My big, fat fall flowers

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(HOST) Just as our hillsides begin to blaze with color, our flower gardens begin to fade – except in commentator Charlie Nardozzi’s garden – where he likes to hold onto the bright colors of summer just a little bit longer.

(NARDOZZI) A chill in the air is a signal the end of the flower season is coming soon. Because of this inevitable end of color, I like growing late summer and fall flowers that are more than showy; they’re downright gaudy. Why not end the season with a splash? While others are growing the small flowered and subtle colored asters and sedums, I like growing what I call my big, fat fall flowers. These are perennials that produce large flowers with lots of color. No shrinking violets allowed here. These flowers beg you to come and look at them in awe. Here are my two favorites.

Dahlias are the quintessential showy fall flower. While these Mexican natives can produce flowers as small as one to two inches in diameter, the ones I like are the so-called dinner plate dahlias. Dinner plate dahlias are so named because their blooms can reach one foot in diameter. The plants grow three to four feet tall and produce flowers in a variety of colors such as lavender, red, yellow and pink. Since the flowers are so large, the stems definitely need staking to keep them upright. To get the biggest flowers, snip off the two side buds that develop next to the main bud. This will allow the plants to concentrate their energy into the remaining flower buds, producing an even more superior flower.

Remember, dahlias make excellent cut flowers. Just imagine a vase full of dinner plate dahlias on your dining room table. Once frost kills the plants, dig, wash and clean the tubers; place them in slightly damp newspaper or sawdust, without touching, in a open box. Store them in a cool dark location. Wait until early summer to plant dahlias, since they don’t grow well in cool soils.

Another big gaudy flower I love is the hibiscus. Most gardeners know of the tropical hibiscus that’s grown as a houseplant in our climate. It’s hardy only in southern Florida and other warm climes. However, there is a perennial hibiscus that’s hardy here. It produces large, vibrant flowers from late summer until frost. Related to cotton and okra, varieties of the perennial hibiscus have names that predict their looks, such as “Disco Bell” and “Moy Grande.” The ten- to twelve-inch diameter, papery flowers come in flamboyant colors, such as bright red and pink. The plants grow four to six feet tall. Although each flower lasts only a day or two, the stems keep producing buds that won’t quit until Jack Frost arrives. Then just cut the stems to the ground, give the plant compost, and wait until it regrows from its roots in spring. Hibiscus grows best in full sun and well-drained soil but also needs good moisture.

While you’ll have to wait until next summer to plant dahlias, hibiscus plants can still be found in garden centers and can be planted this fall.

So end your flowering season with a bang, and grow some of these big fat fall flowers that will wake up your sleepy, late summer garden beds. Charlie Nardozzi is an all-around gardening expert with a special fondness for tomatoes and roses.

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