The garden in early autumn

The breeze picked up as the rain intensified, and leaves tumbled from the trees.

The dry period from mid August through September has pushed many trees into dormancy earlier than is usual, and with a nudge from wind and rain many leaves have dropped. With another heavy rain forecast we’ll have to wait to see how many leaves remain to know if there will be a significant effect on the autumn foliage color. The native dogwoods have set bud for next spring, and after a dry summer the buds will be heavier than normal, so the dogwoods will be splendid in April. I have noticed heavy flower budding on edgeworthia and rhododendron, as well.

The drought has not bothered the late blooming shrubs and perennials much at all, though the variegated ‘Snow Fairy’ caryopteris (above) came into bloom and out in a rush. I have made an effort to have something blooming in my garden from February into December, and of course this is easily accomplished in the spring months, and even through the summer, but is not so difficult in the autumn as you might expect. Today we’ll visit some of the blooms in the garden, and since the list is long we’ll take a break at the mid point to finish in a few days.

The reblooming mophead hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla “Penny Mac’, above) delayed setting buds through the worst of the summer heat, and only in the past ten days have they set numerous buds. If the weather cooperates, and the first killing frost is delayed until the end of the month there will be large blue and white blooms (from Blushing Bride) for several more weeks.

The Encore azaleas (above) bloom in my garden beginning in late April, and again mid September through the first heavy frost. This year several began their second bloom in mid August, have continued to bloom late into September, and I expect that there will be blooms for several weeks longer.

For whatever reason, the roses have bloomed more abundantly in September than I can recall, and despite the horrid heat and humidity the foliage of Knockout and Drift roses has not suffered at all from black spot. The Flower Carpet roses (Flower Carpet Red, above) have bloomed through summer, but foliage is sparse with some disease. I have planted several of a series of low growing roses called Oso Easy, and I’ve been quite happy with the repeat blooms of Paprika (below) and Cherry Pie, but they were planted too late in the season to speculate on their disease resistance in the garden.

The reblooming buddleia ‘Blue Chip’ (below) is new to the garden this year, and has proved to be more compact and floriferous than the more common cultivars. The spiky blooms are much shorter in length than the large growing types, but the period of bloom is longer, and the small size is more easily inserted into the garden. I have chopped other buddleias out after they became difficult to manage, but Blue Chip is a splendid addition, and of course it is a favorite of butterflies.

Beautyberries (Callicarpa dichotoma, below) have a coarse growing habit similar to the large buddleias, though they do not grow so quickly and have proven to be considerably less of a nuisance. I prune beautyberry to three feet each spring so that it stays within bounds, and in September the arching stems are covered in purple and white berries. It will tolerate wet ground, but its awkward shape and dull green foliage are best hidden at the back of the garden.

Another shrub new to the garden is Loropetalum ‘Emerald Snow’ (below), a compact grower with green foliage and ribbony, white spring blooms. The loropetalums are only marginally hardy in my garden, and the red leafed cultivars leaf late in the spring and don’t bloom. Emerald Snow reblooms after it is pruned, so it can be forced into flowering through the summer into the autumn. I will be anxious to see that it survives the winter since I have planted it later than I would prefer, and plants that are marginally cold hardy should be planted as early in the year as is possible so that they can establish themselves before the winter.

There are many blooming perennials in the garden, but too many to begin to list today, so we’ll continue our visit in a few days.

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Rainy days and Monday

There will be dry spells when the garden’s soil turns to dust, and there is little to be done besides breaking out the hose to water the aucubas and hydrangeas that have wilted and look so miserable. It does no good to moan over the sorry state of the lawn, or to whine that the elephant ears have lost their vigor late in the summer when they should be at their peak.

After six weeks with barely a drop, today it’s raining, though I fear it will not be enough to quench the thirsty garden. After only a few hours of light rain the gold splotched aucubas have regained their vitality, and the poor windflowers (Anemone ‘September Charm’, above) that were a bit crisp around the edges are standing tall again, happily bending in the breezy drizzle.

Since the start of September I have nagged that the toad lilies have been tardy to bloom, though the stems are covered in fat buds. Only the floppy ‘Samurai’ bloomed on schedule in August, with ‘Miyazaki’ (Tricyrtis hirta ‘Miyazaki’, above) and others following this last week of September. Now, flowering buds will open over the next month if we are fortunate enough that a hard frost or freeze does not come too early.

At its peak bloom the small flowers are only moderately attractive from three or four paces away, so toad lilies must be located to be appreciated at arms length, or closer, ideally beside a patio or path where the gardener is comfortable kneeling without crushing neighbors that are creeping on the ground beneath. When given such a favored position the reward is an extended bounty of exquisite speckled blooms with remarkable structure.

