Autumn foliage and more

As outdoor temperatures turn inhospitable, this should be a period for rest, and certainly I do my best to avoid chores that pile up by the day. Winter weeds have gotten off to a roaring start with ground that has remained damp for weeks, but it is the autumn accumulation of leaves that I most dread. Wildfire blackgum

Besides the seemingly interminable task of removing leaves and shredding them for mulch, I do not mind the dormancy of trees (Blackgum, Nyssa sylvatica, above) and shrubs so much since there is one thing or another flowering each day in the garden, And, if the blooms of witch hazels (Hamemelis) and mahonias should become too much of the same through the winter months, there are birds at the feeder and nibbling on berries as the cold drags on.

Nandina domestica in mid October

Red berries of nandinas (Nandina domestica, above) and hollies (Ilex) seldom attract much attention, but dogwood berries seldom persist much into December. New in the garden this year is the native wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens, below), with bland tasting (to me) but lovely fruits that interest chipmunks and squirrels, and also deer. I’ve seen too little of chipmunks in recent years as they scurry so carefully to avoid detection by hawks that invariably soar over the garden, but my wife and I have had more than our fill with squirrels gnawing in the attic. The low growing wintergreens will likely be sprayed with a repellent to deter the deer, and perhaps this will discourage the squirrels also.   Wintergreen in mid October

By mid October there are many flowers remaining from shrubs that have bloomed for weeks, or even months. ‘Eternal Fragrance’ daphne (Daphne x transatlantica ‘Blafra’, below) has flowered since spring, and though I am immune to its scent, it has a pleasant manner of flowering just enough to be seen without being covered by blooms so that it is taken for granted. The foliage of this daphne is unremarkable by comparison to variegated daphnes that are also more fragrant (to my nose), but it is a fine and thus far, sturdy evergreen.   Daphne Eternal Fragrance in mid October

The reblooming Encore azaleas (below) are making a splendid show this autumn after having no more than a few scattered flowers in spring after the severe winter. Several azaleas have not fully recovered from the ice, snow, and constant freezes, but most show no ill effect. With cool, but not cold temperatures and adequate moisture some have flowered for six weeks, and these will usually continue through early frosts.  Encore Carnation azalea in October

Flowering of Encores is not as heavy in early autumn as in the two or three week period in late April into early May, but there are more than enough blooms to make a show. A few cultivars will flower long into November, and if cold is not too severe early, there might be a few blooms in December to accompany autumn flowering camellias and mahonias. I planted Encore azaleas years ago to satisfy my curiosity about the newly introduced repeat bloomers, though I was not very enthusiastic since other azaleas had been chopped out of the garden due to problems with bugs or trouble with the native clay soil. Now, I’m happy to recommend these repeat bloomers.

Encore azalea in mid October


Black pennisetem

I notice that the grassy field that surrounds the nearby farm pond now consists mostly of black pennisetem (Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Moudry’, below) that has displaced the long standing fescues from the relatively recent past when this property was farmland. For several years I’ve seen ‘Moudry’ encroach to line the edges of this pond, and now this coarse leafed grass has invaded to become a lawn. This is why I chopped it out of my garden long ago, though even with my lax maintenance it never became a problem to this extent. The stiff, black tinged inflorescences are lovely, but it seems that every seed must germinate, and after plucking far too many out of my garden, it’s not surprising that this fountain grass has escaped some other neighborhood garden. Black fountain grass growing beside a farm pond

By comparison, the common Maiden grass (Miscanthus gracillimus) is well behaved, though there are scattered clumps in the part of this meadow that is not mowed regularly. References warn that one grass or another seeds more readily, and the gardener is warned to pay attention to select ones that will stay put. To my thinking, many scare stories of invasive plants are overblown, or a limited to specific soil types or climates, but here’s evidence that this is a plant to avoid. Japanese forest grass along a stream

