A few of my favorite things ….

Mahonia ‘Winter Sun’

I get excited about new plants. A lot!

I’m intrigued by the latest and largest, the newest color of this or that, and any new cross or hybrid of one of my old favorites. My wife will tell you that I buy one of each, but that’s not strictly true, sometimes it’s more.

Then, after a year in the garden the newcomers are still loved, but the passion has subsided, the heat has cooled to a simmer.

With exceptions. ‘Winter Sun’ mahonia (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, in bloom below) is one of those.

My ramblings through the garden always include a stop at one of the many mahonias to check out what’s happening that day. The compact (for a mahonia) growth habit and dark green, spiny evergreen leaves are nice enough, though I’ve cursed ‘Winter Sun’ a time or two stepping on a dead leaf when barefooting through the garden.

I’m probably too easily entertained, but I never tire of the unfurling of Winter Sun’s new foliage (above), like an alien creature spreading its menacing tentacles.

Odder still, from a scaly terminal bud, in early fall it appears that pink tinged worms emerge from their nest (above), then elongate (below), before developing into erect racemes of fragrant yellow flowers in late November. The progression is a delight that occupies many hours when I should be raking leaves, or generally being productive doing something else.

The wife grew weary long ago of racing to see what-was-the-matter when I ran to tell her of the latest goings-on. Clearly, she has little appreciation for natural wonders.

And so, enough far-fetched tales and wide-eyed enthusiasm.

‘Winter Sun’ goes through several periods of growth mid-spring through summer, and so it grows fairly rapidly, for a shrub, that is. Other mahonias tend to flop about in this direction and that, very irregular in form, but ‘Winter Sun’ is more compact, though it grows taller than the more common Oregon Grapeholly (Mahonia aquifolium) or Leatherleaf Mahonia (Mahonia beali).

In my garden the ‘Winter Sun’ planted in a sunnier spot has grown past six feet, and presumably will require some future pruning to keep it within bounds. The fierce spines determine that this be done with a long handled lopper to avoid the inevitable puncture wounds and loss of blood.

In rather deep shade, in an area competing with shallow red maple and tulip poplar roots, ‘Winter Sun’ grows more slowly, and perhaps more compactly. In my experience the mahonias are untroubled by pests, and are particularly resistant to injury from deer.

I have witnessed small purple grape-like fruits on ‘Winter Sun’ in the nursery in late winter, but never on the plants in my garden, probably because birds pluck them when there are few other fresh fruits to choose from. In any case, the fruits on Mahonia beali and aquifolium are larger and more prominent, so if you are determined to grow a mahonia for fruit, then ‘Winter Sun’ is not your best choice. If this is your preference, I would advise growing all three, for it would be foolish to be without ‘Winter Sun’.


Flowers in late November

Instead of leaves I see houses in the distance, the last of the blazing orange Japanese maples were stripped in the wind and rain earlier in the week. Wet leaves are ankle-deep in the garden, and I bemoan the drab winter ahead with the red berries of hollies (below) and nandinas the only bright colors.

This has been a good year, wet seasons in spring and autumn sandwiching a dry late summer have provided ideal conditions for growth and blooming. A sub-freezing night ten days past ended the late flowering of toad lilies, windflowers, and sunflowers, and killed the above ground growth on most of the perennials.

The Encore azaleas had weathered  repeated frosts through late October and early November at peak bloom, but below thirty degrees the flowers melted. Without extreme nighttime lows since, the numerous remaining buds have begun to open, and though the azaleas will bloom only sporadically, their color is welcomed.

The Encore variety Autumn Amethyst (above) withstood the cold better than others, but Autumn Princess and Autumn Rouge have scattered blooms and buds that will continue to open until the next hard freeze. With the next cold spell their flowering will end until late April in this northern Virginia garden.

The fall blooming Camellias weren’t bothered at all by the cold, and Snow Flurry (the white double flower below), Chansonette (above), and Winter Star (below) will flower into December. Winter’s Interlude will not begin to bloom for several weeks, but then buds will open intermittently in warmer periods through the winter.

I have learned my lesson with camellias (after twenty years), and have prepared to spray a winter formulation of deer repellent to protect their evergreen foliage. Perhaps the taller shrubs will regain leaves lower than four feet next spring. The leaves don’t appear to be very tasty, and deer don’t bother them, or the arborvitae, hollies, cypress, and azaleas, until the more choice and succulent hostas and hydrangeas have died back for the season.