Besides blooming later than expected the toad lilies have suffered little from the drought, and despite my determination to let the garden fend for itself there are few signs of the stressful late summer. Shallow rooted lawn grasses and perennials are most vulnerable to injury from dry soil, and though the lawn is a pitiful sight, many of the late summer bloomers have grown lush with abundant flowers.

The Tatarian daisies (Aster tataricus ‘Jindai’, above) have grown past six feet, taller than I’ve seen them before, with hundreds of yellow-centered violet flowers that tower over the coarse, corrugated leaves. The small blooms are favored by butterflies and bees, and I’ve been forced to alter my path through the back garden lest I continually disturb their nectar gathering.

The beautyberries (Callicarpa dichotoma ‘Early Amethyst’, above, and ‘Albifructa’, below) have not been bothered at all by the heat and drought, planted just above a depression that is constantly damp from the trickle of a spring that meanders through the border at the back half of the garden. The foliage of beautyberry is an ordinary green, and its awkward form is best relegated to the back of the garden, but the berries are robust and brightly colored, and persist long after the foliage drops.

As October approaches, and the threat of frost is near, there are few days remaining to enjoy the blooms of toad lilies, asters, and late blooming sunflowers. A bit of rain and cooler temperatures will perk up blooms and help to prepare the garden for the winter to come.

Walk on the wild side

The garden is bordered to the south by a sliver of mature poplars and maples, and to the west by a water retention area that was botched in construction, which resulted in a poorly drained swamp that is impossible to keep cleared of cattails and brambles. Over twenty years I have planted more of this and that than I can recall, built four small ponds and a large one, and killed more plants than most people will plant in their lifetime. Now, the garden looks decent, some days a bit better when there’s a riot of blooms, and birds and butterflies swooping about.

The garden is best described as a mishmash of trees, shrubs, and perennials with little discernible planning, but with enough order to know that a human hand has meddled in the process. Occasionally I’ll wander through the forest, sometimes to keep the brambles and poison ivy under control, to dig out the stray barberry, burning bush, or multiflora rose that have popped up, but more often to see what’s blooming.

At the midpoint of the property a trickle of a spring keeps an area at the forest’s edge damp, and here Ostrich ferns (Matteuccia struthiopteris, above) and skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) grow in abundance. The ferns have spread until they’ve encountered the shallow roots of swamp maples, so that there is a nice colony of a few hundred square feet. Through the years I have borrowed a few to transplant to the garden, where they have merrily spread without the interference of the maple roots.

In years past mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) spread happily under the forest canopy, but since the property developer harvested some trees for timber they have declined and occupy only a few small areas. There are still scattered native American hollies (Ilex opaca), dogwoods (Cornus florida, above), and sassafras (Sassafras albidum) that poke their heads from beneath the tall maples. The hollies and dogwoods seed themselves readily, though the sassafras appear to be in decline.

Over the years I have carved a bit of a swale to drain the seepage from the spring to a more defined area, and this now winds its way to the swampy retention area. Along the damp depression, and at the edge of the marsh where blackberry brambles and cattails have not overwhelmed everything else, there is a marvelous jumble of sunflowers (Helianthus, at top of page), goldenrod (Solidago), Blue Mist flower (Conoclinium coelestinum, above), Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium), and miscellany that flowers through the year, but more in late summer. The garden I have established is more organized, but no more beautiful in bloom.

Coarse, big, and beautiful

The hours of sunlight are noticeably shorter each week, and night temperatures are delightful, though a few warm days are forecast for the coming week. The geraniums and coleus in large pots on the deck and patios have rebounded, and with cool nights do not look so bedraggled as in August. The tropical elephant ears and bananas haven’t minded the heat at all, but would be happier with a bit more rain.

The garden behind the house is considerably larger, and sunnier than the front, but it is bordered by a mature forest of poplars and maples to the south, and large evergreens and flowering trees to the north, so there are few spots where the summer sun blazes through the day. The sunny slope of excavated dirt below the swimming pond is planted with young dogwoods, hydrangeas, edgeworthias, yuccas, and perennials (such as false indigo, Baptisia australis) that will tolerate the poor, dry soil. Towering above the tall shrubs is Tatarian daisy (Aster tataricus ‘Jindai’, above), with ruggedly corrugated leaves and dainty blue flowers with yellow centers.

Despite the horrid heat of this summer, and without supplemental irrigation the daisy has grown taller than six feet with rigid stems that barely sway in the breeze. With hundreds, perhaps thousands of buds that will bloom into mid-October the small flowers seem out of place on the coarsely textured plants, which seem more suited to the brazenly beautiful sunflowers.

