The autumn leaves drift by my window

Better late than never.

Until the past few days the autumn foliage colors have been muted, but with a bit of cold weather and more regular rainfall in the past month there are now some brilliant reds and glowing yellows along the roadsides and in my garden. The extreme heat and late summer drought pushed some trees into early dormancy, so native maples and poplars dropped many leaves prematurely, and those colored only to drab yellows and brown.

Maple cultivars, named varieties that have been selected for their autumn foliage color, have been quite late to turn, but in the past week have changed to red, often with scattered yellow leaves. The contrast is striking, and the mottled colors are perhaps more delightful than is usual, though the display will be short lived.

A mild disappointment thus far have been the black gums, often spectacular with colors on a single tree ranging from yellow to dark red-purple. There are two on my property, one a native that has dropped most of its faded yellow leaves, and a cultivar, ‘Wildfire’, which has held its foliage with some interior leaves turning yellow, and the outermost leaves darkening with a bit of red.

If ‘Wildfire’ disappoints there will be other trees in the garden with wonderful colors to compensate. Fern Leaf Japanese maple (Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’, above) colors beginning mid-October, and will hold its mottled leaves of red and orange for a month or longer. This tree is partially shaded to one side, and the parts of the tree that are in full sun are marvelous, while foliage colors on the shaded side are muted.

‘Seriyu’, ‘Osakazuki’, and the ‘Golden Full Moon’ maple exhibit excellent foliage color, while red leafed ‘Bloodgood’, ‘Shaina’, and the various cutleaf weeping cultivars deepen in color, but the contrast is not striking.

The native dogwoods (Cornus florida, above) exhibit dependably beautiful red foliage that begins to turn by mid-September, and the leaves will persist into November. Even when the leaves drop the clusters of bright red berries are delightful until the birds have had their fill. Chinese dogwoods (Cornus kousa ‘Satomi’, below) color inconsistently, with some turning red while others have almost no autumn color at all.

Stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia, above) is just beginning to turn in my garden, and though the leaves will not last more than a few weeks, the display is outstanding. The Franklin Tree (Franklinia alatamaha, below) is one of the favored trees in my garden, with single, white camellia-like blooms in August, with a few flowers that often linger until the leaves begin to change in late September. This year the blooms began early and faded more quickly than is usual, and the autumn foliage color has been delayed. Still, this is a splendid tree in bloom and for its autumn foliage color.

A tree with surprisingly excellent autumn foliage is crapemyrtle, though not all cultivars. I have found that the pink flowered ‘Sioux’ (below) is particularly outstanding. In my garden ‘Pink Velour’, Arapaho’, and ‘Centennial Spirit’ have dropped their leaves without much of a display this season, and the foliage of the tall, white flowered ‘Natchez’ remains green late into October.  

In the past week Gingko (Gingko biloba, below) has turned from a subdued light green to a glowing yellow. While other trees will drop their leaves over a few days, once gingko decides to shed its foliage it happens within a few hours. One moment the tree is a blazing yellow, the next there is a yellow carpet beneath the barren tree.

This garden’s for the birds

The garden did not begin twenty years ago with the intention that it become a wildlife refuge, but intended or not, rabbits, squirrels, and chipmunks are sighted daily, signs of deer are seen everyday, with groups of five or more often seen at dusk. Raccoons, groundhogs, skunks, foxes, and possums are witnessed on occasion, along with turtles, hundreds of frogs, black and garter snakes (every now and then a copperhead), and incalculable  numbers of bees, butterflies, and birds.

There are four small garden ponds and a large pond with perhaps seventy-five koi and goldfish, so there is sufficient water available to encourage wildlife to visit regularly to quench their thirst. A small creek runs along the southern edge of the property, bordered to each side by a narrow strip of mature forest of poplars and swamp maples, a few oaks and beech, with dogwoods, sassafras, and brambles at the margins. Through the years I have planted so that on the acre and a quarter property there are only three small areas of lawn, surrounded by a dense jungle of trees and shrubs, evergreens, and perennials.

By chance rather than design, hundreds (or thousands) of plants bear an abundance of seeds and berries that attract seemingly every bird from two counties away. Whether splashing about in the shallow water above a pond’s waterfall, or darting from branch to branch, their songs and screeches enliven the garden. These are the garden’s residents, I am only a privileged visitor.

Years ago, my wife and I kept a bird feeder filled off and on through the year, but squirrels became such a nuisance that it remains empty. Today, the garden supplies enough water, shelter, and food to attract birds of every feather, though I am hardly competent to identify one from another beyond the common cardinals and robins, and of course the large herons and hawks are easily identifiable.

I have grown blueberries for longer than a decade, but haven’t harvested one for several years since birds readily feast on the berries as they ripen. I considered covering the bushes with nets, but only for a moment, then resigned to purchase my berries from the grocer.

In late spring the abundant white flowers of serviceberry (Amelanchier canadensis) are followed by clusters of edible berries, but birds assure that not one is picked from the tree that arches from the wood’s edge. The grape-like fruits of mahonias (Mahonia beali, above) seldom last long once they have ripened, and the strawberry-like fruits of Chinese dogwoods (Cornus kousa, fruits below) don’t stay for a day once ripe.

The berries of the numerous hollies (Ilex verticillata ‘Winterberry’, above) in the garden are turning to red in early autumn, and birds will feast on them through the winter. Seldom do the berries of hollies or the native dogwood (Cornus florida, berries below), or nutritious rose hips persist beyond January.

The berries of nandina (Nandina domestica, above) and beautyberry (Callicarpa, below) are bountiful, but less favored by birds, and some will remain in early spring, though birds will consume them reluctantly when other food sources are diminished. With the berries and fruits, and copious quantity of seeds from coneflowers and sunflowers, the birds in this garden can afford to be choosy.

