The grand finale

Every year in the garden is odd in some manner, and probably most years are unusual in many respects. Though friends and neighbors might declare the weather for a season to be “normal”, there are in fact variations that determine that unpredictability in the garden is to be expected.Pink dogwood

I say with relative certainty that the native dogwood (Cornus florida ‘Rubrum’, above) will begin to bloom in mid April, but I’m not surprised when it blooms a week earlier or two weeks later, or even if those in my garden flower a week later than my neighbor’s. The timing of leaves coloring in Autumn is similarly imprecise, but more so.

In the mid-Atlantic region our first frost arrives as early as late September or as late as the end of October. This year dry weather in August and early September forced birch and ash to defoliate earlier than normal, and cool and wet , but not cold, conditions since have slowed leave’s changing colors. Or not. A few miles further than my daily drive the opposite could be true, so expect nature to act naturally, unpredictably.

Though I’ve nearly run out of space, I love planting trees, and advise considering trees first when planning a garden, then hardscapes such as patios and walks, prior to figuring the small stuff. The shrubs, perennials, and flowering bulbs easily fall in place once the bones are set. But which trees are best? Is Autumn foliage color a worthwhile consideration in selecting a tree?Sugar maple

Today we’ll explore some of the trees in the garden with notable foliage color, and  a few from the neighborhood. What we won’t show are the red leafed cultivars of Red maple (Acer rubrum), simply because you’ve already seen plenty in your neighbors’ landscapes and maybe your own. They’re a fine tree, fast growing, and quite nice when the leaves turn, but we need more diversity in our gardens, not more maples. We will make an allowance to slip in a Sugar maple (Acer saccharum, above), and of course we can’t do without Japanese maples for their wonderful attributes, including colorful leaves in Autumn.European beech

The long, wooded southeast border of my garden is mostly native red maples (also called swamp maple) and Tulip poplars, and neither has Fall color worth mentioning (sickly yellow is an apt description). With an overabundance of maples I chose several cultivars of European beech (Fagus sylvatica, above), Black Gum (Nyssa sylvatica), Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba, below)), and Katsura (Cercidiphyllum japonicum) for the large trees in the garden, and a bunch of smaller trees, some with excellent foliage color, others not.Ginkgo

The Franklin Tree (Franklinia alatamaha, below) blooms from August into late September, and some years the foliage will turn early enough to be a delightful backdrop for the last of the white, camellia-like flowers. Not this year, but the blooms and Autumn foliage colors are long lasting, and remarkable. Franklinia is not often found in nurseries, I suppose because it is difficult to transplant, but worth searching for from specialty mail order growers. Franklinia

Japanese Stewartia (Stewartia psuedocamellia, below) is slow to become established, but after a handful of years this small tree in my garden has begun to grow with more vigor, enough that the long branching bent under the weight of the flower buds. The blooms are quite similar to the Franklin Tree, but the flowering season is not so long. Stewartia

‘Satomi’ dogwood (Cornus kousa ‘Satomi’, below) is a pink flowering Kousa dogwood, blooming in mid May to early June, well after our native dogwood. The leaves of Satomi are broader and glossier than other dogwoods, and the mottled Fall color is of particular interest on my strolls through the garden.Satomi dogwood

Cherokee Princess dogwood (Cornus florida ‘Cherokee Princess’, below) is a vigorous selection of our native dogwood, though more disease resistant than the native. It is just as beautiful, with white blooms before leaves develop, excellent Fall color, and red berries that often persist through the Winter.Cherokee Princess dogwood

Sioux (Lagestromia ‘Sioux’ below) is my favorite of the crapemyrtles, with excellent dark green leaves and long lasting pink pannicles in mid Summer, but also outstanding Autumn foliage color.Sioux crapemyrtle

Later in the week we’ll see the Japanese maples that are nearly as spectacular in their Fall coloring as they are unique in leaf shape, and somewhere we’ll squeeze in some of the flowers that persist through the early frosts into November.

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The garden pond in Autumn

I woke Saturday morning to driving rain, then a windy pause, followed by leaves raining from red maples in the forest at the border of the garden. I had been watching closely, I thought, for the turning of the the leaves so I could cover the ponds with netting, but I guess I wasn’t attentive enough.