By contrast, the perennial sunflowers (above) are refined and finely textured, though the flowers scream for attention. The bright yellow blooms poke out here and there, shoehorned into spaces tighter than they would prefer. The tall stems are not so rigid as the daisy’s, and heavy with blooms they flop about and lean on the neighboring shrubs. A lower growing variety, ‘Low Down’ (Helianthus saliciflius ‘Low Down’, below) is tucked behind daylilies and under the branches of ‘Wolf Eyes’ dogwood, and though the spot is not full sun, it seems happy enough.

Nearly as bright as the sunflower is goldenrod (Solidago sphacelata ‘Golden Fleece’, below), with slender, arching stems cloaked with tiny yellow blooms. Golden Fleece is more compact than other goldenrods, drought tolerant, and does not seed itself about like the native.

As the blooms of caryopteris and Seven Son Tree have begun to fade, bees and butterflies have made their way to the tall Tatarian daisy, Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium ‘Chocolate’, above), and salvias (below). A dozen of the Chocolate Joe Pye have spread by seed from a single plant, and now I cannot recall which was the original. New seedlings are easily eliminated if they’re growing where they’re not wanted.  

There are slight variations in leaf color, with some darker than others, but their growth is a quite compact three feet compared to others that grow to six feet or taller.

A splendid September stroll

Today I was roaming through the garden with no particular purpose, just wandering, reflecting, listening. I choose each footstep carefully to avoid any of the abundant frogs that flee in terror as I approach, and pause for a few moments to watch a striped garter snake glide through the dark water in the front pond. I have seen fewer snakes in the garden this summer, and though I am not fond of snakes, I see no reason to be rid of them since they do no harm that I can see, and probably serve some useful purpose that I am not aware of.

The path along the side of the house disappears under a tangle of large leafed hostas and a tall nandina that arches over the stones, and I am cautious that a snake must lie in wait (or even a frog), so I opt to push through the azaleas, past a sharp-spined Dragon Lady holly, and thorny barberries that were once red-leafed before the black gum grew to shade the side yard. At one time, a number of years ago, a large black snake prowled this spot, long before the hostas obscured the path, and though the snake has not been seen for years, I would prefer to take the more certain route where I can see the ground for each step ahead.

I have considered transplanting the large clumps of hostas, which would not be difficult, and only one branch of the nandina obstructs the path, so the route could be cleared in a short while. I am expanding the garden just above this area, and a stone path will be extended from the edge of the lawn to meet the path that is blocked, which then reappears on the lower end of the overhanging hostas. I understand that it makes little sense to construct a path that leads nowhere, but this is the normal course of matters in the garden, and perhaps the nonsense will be resolved sooner rather than later by simply moving the four clumps of hosta.

I considered this project for a second, filed the notion for future consideration, and continued to wander, through the upper garden behind the house, and see that again today the toad lilies are not blooming, though their buds are swollen and must open any moment. Nearby, the roses continue in full bloom, and with cooler temperatures they have set many buds that will flower continuously into November.

I cross the small patch of woebegone lawn to the summer shade house, and notice a prominent bud on the passion flower vine (Passiflora), which I had considered dead and gone until it mysteriously sprouted in early August. I was elated that it had survived, but resigned that there would be no blooms this year as it recovered its vigor. Now, I am delighted to see the bud, but not surprised since I am frequently reminded how little about the garden I understand.

For a few minutes I visit with the koi and goldfish in the large swimming pond, and notice that the blooms of the Seven Sons Tree that nearly overhangs the pond are fading quickly. There are no butterflies visiting the remaining blooms, and only a few dozen bumblebees. The beginnings of the pink-purple bracts that will be colorful into October are evident, but are not prominent enough to be seen from even a few paces off.

Turning away from the hungry fish (I’ll return to feed them shortly), I pass the passion flower again, and see that the bud has opened, the bloom is in its full glory. If I had lingered for several minutes longer before visiting the koi I would have witnessed the bloom unfolding, and there are few flowers as stunningly beautiful, and none so complex in shape and coloration as the passion flower.

At the base of the steel support for the passion vine the autumn saffrons (Colchicum) are fading. Two varieties have bloomed a bit early in this late summer, and I have kept a watchful eye for ‘Waterlily’ with large double flowers, but I see no evidence of it, and perhaps I have forgotten where it was planted. The corms are poisonous, so they have not been eaten, and they are quite vigorous, so I will presume that one day soon the flowers will appear, probably on the far side of the garden from where I’ve been looking.

A topsy turvy garden

The Franklin Tree (Franklinia alatamaha, below) will often bloom into late September when the leaves begin to turn to a beautiful orange-red. The contrast of colorful foliage and large white blooms with prominent yellow stamens is striking, but not this year. The last of the late summer blooms are fading, I see no more buds ready to open, and the foliage has not begun to change color.

