Sick of sycamores

Autumn is most noted for foliage that turns to marvelous reds and yellows before falling to carpet the ground. In this garden at the forest’s edge, perennials and small shrubs (as well as garden tools) can be lost forever (or just for months) if deep piles of leaves are left for long. So, a few hours here and there are spent every week or two over the next several months to keep the garden relatively cleared of major accumulations. Most leaves are shredded in place, so that the physical labor is not too strenuous, it’s just that there’s a lot of ground to cover and a seemingly endless supply of leaves.Sycamore leaf

Besides the leaves from the forest and the dozens of trees I’ve planted, my concern is the sycamores from several neighboring properties. I’m quite certain that every one of the huge, leathery leaves blows onto my property, where they are ensnared by shrubs and trees in the garden. The sycamores’ leaves are scattered about the garden, and they are five times the trouble as they regularly clog the leaf vacuum, though there are only a handful of trees compared to many dozens of maples and tulip poplars. I’ve threatened my neighbors that unless they come to rake their sycamore leaves out of my garden I might be motivated to put my chainsaw to good use, but they suspect I’m only joking.

But, not to complain. The leaves (even the sycamores’) make excellent mulch, whether they’re shredded or not, and even if they’re not composted. Today, the thin clay soil and dry shade on the southern border of the property is not so thin or dry any longer as leaves have been spread about for twenty-five years. In some spots, I can actually dig a hole between roots, and here the Oakleaf hydrangeas, aucubas, hellebores, and assorted woodland perennials and shrubs seem quite content.Bigleaf magnolia

In fact, the sycamore leaves are not nearly the largest leaves now carpeting the garden. The leaves of the Bigleaf magnolia are several times larger so that I don’t even consider picking them up through the leaf vacuum. In the sizable area beneath the Bigleaf and neighboring Cucumber magnolia I don’t bother with the leaves at all, but the huge leaves from both are not resented since I planted them, and these have many more redeeming qualities to my thinking than the monstrous sycamores.

Turning cold

Lion's Head Japanese maple autumn foliageAfter several nights with temperatures dropping into the twenties and teens, most foliage has fallen from trees and shrubs, and the few scattered blooms that remained on toad lilies (Tricyrtis) until a week ago have turned to brown. Splendidly colored leaves remain on Lion’s Head (Acer palmatum ‘Shishigashira’, above) and a few Japanese maples that typically stay green until late in the season. The burgundy leaves of Oakleaf hydrangeas will persist into early December, at least.  Winter Sun mahonia in mid December

It is likely that there will be something flowering in the garden every day through late autumn and winter, and today ‘Winter Sun’ and ‘Charity’ mahonias (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, above) are nearing full bloom. ‘Eternal Fragrance’ daphne (Daphne x transatlantica ‘Blafra’, below) continues with scattered flowers, just as it has since late spring. I expect that this daphne will quit flowering now that temperatures have turned cold, but the mahonias will continue through December, and often into January.Eternal Frangrance daphne in mid November

Flowers of camellias have wilted in the cold, but fat buds show a trace of color, and these will open with a few days of typical November temperatures. The blooms of mahonias and camellias are built for the cold, so as other flowers fade and foliage drops these blooms will be enjoyed until witch hazels (Hamamelis), hellebores, snowdrops (Galanthus) give promise that the end of winter is near.

Mahonias in November

I haven’t the gumption to prune the tall and lanky ‘Winter Sun’ mahonias (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, below) down to a height where most of  the splendid yellow panicles can be enjoyed at eye level. This is an evergreen shrub that grows taller than expected, at least taller than I expected, though references seem correct that it will grow to more than ten feet tall. The handful that I’ve planted are certainly headed in that direction except for one that is somewhat stunted by shade.Winter Sun mahonia blooming in early December

I am skeptical about information on plant tags, like most gardeners I suspect, but also about heights and widths, cold hardiness, and just about anything about a plant found in references until I witness it for myself. Now, the mahonias are double the height of the sprawling leatherleaf mahonias (Mahonia bealei) in the garden, and they have grown to where a rejuvenative pruning is required.

Unfortunately, there is more reason to prune than only to bring the blooms of ‘Winter Sun’ down to sight level after the past winter when many mahonias suffered considerably. Younger plants in the neighborhood were killed by below zero temperatures, though well established plants in this garden survived without too much trouble, but some dead branches have left the shrubs shabbier than preferred. The matter of tidying the mahonias is somewhat complicated by the thorny leaves that are vicious when green, and deadly when they have died and dried. The obvious solution is to utilize a pair of sturdy leather gloves and long sleeves for protection, but I am more comfortable bare handed, so I must suffer from this stubbornness, and of course this becomes an excuse to delay what inevitably must be done.Soft Caress mahonia

