August 7, 2008

A Year Later: Colorful Coneflowers

Among perennial flowers, coneflowers bloom for a long time in my summer garden. I have several varieties, but my favorite is echinacea purpurea 'Rubinstern', often called 'Ruby Star' coneflower. It has deep carmine-red petals and a large bronze cone and grows on strong stems.

Echinacea is pronounced (by most) as eh-kih-NAY-shah. The name comes from the Greek word "echinos" that refers to "hedgehog" as in the look of the bristled central cone.

Although you may find slight differences in descriptions from plant nurseries, here's the general growing information about echinacea 'Ruby Star'.

USDA Hardiness zones 4-8
height: 36" +/-
width: 18-24"
full sun
moist, well-drained soil (can tolerate some drought)
attracts butterflies
seed heads feed birds in winter (when not deadheaded)
deer resistant (may vary with deer herds)

My 'Ruby Star' coneflowers were planted in early summer 2007, followed by a long drought that lasted until March 2008. All survived the drought and the winter just fine. I started with robust plants in 4" pots from a local nursery. I plan to experiment with seed planting this winter and again next spring.

I have three groups of three 'Ruby Star'. Two groups are mid-slope with well-drained soil. The other group is at the bottom of the slope in my rain garden. The soil still drains, but does so a bit more slowly after a heavy rain. The rain garden can be wet for a long time during the winter months.

One of the best things about the coneflowers is the LONG bloom season!

My coneflowers first started blooming on June 13th (the photo at the top).

July 2nd photo:

On July 5th, I took these photos to show the 'Ruby Star' (with monarda 'Blue Stockings') in the rain garden. Since we've had frequent rains this summer, I've done NO supplemental irrigation with the drip irrigation.

I deadhead the coneflowers to promote more bloom. Since the blooms are long-lasting, I wait until they look rather ragged before deadheading down to leaf junctions where new buds will form. In the next photo, you can see fresh cuts as well as new blooms forming on the clump from deadheading a few weeks ago. This photo was taken August 7th.

I wouldn't hesitate to plant coneflowers in the fall here in zone 7b. Planting in the fall gives the root system time to build up for the following summer blooms. When the main clumps are large enough, I will divide the plants so that I can enjoy more of these in my garden. To divide coneflowers, I prefer to dig up the plant in spring (because I leave the seed heads in the fall) and separate it into nice clumps. With some of my other perennials, such as nepeta or agastache, I simply take a shovel to the early foliage and cut out a clump while the mother plant remains in the ground.

I had only one seedling show up this spring. I wanted more! :-)

The American Goldfinch loves coneflowers! The birds will sit on the coneflowers to pull seeds from the cones. If you see petals missing, it may be from where the goldfinches hang on to the plant while feeding on the seeds. Since the American Goldfinch loves these seeds, I will NOT deadhead the 2nd blooms. I will leave the cones to provide seeds for the birds during the fall and winter months. I will cut back the coneflowers in early spring. If you are interested in attracting goldfinches, then tall verbena, sunflowers and black-eyed susans also provide seed for food.

I've had very good luck with coneflowers escaping critter damage in my garden. There were a few nibbles in 2007 of the newly planted coneflowers. However, that may have been from rabbits, instead of deer. I've not seen any nibbling of these established plants this year.

I use Plant-tone (an Espoma product) in my garden, but I do not feed the coneflowers much at all.

By the way, Plant-tone is organic and it contains blood meal. Last week, I decided to experiment by sprinkling a little Plant-tone around my rudbeckia (black-eyed susans) that were being nibbled by rabbits. The product repelled the rabbits for 5 days. Since it rained today, I will sprinkle more Plant-tone in the area around the rudbeckia. I'm hopeful that the plant food that I use can do double-duty to repel rabbits. The only precaution will be to not over-fertilize the plants. I'm sprinkling the Plant-tone a bit away from the plants to avoid applying too much fertilzer. Since the rabbits are repelled, this may also be a deer repellant. I will continue to experiment and monitor. I may plant a daylily out in the garden to test the deer!

Coneflowers work so well as companions with many other plants. With 'Ruby Star', I like to use spirea 'Neon Flash' for a harmonic color blend. The spirea blooms in June just when the coneflowers are starting up. I shear back the spirea and get the rebloom again in underway as shown in the next photos. Keep in mind that these are August photos and these coneflowers have been in bloom since back in June.

If you like blue/lavender colors with the carmine of the coneflowers, agastache 'Blue Fortune' and salvia guarantica 'Black and Blue' are good choices. I also like eupatorium colestrum 'Wayside' (perennial ageratum) to keep the blue tones coming in August.

If you'd like to coordinate a color combination with the bronze cones of the coneflower, the small shrub crape myrtle 'White Chocolate' provides beautiful burgundy/bronze foliage.

During 2007, I also planted echinacea 'Harvest Moon'. Unfortunately, only one survived the drought and winter. Since the plants were not established before the drought, I would have hope for better results with normal rainfall.

I also have echinacea 'Sundown' in the garden. These bloomed earlier, perhaps due to the location in the garden. I like to use a deep orange/red crocosmia with the orange coneflowers to create a dramatic combination based on the cone color:

Nepeta 'Walkers Low' is a great lavender/blue companion for the orange coneflowers:

If you like orange in the garden, the 'Sundown' can also look great with deep purples like verbena 'Homestead Purple'. While I don't have a photo, I have the combination in my garden.

There are many more coneflower varieties and colors available from which to choose. I've got to find more space in my garden to add some of the others. I'm very interested in trying echinacea 'Pink Double Delight' (pink), 'Coconut Lime' (green)and 'Tiki Torch' (orange). I've also seen some great results with 'White Swan' (white) in the gardens of others.

Look around and find a place in your garden to enjoy the long bloom season while attracting birds, bees and butterflies!

Happy Gardening!
Freelance travel writer. My current fiction writing projects include a completed manuscript and several works in progress.

By the way, my name is pronounced fred-ah, not freed-ah. Thank you.

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