The sharp spines of mahonias protect its glossy evergreen leaves from deer, and now Winter Sun (below) is approaching full bloom. Of the handful of mahonias I grow, this has become a favorite for its neat, compact habit and bright yellow, late fall flowers. On occasion the flowers will be followed by small grape-like fruits, but the fruits are either not so numerous as the spring blooming Mahonia beali, or the birds grab them before I have the opportunity to see them.

The Knockout roses, pink and red (below), continue to bloom, though the flowers are more ragged than in warmer times. The edges of each bloom are injured and misshapen, but from a distance, even from a few paces away, the damage is not evident. The yellow Knockout quit blooming weeks ago. I don’t know if this variety will be  early to quit in autumn, or if the lack of blooms is due to its relatively new planting.

So, there will be more color than just berries to enjoy for several weeks longer.

To do, today and tomorrow

Don’t bother me, I’m busy! There’s no time to visit, no guests permitted. Not until the leaves are raked, chopped, hauled, and piled in the compost heap.Kousa dogwood fall foliage

The dahlias, cannas, and elephant ears have been dug, cleaned, dried, and now must be bagged with dry leaves and set on shelves in the garage nearest the house to prevent their freezing. This is an easy one.Dahlias, elephant ears, and banana roots ready for storage

A forest of maples and poplars borders this one acre garden to the southeast. Beech and birch, katsura and ginkgo, black gum, cherry, dogwood, and Japanese maples small and large planted over twenty years drop a sufficient number of leaves to keep the gardener occupied for some weeks to come.Okushimo Japanese maple in November

The driveway and  front walk were cleared first, then a path was made from the deck to the two stone patios, crossing the divide between stone slabs that bridge the upper pond, and then down stone steps to the lower patio. I have walked this path thousands of times, but nearly stepped into the pond and tumbled down the leaf covered steps in the past week.

Leaves from the paths have been shredded, then bagged and hauled to the nearly full open air compost bins. Much of the garden remains leaf covered, and though these will be chopped and left in place to compost, this chore will consume my daylight hours for the next week or two. Then, there will be time to rest.Blueberry fall foliage

The remnants of the late season hurricane that swept through over three days this past week has made leaf clean up more challenging. When leaves are dry they are raked and chopped with relative ease. Wet leaves mat down and clog the shredder, so the task has been made more time consuming.

I’ll try to keep a positive attitude, but leaf clean up feels more like work, and less like gardening.

Blooming, in November?

A blast of sub-freezing temperatures late last week ruined the flowers of toad lilies, Encore Fall blooming azaleas, and roses. The azaleas and roses have numerous unopened buds that were tightly wrapped, and thus insulated from the freeze. If the weather stays mild, if nighttime lows don’t drop too far into the low-thirties, then we’ll have more blooms. I’m betting we will. Camellia Chansonette

Not all flowers in the garden were injured. The ‘Chansonette’ Autumn blooming camellia (Camellia sasanqua ‘Chansonette’, above) escaped injury, and the hybrid ‘Winter Star’ (below) has multiple blooms, which will continue weeks longer. Deer have nibbled my camellias into feeble form in recent Winters, but since I’ve begun to spray a repellent regularly I expect them to revive. Camellia Winter Star

I prefer the Autumn blooming Sasanquas and hybrids from the National Arboretum introductions. The buds of Winter flowering types are often injured by freezing temperatures, regardless of the hardiness of the plant, and the April flowering varieties compete with so many other Spring flowers.

How can you resist a lush, dark green evergreen shrub loaded with flowers in northern Virginia in the middle of November? You can’t and you shouldn’t, and now that we have concluded that you must add a camellia or three to your garden in April, we’ll move on to other parts of the garden.Winter Sun mahonia

While deer might terrorize the camellias, I can say with certainty that they will steer clear of Mahonia ‘Winter Sun’ (above). The spiny leaf margins will draw blood if you’re not careful, but there are many reasons to include this November blooming evergreen in your garden.

Winter Sun grows more compactly than other shrub forms of mahonia, and is happy in full sun or shade, though it will grow more vigorously in sun. I make a point to visit the handful of mahonias I have scattered through the garden to see the colorful and unusual growth buds unfurl, and the bright yellow blooms often persist well into December.      Beautyberry in November

The common Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana and Callicarpa dichotoma) blooms modestly in mid Summer, followed by masses of delightful purple berries, or drupes, late Summer into December. Beautyberry is a coarse textured shrub not worthy of much attention until it flowers, then is one of the star attractions of the late season garden. My garden has the white berried variety (above), which is no better than the purple, but equally showy.  