As with too many plants, I’m told (by my wife) that it’s not necessary to collect one or more of everything, but I’ve been intrigued from the time that ‘Winter Sun’ first began flowering in November and persisted into January. So, I’ve added the much lower growing and considerably less cold hardy ‘Soft Caress’ (Mahonia eurybracteata ‘Soft Caress’, above) that has struggled through typical winters and died in the recent cold one. Of course, another couple were replanted late in the spring since it will probably be another twenty five years before it’s that cold again. As the name implies, the foliage of ‘Soft Caress’ is hardly dangerous. Instead, the low evergreen gives almost the look of a fern of some sort, and though the early autumn flowering panicles are much smaller than other mahonias, they are showy enough.Charity mahonia in mid November

This year, I also planted a few of ‘Charity’ (Mahonia x media ‘Charity’, above), which is so similar to ‘Winter Sun’ that I can’t tell the two apart. I read that it will grow only to six or seven feet tall, but I’ll wait to see before I believe it. The leaves are indistinguishable from those of ‘Winter Sun, they are equally spiny, and they are flowering at precisely the same time, given a bit of leeway for sun exposure. I’m certain that ‘Charity’ will be every bit as splendid as ‘Winter Sun’, even if there are no noticeable differences, and I expect ‘Winter Sun’ and ‘Charity’ to flower through much of the early winter.

Sparkleberry with few berries

The garden’s Sparkleberry hollies (Ilex verticillata ‘Sparkleberry’) need a friend. Or, at least a nearby pollinator so that pollen is passed between male and females so there will be more berries. I think that at one point I planted a male holly in the vicinity, but that was long ago, and the details are fuzzy, so I’m not so certain. In any case, a male no longer exists, and apparently there are none nearby.

Berries on a deciduous holly in early November in a friend's garden

Berries on a deciduous holly in early November in a friend’s garden

Today, there are three lanky hollies, but this was initially a planting of five, I think. One, I suppose, would have been the male pollinator, but until a few years ago all were threatened by an aggressive clump of bamboo. When the bamboo was finally cut out, two hollies that had been most overwhelmed had died, and were chopped out along with the annoying bamboo. One of the two hollies cut out was the male, I figure, and now in early November there are only scattered berries on the three hollies still here.

I recall years in the past when berries were more abundant, and below is visual evidence to prove this is not only my wishful thinking (as is true too frequently). In any case, the hollies are not remarkable at all without berries, so planting one male in close proximity is likely to result in a considerable improvement.

Sparkleberry holly in early December several years ago - many more berries than today

Sparkleberry holly in early December several years ago – many more berries than today

Evergreen hollies (‘Christmas Jewel’ holly, at bottom of page) in the garden appear to have no pollination troubles, with plentiful berries, though berries on the handful of native American hollies (Ilex opaca) are always sparse. Many of the seedling native hollies are small, so lacking berries is excusable, but even hollies ten feet tall have few (below), for whatever reason.American holly

As with most hollies, the Sparkleberries require a specific pollinator with a male flowering at the same time as the female. I’m supposing that at one time in the recent past there was one in my garden, or at least in the neighborhood, but today the process doesn’t work so well, not just this year but in the past several years. Perhaps you’ve heard me say that I’ve given up trying to reason along with nature, so I’ve determined not to try to figure this one out, but just to plant another male and expect that this will take care of it. We’ll see next year.

Christmas Jewel holly in early December

What a difference a night makes

A freeze was inevitable sooner than later, only I didn’t suspect there would be one the night I opened my big mouth to say that beginning the second week of November it was unusual not to have had one. So, temperatures dipped below freezing, and in the week ahead they are forecast to drop into the low twenties. Where there were flowers yesterday, today they are mush, or nearly so. Stragglers that remain will certainly be done in later in the week.Oakleaf hydrangea in early November

Going from relatively mild to freezing, the foliage of several of the hydrangeas did not turn color this autumn, changing only from green to black. The Oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia, above) turned to burgundy a few weeks ago, and the leathery leaves do not wilt in this cold like mopheads. In this northwestern Virginia garden the splendidly colored foliage of Oakleaf hydrangeas will persist into mid December, and occasionally into the new year.

Mophead hydrangea in early November

Mophead hydrangea in early November

Mophead hydrangea after a freeze

Mophead hydrangea after a freeze

As expected, numerous flower buds on reblooming mopheads and lacecaps (Hydrangea macrophylla, above and below) were set too late to bloom, and the scattered flowers on each plant faded overnight with the foliage. This is typical, and no harm is done, though it is disappointing to see blue flowers in the evening and brown in the morning.