P1012523This is a sad day, covering the ponds seems to close the garden for the season. The tropicals, bananas and elephant ears, have been transplanted into large tubs and hauled to the basement for the Winter. Most of the perennials are fading, so the garden surrounding the ponds is taking on a Winter-look. Too soon!

A few elephant ears with huge green leaves  have been left until frost kills the tops, then the roots will be dug and stored in bags of dried, shredded leaves in the garage. There are too many and they are too large, and there are too few windows to provide enough sunlight to overwinter all in pots. Dahlias and cannas will get the same treatment. A few will probably rot, or dry out, but most will survive to be planted out after the threat of frost is past in May.the Swimming pond

The rain persisted through late afternoon, so I was able only to cover the swimming pond before dark. This 1,600 square foot pond contains nearly 25,000 gallons of water, and I intend never to drain it for cleaning, so the priority was to cover it before leaves sank to the bottom. I was able to scoop some with a long handled net, and the pond skimmer captured others, so disaster was averted.Pond with net covering

The swimming pond is nearly forty feet wide and a bit longer, and the lightweight nets will submerge once covered with leaves if not supported by cables. Steel rods are driven into the ground at pond’s edge, then plastic covered cables (the kind used for tieing up dogs) are strung and tightened to hover a foot or more above the water’s surface. The netting (a special ordered size of the same long lasting nylon netting used as deer fencing) is stretched tautly and anchored with stones at the edges.

Covering this large pond can be quite an adventure. Wet boulders and awkward footing, and the huge, tangled net, make the task more treacherous, with more than a few slips and close calls, but I avoided taking a swim in the cool water. The koi didn’t seem to notice. Since we quit feeding them early in the month, they have settled for swimming deeper in the pond, and showed little interest in my pratfalls.the stream in September

The smaller ponds, and the long stream, were covered on Sunday, a dry, sunny day, with far less trouble. Even with assistance from the wife, stretching nets over the ponds and under the overhanging weeping Atlas cedar and Japanese maple entails a dunking or two, and squishing around in wet boots and socks for an hour.

I will leave the waterfalls running through the Winter. In the mid-Atlantic area we rarely have more than a week without temperatures rising above freezing, so ponds don’t freeze enough to require turning pumps off. In the worst case, waterfalls freeze and water is pumped over the edge of the liner and out of the pond until the pump runs dry. In my ponds that is a drop of only four or five inches due to the skimmer enclosure, not running the entire pond dry, so not a tragedy.

And now this unpleasant task is complete, the ponds are covered as the leaves are falling. The wet socks haved been laundered. The boots were left on the driveway for the sun to dry, and now a second storm has soaked them. With good fortune they’ll dry by the time the nets are to be removed in March.

That’s the way the world goes ’round

We’ve hired a fellow to rid our attic of squirrels. The pesky tree rats have chewed through wires, destroyed a heat pump something-or-other, and are generally making a nuisance of themselves. Thus far, a skunk and possum have been captured in the live traps, but no squirrels.

P1012591There is plenty of space on this property for wildlife, but the house is off limits to all but the wife and I, perhaps a few dozen mice, and, oh my, not to forget the crickets. The gentleman asked if we wanted our skunk and possum back, and of course they are welcome to return.

I rarely see critters in the garden by daylight, though needless to say there are squirrels and possums, birds, rabbits, frogs and toads, an occasional small snake, dragonflies, a fox Frog ready to hop into the pondfrom time to time, and the groundhog who lived under the shed for a few years and ravaged the neighbor’s vegetable garden. I walked upon and startled him drinking from the ponds several times. You can’t imagine how quickly these portly little critters can move.

Our groundhog departed this Spring, but did no damage during his stay that I can see. The hole under the shed and another conveniently located several feet from the now abandoned vegetable garden were easily filled. No doubt my neighbor has a different attitude regarding his departure.

Hydrangea Penny MacI rarely see the deer who bed down no more than twenty paces from the house in a thicket of willow and mulberry, but there are tracks in damp ground throughout the garden, and if I was not to remain vigilant in spraying the repellent there would be considerable evidence of injury to the hostas and hydrangeas.

