren’t paying enough attention.


Big Muhly grass frames a yellow spray of Maximilian sunflowers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Ornamental grasses look their best in fall but not all grasses are native to Texas. There is one type of non-native grass in particular that I have noticed everywhere this year along roadways, medians, fields and even in my own backyard.

It’s called KR bluestem, a clumping grass native to Europe and Asia that was found growing on the King Ranch in the early 1900s. For years it was incorporated into seed mixes that were used for soil erosion and forage, but it outgrew its usefulness when it started “messing with Texas”, spreading to unwanted areas and threatening to overtake wildflowers and other native species.


KR Bluestem, a non-native invasive weed, growing along Mopac near Davis Lane in southwest Austin.

If you find this grass in your landscape don’t let it go to seed. Mow regularly, before seed heads form and dig out clumps if feasible. Keep your lawn watered and fertilized so it can outcompete any KR bluestem that tries to move in.


Keep KR Bluestem mowed so it does not have a chance to reseed.

Maximilian Sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani)

Maximilian Sunflowers lining the entrance of Wldseed Farms in Fredericksberg

As you drive along the high ways and by ways of our great state this fall, notice all of the native plants that are in full bloom.  Fall is a great time for many native flowers and perennials.  One of the most stunning and prolific of the fall blooming Texas natives is the Maximilian Sunflower.  It is hard to drive anywhere in Texas right now and not see this stately and beautiful plant.  Maximilian Sunflowers produce stalks that can reach 8’ to 10’ in height.  The tall stalks can be completely covered with bright yellow flowers from their base to their tip.  These flowers produce tons of little seeds that ensure that they, and many species of wildlife, will survive until next year.

Close up of the heads of these beautiful flowers

Maximilian sunflowers are actually a perennial plant.  Even though they flower and disperse their seeds like an annual, their roots will survive even the harshest of Texas winters.  Due to this combination of perennial roots and very productive seed heads, Maximilian Sunflowers often develop into very large and thick colonies of plants.  The yellow flowers of these colonies result in fabulous drifts of yellow that paint the fence rows and ditches of fall rural Texas.

The stalk of my Maximilian right before it bloomed, This stalk is about 9′ tall

Even though Maximilian’s are native, they do very well in cultivation.  I have this plant in my beds and so do many of my friends.  It is a great pass along plant.  In fact, that is how I got mine.  My friend Cynthia Mueller brought me some shoots from her established colony this previous spring.  Cynthia has a very beautiful stand that she divides every year and shares with all that want them.

Maximillians in the front border of my potager

Since Maximilian Sunflowers are a native plant, they will do well in low water situations.  However, if you want them to be truly spectacular, water them just like any other bedding plant (about 1” of water per week).  They love full sun and will grow in just about any soil type.  Because of their tall foliage, you may be required to stake or prune them.  If pruning, trim them down to about 2’ or 3’ in late June or early July.  This will keep the plant from growing much over four feet.  When pruned in this manner they can make a very attractive hedge or border. Also, since Maximilians are sunflowers, they last forever as a cut flower in your fall bouquets.

Maximilian’s in mixed Fall bouquet from my beds

My wife and I recently visited Wildseed Farms in Fredericksberg.  They use Maximilian Sunflowers extensively throughout their property and the results are beautiful.  While on their property, I noticed Maximilian used as a stand-alone specimen, in stunning combinations and in mass plantings.  Each use of the plant was very appealing to the eye.   This large scale, fall blooming plant will reward you with beautiful flowers for years to come and, as an added bonus, this tough and reliable fall perennial will draw in several species of birds, moths and butterflies to your garden.  If you would like some for yourself you can order on-line (or visit) Wildseed Farms or  get a start from a friends garden.  This lovely perennial will reward with years and years of reliable blooms.