When I first began this garden twenty-five years ago I avoided ornamental grasses, though they were just then becoming the rage. Then, I decided that perhaps I was too stubborn and set in my ways, so I gave them a try, with satisfactory but unexciting results. Now, the miscanthus and pennisetems have either succumbed to shade or been yanked out, and the only grasses that remain are Carex varieties and Japanese Forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’, above and below) that are smaller and colorful, and they stay put. These tolerate the shade, and slowly increase in size without ever seeding where they’re not wanted.Japanese Forest grass

I’m not at all disappointed that other grasses have faded and disappeared, and I go back and forth questioning whether another native grass that tolerates shade, Northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolia, below), is worth the trouble. This grass also seeds prolifically, but the seeds seem not to spread more than a few feet from the parent plant. The dozens and hundreds of seedlings are a pain, and for whatever reason my wife has taken a dislike to them, though to my knowledge she has never pulled a single seedling. So far, stubbornness to give in to her is the reason the sea oats are still around.Northern Sea Oats

The missing clematis

Just prior to dark this evening, as clouds neared that will bring rain tonight and perhaps a deluge tomorrow, I noticed again that the sweet autumn clematis, which I considered so troublesome in recent years, is missing. Again, I say, since I now recall pulling the dead vine out of the threadbranch cypress some time early in spring. Since, I had not given its loss a moments thought, and even now the details are fuzzy, but early autumn is when the clematis would have flowered if it had not died in the severe winter that killed too many tough and hardy plants, but surprisingly spared many that are more tender.Sweet Autumn clematis

Though this clematis was lovely in flower and pleasantly fragrant (though I have trouble with any but the strongest scents), the vigorous vine had long fallen from favor as it climbed too far to threaten the cypress. Of course, the cypress has also grown too large, but I considered that if the clematis overwhelmed the cypress its support would be lost, so both cypress and clematis would fail. In this instance of one or the other, the cypress made most sense to keep, though I did not get around to doing anything about the clematis before it was killed in winter.Sweet Autumn clematis in early September

I intended to prune the clematis to the top of the wrought iron and stone fence, and then to encourage new growth to wind along the fence rather than straying far up into the cypress. Admittedly, it was unlikely that I would keep up with the maintenance to tame the clematis, but this was the idea, which of course I promptly forgot about. Every year when the clematis flowered I was reminded that I had neglected to follow up on these plans, but now there is no need.



New toad lilies have arrived

Several new toad lilies arrived in iffy condition, and this late in the season it will be spring before I know that all have survived. A note was attached from the Washington state mail order nursery that one was headed into dormancy, most likely due to recent extreme heat on the west coast, I suspect. A second arrived with weakly yellowing foliage, which dropped quickly a few days after planting.

I’ll be disappointed if these don’t grow in the spring, but the third was the one that I was most enthused about. It had a few blooms on it (Tricyrtis macrantha ssp. macranthopsis, below), though it’s so spindly I had to prop it up with twigs to take a photo. But, it’s healthy, and if it’s the only one of the three to survive I won’t be too upset. I really think all will be okay, but this is the hazard in shipping small, tender plants over several days across the country when they aren’t dormant .Yellow toad lily

I’ve likely written too much in recent weeks touting toad lilies, but nothing else in the garden in early autumn is so lovely. To my thinking the flowers are the equal in form and color to any hardy or tropical orchid, and since they are as sturdy as any plant in the garden I can’t imagine why toad lilies are not more commonly grown. The recent acquisitions are a bit out of the ordinary, so they lack the trade names of more common cultivars (Tricyrtis ‘Empress’, below), and it will  not be surprising if they are slightly less stunning than others in the garden.

Empress toad lily in mid October

Another less common toad lily (Tricyrtis formosana var. grandiflora ‘W-Ho-ping Toad’ BSWJ 6905, below) was delivered and planted while dormant this spring, and it has grown vigorously. While its it promises larger flowers, they are barely so, but today it has been in bloom for six weeks, with many more buds still to open if frost is delayed for another few weeks. Of course, I am overjoyed.