In this early Autumn the small back lawn has been pockmarked with holes from an animal, I assume a raccoon, foraging for grubs, which I’m certain are plentiful. I suppose the culprit could be our captured skunk, also.

If our smelly little friend has been relocated far from home I’d be surprised if another doesn’t resume where he left off in destroying the lawn. Grubs or skunks, I don’t know which is better, or worse, though we see neither, and the lawn was no prize in any case.

P1012829A section of grass behind the swimming pond has been wrecked, worse than the rest. It looks like a herd of buffalo stampeded through, but I’m quite certain we have no buffalo.

The ground in this area stayed damp, perhaps a perfect habitat for grubs. I suppose the lawn will return in the Spring, though I’ve warned the wife that it would be a shame if it didn’t and must be converted to garden.

Fortunately, buffalo have steered clear of the garden!

With October frost the leaves are turning, others falling, the berries of hollies are beginning to redden, but an abundance of blooms remains.Joe Pye Weed Chocolate

The Joe Pye Weed ‘Chocolate’ (above) has been flowering for weeks. They are scattered through the garden, all grown from windblown seed. Many seedlings have been pulled as weeds when they sprouted in unwanted locations, but I’m happy to have the volunteers that have been allowed to stay. Chocolate is medium height and compact compared to other Joe Pye varieties that grow four feet or more, and the dark foliage makes the white blooms stand out.Anemone Whirlwind

The Japanese Windflowers (Anemone) continue to bloom, both the single pink ‘September Charm’, and the single and double whites ‘Whirlwind’ (above) and ‘Honorine Jobert’. With recent mild temperatures the remaining buds might flower several weeks longer.Sedum blooms in late October

The groundcover Sedum (above) with grayish rounded foliage is blooming now. This sedum was provided a most unfortunate spot between small boulders that border a stone patio. It seems the narrow garden bed between the patio and lawn is a perfect point to cut through, in particular when carrying sticks to the firepit, with the sedum too brittle to withstand this foot traffic. Beyond the stampeding of clumsy humans, the sedum is quite tough and dependable.

Today thunder and tropical rain are stripping trees bare in short order. Only a  handful of days earlier the maples had little color, and only ash, birch, and a stray tree or two had dropped a significant number of leaves. I fear that I have delayed too long in putting the nets over the ponds, but the storms will have ended tomorrow, so they’ll go on nonetheless. We’ll cover this topic later in the week.

Flowers in late-October

Perhaps it’s too early to be late in the month, but that’s really not the point. There are flowers in the garden, lots of them, and this is Virginia in October, northern Virginia, closer to the mountains than the shelter of the city.

Nighttime lows have fallen into the mid thirties, and there are not so many flowers as any day in April or May, or July for that matter, but I planned for an Autumn blooming garden, and I can’t help but be pleased.

Penny Mac hydrangea

The remontant (reblooming on new growth) hydrangeas, Penny Mac (above) and Endless Summer, have been flowering since late May, though they slow down in the heat of Summer. There are numerous buds remaining, but those will not develop fully with cold temperatures. P1012725

The pink and red Knockout roses (pink, above) began blooming in May and often continue until Thanksgiving. A year ago, freezing weather halted their flowering by the tenth of November, but other years I’ve had a few flowers remaining in early December.P1012758

Though the temperatures are too chilly to wade into the swimming pond, I regularly visit the koi and enjoy the colorful red calyx of the nearby Seven Sons Tree (Heptacodium miconiodes, above). Clusters of small white flowers appeared in early August, so the tree will be a highlight of the mid Summer and early Autumn gardens.Encore azalea October

The Encore azaleas (above and below) are blooming, not as heavily as October a year ago, but with splashes of color, and many more buds to open if the warmer weather predicted for the coming week arrives. This is the second season for the Encores to bloom in the mid-Atlantic, and the number of blooms often rivals the Spring.  Encore azalea Autumn

On visits to the Gulf coast in early December they are often in full bloom, which I’m told can stretch until after the new year. The Encores then flower off and on from early Spring into Summer and Autumn deeper in the South, but the later Spring bloom in Virginia does not give sufficient time to reset buds for a Summer bloom.Fuchsia

