The Iconoclastic Gardener – Breaking May’s Stranglehold


Way back in 1914, an awful calamity happened that would ruin gardening in America forever. With the seemingly benevolent stroke of his pen, Woodrow Wilson foisted the Tyranny of Mother’s Day upon us all. Soon after came the backhanded slap from the long arm of the law of unintended consequences.

To be clear, I’m actually fairly okay with honoring moms.  I’ve got one, and my wife even became one too. Willingly. What I don’t like, however, is that this holiday has established the second Sunday in May as the one and only epicenter of the entire Horticultural Universe. As if graven on stone tablets, it was apparently ordained that every homeowner in America must cram a year’s worth of yard work, and do all their garden shopping, within two or three days of that holiest of holy days.

As you can imagine, because people inherently buy from garden centers things that are in flower, this has ensured that every last homeowner’s yard explodes into bloom right on Mother’s Day and sheepishly goes out of bloom a week later. Therefore, the rest of the growing season–from June to frost–the vast expanse of American suburbs is a sad, flowerless wasteland, bereft of color, wondering what life is about and why it always feels so empty inside.

Here is what this has cost us. The fun perennials, the really good stuff, all bloom later and, in fact, look absolutely fabulous on garden center shelves right this very minute when absolutely no one is there to see them. Hence, they’re not bought, not in gardens, and not bringing boundless joy to people in their everyday lives.

Late summer and fall blooming perennials tend to be bigger, bolder, and way more impactful. They also usually bloom longer, and they do so with all the star spangled colors of a big refinery fire. They invariably maintain a great form all season–not going to seed and not going limp too early, and they also attract loads of pollinators, which bring their own spastic fun to the party.

So do this. Be a lunatic. A rebel. Be contrary. Log off your computer right now and go to your favorite garden center and buy a bunch of stuff. Your garden and your life will be improved. Your late season garden will look so amazing you’ll want to show it to your mother. You might even invite her over. In September. Maybe October.


  1. IMO, probably one of the most important blog posts a gardener could read. I do very little in the Spring. The perennials do the thing they do every year. They grow. I merely weed and water. That leaves me free from April to August to do other things like monitor my nest box trail. Then, in August, gardening begins. Deadhead, make room for the late summer/fall perennials to bloom, plant pollinator perennials and annuals, add fruit to the fruit table, bring in the monarch caterpillars for fall release, and watch the absorbing invertebrate feast-a-palooza. I planted 20 plants two weeks ago and 5 more will go in when the rain stops. Here’s a video (Sept 3 of this year), in the Mid-Atlantic, of blooming milkweed that was mowed in July, after bloom, before the monarchs arrived. Late summer and fall are critical for winter survival. You don’t get a show like this in the Spring garden:

  2. Yep, you are right. I’m a mom too, but my garden only does a dress rehearsal in the spring. The real performance takes place in the fall. There is no need to ask me to be a lunatic. I already am one. I have all sorts of plants coming in over the next couple of weeks– Agastache, Ceanothus x pallidus, Centaurea atropurpurea, Eucomis, Menthifolia. Penstemon, Phlomis tuberosa, fragrant olive, currents, a sumac, American wisteria, liatris, baptisia, mountain mint and some bulbs. I’m going to the Smith county Master Gardeners’ fall bulb sale next month and possibly the Stephen F. Austin State University plant sale. Forget Mother’s Day, I love autumn!!!!

  3. Sorta but not off-topic: Think what M’s Day did to lunch at a restaurant business.

    As for the topic: Here in N. Florida, southern Georgia, spring is gorgeous so is fall. There’s stuff to change but we have another couple of months to watch our gardens if not grow, prosper.

    Don’t hate me because my garden is going to stay beautiful.

  4. Such an important lesson. I feel lucky to have learned it at exactly the right moment: Just as I was beginning to take over my late father’s garden — dominated by daffodils, peonies, and daylilies — I read Allen Lacy’s The Garden in Autumn (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1990).

    It’s a book I strongly recommend to anyone wanting to follow through on Scott’s point, with great writing and tons of plant information.

    • I second this book recommendation! I found it inspiring and informative. It’s how I learned about Louise Beebe Wilder, and her garden writing from the early 20th Century. I wish I could have met both of them to say “thank you”.

  5. Well, yes, you might be correct in some circles, but not in my neck of the woods or at least among the gardening friends I have. We all have perennials that bloom throughout each season. Right now, my asters, tickseed, agastache and false sunflower are going crazy. The gaillardia is still going strong, too. Neighbors inspire neighbors when it comes to gardening.

    • Good for you! It’s a wonderful time of year when you plant the right stuff. And, yes, good horticulture is contagious!

    • Unfortunately for me, those same perennials are the only late bloomers my local nurseries seem to carry. Yes, I love all of those species, but I’d like a few more options. It stinks to visit my favorite nursery (a 40 min drive away) and find myself walking away with only one plant because there are so few interesting options that I don’t already have.

  6. Where I live, Mother’s Day marks the day to plant the vegetable garden and annuals. Having a mother (1) who lives 3,000 miles away, and (2) is/was a gardener herself, I am able to devote the day to my garden with my mother’s blessing. I may send her cut flowers from a florist.

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