Toad lily

Jindai aster

The Tatarian daisy ‘Jindai’ (Aster tataricus ‘Jindai’) is positioned so that it is not obvious to any but the most determined explorer of this garden. One day (long ago it seems), the aster was near the front of the border garden, but then the large koi pond was constructed, and the front became the rear, or perhaps it’s the middle, but in any case what could be seen then can hardly be seen today. Though ‘Jindai’ is considered a dwarf by comparison to the much taller growing species, at three or four feet it is still quite tall as perennials go. But here, it is obscured by shrubs and trees planted beside the pond so that the the coarse leafed, long blooming aster can only be appreciated by wading through a dense thicket of branches.

Jindai aster in October

Through several years the wide spreading paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha) grew far beyond expectations to crowd ‘Jindai’ until I almost gave up hope that the two could coexist. Plans to chop back the vigorous shrub were delayed once and again, and only damage from the most recent dreadful winter gave the aster a small opening to rejuvenate. The paperbush was cut by two-thirds, and now there is some space to the front, though the ‘Tardiva’ hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata ‘Tardiva’) threatens from the rear.

Since the paperbush is reviving quickly, and with the hydrangea encroaching from the far side, there seems a limited window to save ‘Jindai’ or it will be lost. Of course, this would not be the first treasure to be lost, and not even the first to be overwhelmed by one of the paperbushes, which are excellent at sneaking up on unsuspecting neighbors who then manage for a short while until they disappear suddenly.

In a fit of motivation several days ago I dug out two thick clumps of ‘Jindai’ that were stunted by the hydrangea, but still sturdy enough that they should transplant easily. The aster clumps sat in the afternoon sun for several hours without wilting until I wandered back around to find a spot to plant them, so I’m confident they’ll handle the move without a problem. These were only a small part of the colony that the vigorous aster has grown into, but even if my attentions are diverted elsewhere for years and the old clump is lost, the two that have been moved should carry on.Aster tataricus Jindai in October

While the positioning of the two new plantings is not ideal, there will be adequate sunlight and I believe the slightly moist soil will be advantageous. An osmanthus (Osmanthus heterophyllus ‘Goshiki’) and dwarf spruce (Picea pungens ‘Globosa’) are perhaps a bit too close to be comfortable that this arrangement can last another five years, but there are many situations in this garden that are too close for comfort, and these will be addressed as they become critical. Or, sometimes not.

Anyway, today ‘Jindai’ is safe in its original location, and parts have been relocated to another safe haven where the late summer and early autumn blooms can be enjoyed by the gardener and also by bumblebees that seem particularly enthralled by the small, yellow-centered blue flowers.Jindai aster

Gardening with nature

For years my wife and I have discussed clearing a section of the forest that borders the garden. When I say that we’ve discussed this project, my wife envisions a splendid shady spot to lounge on a sweltering summer afternoon, and I imagine the additional labor required to clear and maintain this space. So, along with so many other plans, this one has been postponed indefinitely.Spicebush

In fact, while my wife thinks clearing, I think more about managing the understory growth to add and subtract so that some area of the forest that borders the garden is partially tamed. Now, beneath the towering swamp maples, black gums, and tulip poplars are areas of briars and brambles, a few Burning bush (Euonymous alatus) that have seeded from neighborhood gardens, masses of native spicebush (Lindera benzoin, above), and scattered sassafras, Arrowwood viburnum (Viburnum dentatum, below) American holly (Ilex opaca), and dogwoods (Cornus florida). There’s very little of the ground cover layer that hasn’t been eaten by deer. At one time before the forest was thinned through logging by the developer, much of the area was covered in Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum), but sadly there are only a few scattered remnants.Viburnum