A delightful long blooming fuchsia, ‘Angels’ Earrings’ (above), is marginally hardy, but requires greenhouse-like humidity to over Winter indoors, so it will have a go of it in the garden. This fuchsia is mounding, not weeping, but the blossoms are so low that I’ll have to move it to cascade over one of the stone walls to show them off properly. Other fuchsias in the garden are quite hardy, but not so beautiful as this.Peruvian lily

There are several Peruvian lilies (Alstromeria, above) in the garden, some hardy, others marginal in this climate. All have bloomed from late Spring through today, though there was a period during mid Summer when the foliage melts in the heat and the plant nearly disappears.Japanese anemone

Other perennials save their floral show for the end of the season. The Japanese Windflower (Anemone, above) has single or double white or pink blooms that stand on long stems that wave in the October  breezes.Tatarian daisy

Taller still, and in bloom, are the perennial sunflowers (Helianthus, now beginning to fade) and Tatarian Daisy (Aster tataricus, above) that has many buds that will flower over the next several weeks.Toad lily Samurai

The taller Toad Lilies (Tricyrtis, above and below) that were growing in almost full sun have few flowers remaining, and fewer buds, but the plants that had been pinched back through mid Summer have many buds still to flower. The early cold does not seem to trouble them, so I look forward to more weeks of bloom from this carefree, easy to grow perennial.

On this frosty October eve there are other bloomers that space will not allow. Several Sedums, Joe Pye Weed, and several Autumn Crocus (Colchicum autumnale) will flower until we get back later in the week.

Toad lily in October

Ask the Garden Guru – October

It has come to the attention of the Garden Guru that some have questioned his credentials. He admits to not being a true “guru”, but has been told he has many guru-like tendencies.

Most importantly, he has a garden. Beyond that, the resume is thin. Read ahead at your own risk.

As always, feel free to submit questions for the Guru’s consideration.

What is your opinion of colored mulch?

x3It is colorful, and I suppose harmless enough, but not for me. I’m opposed to colored wood mulch, shredded rubber tire mulch, and the hideous ground and tumbled glass (left) that’s so bright that it jumps out of the garden to make plants irrelevant. Mulch is a tool, not an ornament. It’s purpose is to mimic the effects of leaf litter in forests, not to jump up and down and steal the show.

You recently wrote about the marriage of your son. Is he a “guru-in-training”?

Perhaps, I think it might be a genetic condition, but his guru-ness won’t be in gardening. He’s too busy blasting stuff into nano particles with his lasers.

Why doesn’t my red maple turn red in the Autumn?

Red maple (Acer rubrum), also called Swamp maple because it will occur natively in damp areas, is naturally variable in color from yellow to red. In the sliver of forest that borders my garden the numerous red maples are always yellow, though occasionally with a hint of red here and there. Today, most nursery grown trees have been started from cuttings taken from trees selected for their consistent red Autumn color. Varieties such as ‘Red Sunset’, ‘October Glory’, and a fast growing cross between Silver maple and Red maple, ‘Autumn Blaze’ (below), will have red color every year. Seedlings of red maples, including seed grown trees from the selections, will not be dependably red.DSCN0216Red maples seem to be everywhere. Are there other good trees for Fall color?

Absolutely, I’m so glad you asked. Why would you plant the same tree that your neighbor has, and their neighbor, and the next? Red maples are fine trees, not thugs like the universally scorned Silver and Norway maples, but diversity is a good thing in the garden, and in a neighborhood.Dogwood fall color

If your neighbor has a red maple, Black Gum would be a wonderful choice, or Katsura, or Ginkgo. Their Autumn foliage glows, brilliant yellows, apricots, and oranges, and they grow significantly slower, not to monstrous dimensions. Perhaps you don’t need a shade tree at all, and the native dogwood (above), with red leaves and berries (and the added bonus of April blooms), will be an ideal selection.

Why are the needles on my white pine turning yellow? Is it dying?

White pines (Pinus strobus) have been known to die without obvious cause, but in early Autumn I’m guessing that your pine is not dying at all. All pines drop needles from prior White pine yellowing needlesyears (from two years to hundreds in the case of the ancient Bristlecone pines), but white pines annually shed needles in their second year. For an established pine that grows a foot or more each year the needle drop is barely evident, but a newly installed tree with sparse growth will not have enough current year’s growth to hide the yellowing needles.