Twist N'Shout lacecap hydrangea in early November

Twist N’Shout lacecap hydrangea in early November

Lacecap hydrangea after a freeze

Lacecap hydrangea after a freeze

Several reblooming Encore azaleas had abundant blooms that wilted in the freeze, but unlike the hydrangeas, these could possibly flower in another week or two if mild temperatures return. Numerous buds remain, though it is unlikely there will be flowers in the spell of cold that is forecast over the next ten days. Flowers of Encore azaleas wilted by freeze

Not all flowers in the garden were damaged by this cold, and it is unlikely that camellias and mahonias will suffer, even with temperatures that dip into the twenties. Camellia flowers (Camellia ‘Winter’s Star’, below) might wilt in extreme cold, but other flowering buds will open after a milder day or two. Mahonias are not bothered by the cold at all. Winter's Star camellia in early November

 

Frost and freeze

I’m in no rush for winter to arrive, so today I’m quite satisfied that as the second week of November begins there has been only a single frost worth talking about. Another night brought the slightest amount of frost, but this had no effect whatsoever on the garden. The heavier frost nipped the coleus and top growth of dahlias that have been left outdoors. The coleus are intended to perish as annuals are supposed to, but the rhizomes of the dahlias will be dug, dried, and stored for the winter.  Temperatures didn’t dip below freezing, so toad lilies and hydrangeas remain in bloom.Dahlia Bishop of York

A tropical Bird-of-Paradise was left outdoors one night too long, and all foliage promptly turned brown once it was inside. Without a greenhouse (which I’ve planned to construct but never gotten around to, and now the property is too shaded unless the structure would be placed dead center in the lawn) it would a near impossibility to revive the plant, so it will overwinter outdoors. Good luck.

Roses tolerate a freeze or two without a problem, so long as temperatures don’t drop into the mid-twenties. And, it’s not too unusual to have a few blooms through the end of the month while other flowers melt in a hard freeze that is inevitable in the next week or two, I think. Perhaps it’s a little unusual to have had so little cold this late, and every gardener (particularly old ones) can recall more than one frost before the end of September, and freezes not too long into October. And, of course, snow in November, and I think a year or two ago there was a bit in late October while some foliage remained on trees, and it was probably a mess, though I don’t recall any damage in this garden.Empress toad lily in mid October

So, while hoping that the start of winter is delayed for weeks (or months), the gardener is quite pleased to admire toad lilies (Tricyrtis) that have flowered since early September. A few stray blooms remain on ‘Gilt Edge’, that began flowering in early August, but ‘Empress’ (above) and ‘W-Ho-ping Toad’ (below) are nearly in full bloom with more buds still to open if temperatures remain mild. While ‘Gilt Edge’ and ‘Empress’ are exceptional and fairly common, ‘W-Ho-ping Toad’ is unusual, and after a slow start when I was mostly unimpressed, it is growing on me by the day.W-Hop-ing toad lily in early November

Until a year ago, or two, the tall aster ‘Jindai’ (Aster tataricus ‘Jindai’, below) could be readily seen from across the large koi pond, but since a sprawling Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) has grown to cover Japanese irises (Iris ensata) at the pond’s edge and to obscure the aster unless the gardener walks around the pond and pushes through abelias and paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha) for a closer look. Winter damage to the paperbush required substantial pruning, so the path to ‘Jindai’ is more open to enjoy the flowers that will persist until a freeze.Tatarian aster in early November

Autumn flowering camellias

After a difficult winter, all buds of spring blooming camellias (Camellia japonica) were damaged, so there were no flowers earlier this year. Besides flower buds, there was little damage to foliage, and since, all have returned to excellent health. I expect no problems next spring unless there is a repeat of prolonged temperatures below zero, which seems unlikely. A few decades ago damage to spring flowering camellias was routine, but more cold hardy varieties and warmer winters have made blooming much more dependable in my northwest Virginia garden.

Winter's Star camellia in late October

I suppose that any gardener who is paying attention has noticed on occasion that identical flowering plants can bloom a week or two apart with only slight variations in sun or shade exposure. Today, I see this with two ‘Winter’s Star’ camellias (Camellia x ‘Winter’s Star’, above) that are no more than twenty feet apart, but one receives some late afternoon sun while the other is mostly shaded. In fact, the one in the more open location does not get any direct exposure now that the sun has veered far to the south in early November, but I suspect that brighter light or buds that formed earlier with more direct sunlight have pushed it ahead of the other.

Both camellias are heavily budded, as are other hybrid camellias that typically begin to flower some time in November. In most years, and there is no reason to expect otherwise, the autumn flowering camellias will continue blooming long into December, and often a few scattered buds remain that will flower in a period of a few warm days in January. If there are no warm spells, there will be no flowers with the buds drying on the stem without opening.  Winter's Interlude camellia in late October

The hybrid ‘Winter’s Interlude’ (above) is more confounding, and less dependable about flowering than ‘Snow Flurry’, ‘Winter’s Snowman’, and ‘Winter’s Star’. Perhaps this is because it is several feet further into the shade, beneath a wide spreading Golden Rain tree and ‘Jane’ magnolia. Of course, the trees and surrounding shrubs have grown considerably since the camellias were first planted, so I excuse myself from blame for this less than ideal positioning. Yes, I understand that it is the gardener’s role to realize that plants grow, and to take this into account, but I insist that there is adequate light and that somehow this is the camellia’s fault, and not mine.