At the low end of the garden where the soil remains damp there are skunk cabbages (Symplocarpus foetidus, below) and Ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris), but if I work up the motivation to expand the garden into the forest the drier area closest to the house is most likely where I’ll begin. The hold up at this point is how much energy I must devote to this area, while still keeping the rest of the garden in some semblance of order. But, recently I’ve been encouraged by noting the beauty of native flora while my wife and I hike nearby trails in the foothills of the Blue Ridge.Skunk cabbage in early April

The obvious question is, why should I mess with this natural area at all when it is managing well enough as is? (Except for the few invasives that have encroached.) Besides the work, this is why I’ve been satisfied not to undertake this project. But, as I see areas along trails that have not been denuded by deer, I realize that through twenty five years in the garden I’ve hardly taken notice of the spicebushes and viburnums that are only a few feet from our home. And, while I had long considered purchasing a few paw paws, I’ve too seldom waded through the thorns to know that there were a few scattered beside the creek that would be the outer boundary of this expanded garden.Paw paw

The worst of the project (and as I see it, a good reason to hesitate in starting at all) is hacking out the brambles and multiflora roses, which is likely to be slow and perhaps bloody. My legs and arms display too many scars already from not dressing appropriately when undertaking similar prickly tasks, but once the thorns are grubbed out there’s a good base of spicebush to get started with. To this I imagine adding to the few small paw paws (Asimina triloba, above), with the hope that these will colonize as they do in the local forest. Though American witch hazels (Hamamelis virginiana) are less common locally, a few will flower splendidly along the less shaded border. Perhaps I can encourage the scattered sassafras (Sassafras albidum, below) seedlings with marvelous lobed foliage to make more of a show, but if not I could plant several more along the edges.Sassafras

If this project is undertaken it must be with idea that once it’s planted, I’ll do little or nothing to take care of it besides weed out the worst of the brambles that will inevitably return. The spicebushes and paw paws will take care of themselves, as they’ve always done, but introducing a ground cover will make maintenance of the area more manageable. It seems unlikely that mayapples can be reintroduced without greatly expanding the budget, but native Sensitive ferns (Onoclea sensibilis, below) can possibly be encouraged to spread further once the clutter of briars and brambles are removed.

In the middle of this, one open area will be left for my wife to luxuriate in this shady paradise. She’ll be very pleased.Sensitive fern

Lightning strikes

It is unfortunate that I could find no better place at the time to plant ‘Lightning Strike’ toad lily (Tricyrtis hirta ‘Lightning Strike’, below) than tucked beneath a tall nandina (Nandina domestica) and beside stone steps that lead from the lower deck. Two clematis have draped themselves so that along with the leaning stems of the nandina the steps are impassable without considerable effort, so there is little reason to go near to view this delightful toad lily.Lightning Strike toad lily

While many, and probably most toad lilies perform best with more sun than shade, I expect that only bright filtered light and no direct sun reaches this plant. But, the brightly streaked gold foliage and abundant blooms are evidence that the spot is advantageous, and the toad lily does not suffer the browned leaf tips that the closely related ‘Miyazaki’ (below) experiences with a bit too much sun. With too much sun causing slight damage, or too much shade diminishing the number of blooms, the trade off to promote more flowers is an easy one, but I’d be hard challenged to duplicate the ideal exposure of ‘Lightning Strike’.Miyazaki toad lily

And, a few months ago, this perfect setting was nearly spoiled. Too many times my wife has threatened to chop back the nandina and clematis, but finally, earlier this year she ignored my pleadings and chopped the nandina so that the steps were barely useful. She did her best to preserve the clematis, and what was not pruned she laid on the ground to trail past the toad lily. I did my best following the massacre to extricate the clematis from the newly emerged ‘Lightning Strike’ and to direct it back up into the multi stemmed nandina, but the effect of large white ‘Henryi’ blooms and nandina in late spring were less than satisfactory. Next year, I’m certain will be better, but I’m happiest that the toad lily did not suffer at all.