What should I be doing to prepare my garden for Winter?

It depends. With a typical garden of evergreens, some perennials, and annual flowers now is the time to sit back and let frost do its work. The leafy tops of perennials and annuals will wither and die. Some will disappear, other might need a tug to remove the old foliage, and some will require pruners. There’s no hurry, anytime prior to Spring is fine.

I like to save these chores for a warm Winter day when you’re itching to get outside, but it’s too early to plant. We’ll have several of those, and another task to do the same day is removing the dead foliage of ornamental grasses. Most people like to leave the grasses to sway in the breeze through the Winter, but they must be cut back prior to beginning growth in early Spring. I like to cut mine back in January or early February.

DSCN0185How to cut them back? I use a chain saw, cutting with the top edge of the blade so the dead grass blades aren’t pulled into the housing. Pruners, hedge shears (even motorized), string trimmers, and brush cutters are slow, and get bogged down constantly. While the chainsaw has hazardous potential, it is far quicker. One year I got the idea from a garden magazine to burn them, so I tried it, and narrowly averted burning down the garden and the house. Only try this with the fire department at your side.

If you’ve planted tropicals such as elephant ears, bananas, and cannas, and want to keep them through the Winter, you can dig and pot them to keep in a sunny room in the house, or let frost kill the top of the plant and store the roots in a cool, dark basement or garage. If you’ve had tropicals and houseplants on the deck or patio through the Summer, now is the time to bring them indoors. Today!

P1012523Along with digging the tropicals out of the garden, my most depressing day is covering the ponds with nets to keep the falling leaves out. To me, this is the end of the season, and Spring seems a long way off at this point. I’ll address this task in greater detail in the next week.

In spite of myself …

… I end up sitting on a rainbow.

Lack of planning, reliance on hindsight rather than foresight, failure to learn from one’s mistakes. Guilty, guilty, and guilty again.

Perhaps on a frosty evening in January,  or with the first inkling of Spring when the snowdrops are blooming, then we’ll delve into the commission of these sins, and pledge to follow a steadier, less perilous course for the coming year.

I doubt that it will come to anything, and why should it? Despite these transgressions, the garden is glorious today. Tatarian daisy

The coarse leafed Tatarian daisy ‘Jindai’ (Aster tataricus,above) has begun to bloom on the back slope of the swimming pond, a position in the garden reached only by walking the full circumference of the pond, and planted with only tall, late blooming sunflowers (below) and this aster. Jindai grows to three feet, tall enough to be seen from the patio on the near side of the pond.Sunflower

In a rare display of forethought, this aggressive aster has been hemmed in by a large Tardiva hydrangea to one side, and the shade of the variegated leaf ‘Wolf Eye’ kousa dogwood to the other. At some point the aster might struggle with the sunflowers for dominance of this back corner, but it’s likely they will commingle beautifully. Such is the plan. Colchicum byzantium

Little planning is needed for the Autumn crocus, they require only a small space and no care. Colchicum byzantium (above) is blooming near the upper stone patio and ‘Waterlily’ (below) by the pavilion near the swimming pond, both tucked into voids between larger perennials. Colchicum Waterlily 

The latest of Windflowers in the garden this early Autumn, the Japanese Anemone ‘September Charm’ (below) is blooming now. I mistakenly left this windflower unprotected by deer repellent, so they were pruned severely in mid-Summer, thus flowering weeks later than the name would promise. Another incidence of luck trumping good garden planning.Anemone September Charm

Happy ‘Discovery of the Western Hemisphere by Europeans’ Day

It’s confusing to me to celebrate a day for a guy who didn’t do what your old grade school textbooks said he did. I hope all of Columbus’ relatives don’t get in a tizzy and write, but I’m feeling cheated for lack of recognition for deeds I didn’t do.

I have forbidden the C word in my office for the day, which is meaningless since everyone’s off.

There are, of course, additional objections attached to the discovery of a land that was already inhabited. In truth, the holiday should be celebrated by Europeans who discovered destinations (notably Hispaniola) destined to become some of their most popular vacation spots.

Enough foolishness, back to the garden tomorrow.