There are a number of bloomers in the garden that are ending early or starting late. Why? The obvious answer is the inordinate number of hot days in this summer, but why worry about it, every season has its odd happenings, so the gardener must learn to enjoy things as they come. There are problems that require the gardener’s intervention (pulling weeds and banishing bugs), but this isn’t one of them.

The small white blooms of the Seven Son Tree (Heptacodium miconioides, above) are fading more quickly than is usual, so the garden is noticeably calmer with fewer bumblebees and butterflies buzzing about. The fall foliage color of the Seven Son is unworthy of mention, but the blooms are followed by pink-purple bracts that are at least as attractive as the blooms, so that the tree remains colorful into October.

The gold leafed caryopteris (‘Worcester Gold’ and ‘Jason Sunshine Blue’) are still in bloom, but showing some sign of fading as the variegated ‘Snow Fairy’ (above) is coming into full bloom. The flowers of Snow Fairy are smaller and more scattered, so the color from its blooms is not so pronounced, but the green and white splotched leaves are splendid from late spring until frost.

With the extended heat other late summer blooming perennials have been later in developing buds, and are only now beginning to show color. Today there are only a few blooms on the Japanese Windflowers (Anemone ‘Whirlwind’, above), but numerous buds, so there will be blooms for several weeks. Despite the heat the windflowers have grown quite tall, except for a few that were nibbled by deer that are more compact and just beginning to bud.

The common names of many plants can be of mysterious origins, but windflowers are aptly described. The tall flowering stalks bend and sway in the breeze, and will occasionally require staking, but not this year since there have been no severe storms.

Most of the toad lilies (Tricyrtis, above) are budded heavily, and within days of blooming. One cultivar has been blooming for several weeks, but I cannot recall a time when all weren’t blooming by the start of September.

The tardy windflowers and toad lilies will bloom into October, likely until frost, so enjoy the cooler temperatures and the abundant blooms, and don’t fret that the sunflowers are a few weeks late.

Delightful September days

In retrospect, I suppose that I was foolish to plant a handful of perennials and shrubs a few weeks back. Several cool days encouraged me, but they were followed by more of the same mid-nineties temperatures that have become too common in this long summer. Without a hint of rain for three weeks I’ve had to pay more attention to watering than I would prefer, but there’s hope, cooler temperatures have arrived, and will continue through the next week. A bit of rain Sunday morning will keep the dust down, but with a soaking rain I’ll be a happy gardener.

I’ve made an ambitious project list for the coming weeks, probably more than I can handle. Each year I find that I am more enthused by the late summer blooming, perennial sunflowers (Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen’, above), so I’ve figured a sunny spot where I can shoehorn a few more in. The perennial sunflowers are not bothered at all by heat and drought, and instead seem to flourish in poor, dry soil.

In the front of the property I’ve planned to remove the withered grass under the big beech, and with an area of two hundred square feet (or more) I’ll have a rare opportunity in this long established garden to add a few of this and that without having to consider if the space is adequate, or if one will overwhelm its neighbors.

In planning the new garden I was reminded that it is easy to neglect, and how infrequently I appreciate the charms of old standbys like ‘Autumn Joy’ sedum (above), an undemanding stalwart that shows color for many weeks in late summer. The areas where I have planted Autumn Joy have slowly become quite shady, and the plants have faded a bit, so I’ll transplant several to the sunnier edge of this new bed.

I have planned to include a few reblooming blue hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Penny Mac’, above) in the new area that is mostly shade, but with a few hours of midday sun. The hydrangeas in the rear garden have begun to reset buds with the cooler weather, and the first September flowers have arrived. Blooms will continue until a hard frost kills the buds and foliage.

I have discovered that Japanese Forest grass (Hakonechloa ‘Aureola’, above) is an essential plant for shady spaces, with gracefully cascading golden foliage. Along the shady stream in the back garden it arches over boulders, with delicate seed heads in September that contrast against the dark water.

Forest Grass is slow to become established, but after a few years it will tolerate heat and dry conditions without a bother. I have split the established clumps several times to spread to other parts of the garden, and the fist sized clumps of root are quicker to grow than pots from the garden center, so that new plants are quite economical.

I will be dividing the roots of several of the toad lilies (Tricyrtis, above) to plant in the new garden area, and I’ve found that it is quite easy to break off a section of the roots without disturbing the established clump, which can remain undisturbed for a number of years. Only one variety bloomed in August this year, and the others have been quite tardy in setting bud. In the past week all have buds that are prominent, and the blooms are only a few days off. With a late start the toad lilies will bloom well into October, or until frost.

Sunday’s modest rain will allow me a break of a day or two before I must water the new plants again, and with some luck there will be some more substantial rainfall in the near future. With the delightfully cool temperatures there are many perennials coming into bloom, and in the next week I’ll follow up on the sunflowers, goldenrod, asters, and toad lilies that are beginning to flower in this late summer.