In recent weeks we’ve featured the Autumn leaf colors of trees in the garden, but none are more attractive than Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia, below). The huge, faded flowering pannicles remain, but the deep purple-red leaves persist weeks after the leaves of trees have fallen.Oakleaf hydrangea in November

Today, the remnants of this late season hurricane are passing, so I’ll allow the fallen leaves that cover the garden to dry for a few days, sooner if the sun comes out tomorrow. There is plenty to do, raking and shredding leaves, hauling to the compost pile, but with a forecast of above average temperatures I’ll be watching for new blooms.

Blooming today, mush tomorrow

At zero degrees Celsius (thirty two degrees Fahrenheit) and below, intracellular freezing causes membrane damage and leakage of cellular contents. Or something like that.

My slightly less technical explanation, one day you have flowers in the garden, the next mush. Toad lily in early November

On this November weekend the trees are bare in this northern Virginia garden, but a few days earlier there were flowers, quite a few. The Toad lilies (Tricyrtis, above) that were pinched back in mid-Summer bloomed several weeks later than the others, and were in full splendor until two days ago. Despite today’s warmer weather they are quickly browning. Autumn crocus in early November

Autumn crocus (Colchicum, above) have been blooming for several weeks, and though the flowers suffered little damage in the late week sub-freezing temperatures, the stems have lost rigidity and droop towards the soil. Encore azalea in November

Encore azaleas (above and below) have been blooming since late September, a bit later this Autumn than normal with clouds and rainy weather, but their floral show has been a delight since. Numerous unopened buds remain, and still could flower if temperatures moderate.Encore azalea Twist in November

With an acre of garden, twenty or more trees I’ve planted, and forest on the property’s border, clean up over the coming weeks is a considerable task. Some of the fallen leaves will be raked onto the lawn, then shredded by the mower and left. In garden areas not adjacent to lawn, leaves will be shredded and left as mulch, and others hauled to the compost pile.   Big Leaf magnolia leaves

Even fallen, many leaves are quite spectacular on the ground. The huge leaves of the Big Leaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla, above) are large and leathery enough (almost two feet long) to choke the mower passing over them. After a few weeks they will curl and become brittle, much easier to clean up, though still too large for the leaf shredder. Ginkgo Autumn Gold leaves on the ground

The yellow leaves of ‘Autumn Gold’ ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) are as vibrant on the ground as on the tree a few days ago. Once the leaves begin to fall, they do so suddenly, falling overnight.

And now there are neighbors, houses can be seen through the trees. I’m never prepared for this, though thankfully there are wonders that stand out in the late Autumn and Winter gardens to keep me going until March.

Later in the week we’ll show some of the flowers in the garden that take the early frosts and freezes in stride. Several will bloom into December. And then there are berries, and interesting buds and bark.

Autumn colors – Japanese maples

I didn’t plant Japanese maples in my garden for their Autumn foliage color, but many are notable for their brilliant and varied hues. In fact, I believe that the most spectacular leaves in the garden are from the Full Moon, or Fern Leaf maple (Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’, two photos below). From every angle you walk around Fern Leaf maple there are varying colors, almost red to a mottling of red and yellow. For weeks, the tree is breathtaking.Fern Leaf maple

I will admit that I did consider the Fall foliage when I chose to plant this maple. Spring through late Summer this small tree is unspectacular, though interesting, with a low branched, wide spreading, oval shape, and deeply cut green leaves. Nice enough, but perhaps not warranting prime positioning in the garden. But in October, look out!Fern Leaf maple 2

I searched for a Golden Full Moon maple (Acer shirasawanum ‘Aureum’, below) for years until I found one in Oregon in a field of Japanese maples recovering from scrapes and scars, broken branches and Winter dieback. I had left a spot vacant in the garden, sunny, but protected from the late day sun, waiting with hope that I would find one. Golden Full Moon maple in October

I wanted this slow growing tree as a focal point, to display the bright golden leaves that shine on the gloomiest day. I didn’t give a thought to its Fall color, but here it is, nearly the equal of the Fern Leaf, though the leaves fall much earlier.Seriyu maple Fall color

The deeply dissected green leaves of Seriyu maple (Acer palmatum ‘Seriyu’, above) turn later in the season, possibly because the two large trees are sheltered close to the shady east side of the house. The leaves will hold on the trees days after others have fallen, then seem to drop in an instant.

Even at this late date the leaves of a few Japanese maples in the garden have not turned yet. My recall is fuzzy, but I think they might be worth waiting for. When I see their Fall colors you’ll be the first to know, and I expect that later in the week we’ll get back around to some of the blooms that are still going strong in early November.