Planting spring bulbs

I have plans for the weekend, but not indoors. The list of chores awaiting my attention is long, but there are bulbs to plant, so the leaky bathroom will have to wait, and there is no need to replace the weatherstripping until it gets cold, really cold.

For each of the twenty years that I’ve gardened this plot I’ve planted a hundred bulbs, or five hundred, and still there is room for more. Today there are fifty Spanish bluebells, a few hundred dwarf narcissus, a hundred and fifty of a few different alliums, and camassias, irises, and trout lilies waiting for planting. I have not decided who goes where, but that should be quite simple once I have trowel in hand. I debated purchasing several hundred crocus, and have a perfect spot for a handful of hardy cyclamen, but the budget was getting a bit out of hand, so those will have to wait until next autumn.

Many of the smaller bulbs can be planted beneath other shrubs, and the heavily shaded area under trees is fine for planting since there is sufficient sunlight to grow narcissus and any number of bulbs that require the late winter sun.

I will not be planting any tulips, though there are varieties that will tolerate the poorly drained clay, and will return annually. One year I planted an assortment of a thousand, or two, and over a few years some were done in by the poorly drained soil, others eaten by deer or dug up by squirrels, and others just pooped out and faded every year until they disappeared. With many thousands of bulbs that return without a fuss, and with no bother from critters, I’m quite happy to plant narcissus, alliums, and any number of other odd bulbs until I have run out of space (perhaps in another twenty years).

Late October in the garden

The autumn foliage colors of the swamp red maples, beech, and poplars have been disappointing, a result of the late summer heat and drought, but the dogwoods have colored to deep crimson as is usual. The Japanese maples, Franklinia, Stewartia, and Gingko in the garden are beginning to change, perhaps a little late, but I anticipate their full splendor in another week.

The asters and perennial sunflowers have begun to fade, and though they began to bloom a bit later than expected, there has been a full month of flowers, so no reason for disappointment. Both showed little effect from the horrid late summer weather, other than the short delay in blooming, growing tall and stout, with only a few branches of the tall sunflowers flopping about.

There are a handful of toad lily cultivars in the garden, and none have behaved as expected. Only one bloomed by the first of September, with the others delayed until late in the month, and then the buds of ‘Miyazaki’ and ‘Samurai’ have opened all at one time, rather than progressing from top to bottom along the arching stems as usual. ‘Sinonome’, ‘Gilt Edge’, and one other (whose name I can’t recall) have numerous buds that will bloom over the next weeks so long as we avoid a frost or freeze.

A few of the coneflowers (Echinacea ‘Coconut Lime’, above) have rebloomed, a result of deadheading the faded flowers in early August. I rarely get around to deadheading, and don’t know what motivated me to do it this year, but now I can appreciate the dividends of my labor.

The Japanese windflowers are in full bloom now, and I hesitate to say that they were delayed in bloom since I can recall that the pink  ‘September Charm’ (Anemone ‘September Charm’, above) did not bloom at all in September a year ago. ‘Whirlwind’ (below) suffered a bit of damage to the foliage from the drought, a little crispy around the edges, and is perhaps a little floppier than usual, but is blooming and happy with the recent rain and cooler temperatures.

The Encore azaleas began blooming in mid August, several weeks early in my garden, and have buds that will continue to open until a hard frost. ‘Sunset’ and ‘Princess’ are loaded with buds, but have failed to bloom yet, and probably will not unless warm temperatures stay around for another couple weeks. ‘Rouge’, ‘Amethyst’, ‘Empress’, ‘Royalty’, ‘Sundance'(below), and ‘Twist’ bloom most dependably in my garden, and all have flowered for nearly eight weeks.

The Drift and Knockout roses continue to bloom, though the Oso Easy roses have faded, and appear to be finished for the season. The Knockouts will often bloom well into November, sometimes through the Thanksgiving week if the nighttime temperatures don’t drop to the low twenties.

The reblooming hydrangeas (Penny Mac, above) have flowered sparsely in the early autumn, with only a few scattered blue flowers. In many years the blooms in October cover the shrub, and today there are plenty of buds, but they have developed too late to bloom this season.

The Seven Sons Tree (Heptacodium miconioides, above) exhibits clusters of small white blooms in August and September that are favored by bees and butterflies. In the week following the flowers fading pink-red bracts develop that are as showy as the blooms. The bracts remain colorful until frost.

Moving the tropicals indoors

The nighttime temperature plunged to forty one early Sunday, and since the thermometer’s sensor is attached to the house I must presume the actual temperature to be a few degree’s cooler. Fortunately, the night was breezy, so there was no frost, but this was close enough to motivate me to move the pots of tropicals indoors before they were injured by the next cold night.

In fact, I had energy only to move the anthuriums and bananas, the variegated and tricolor gingers, a red leafed cordyline, the tall tapioca (Manihot, above), a few of the agaves, and a large geranium (below). Another dozen pots of various elephant ears, and agaves too large to fit in the main living areas were assembled near the basement door to be brought inside another day.

I was surprised (again this year) by how much the tropicals have grown, and where half a dozen pots had been jammed together against the dining room window, now only four will fit. The red cordyline has doubled in size, and it is now much too large for the area beside the fireplace in the den, but there is no other space with adequate sunlight, so there it will stay.

My wife is often displeased with the transition of the tropicals to indoors, with spilled soil, scuffed floors, and debris scattered about, and later bugs and leaves that drop as the plants adjust to the lower light and humidity, but today she was rather happy with the process. Mostly happy, that is.

When I went back outdoors to fetch the elephant ears she heard the cries of a frog that was inadvertently brought inside, and I was warned that I’d better capture the poor creature before it dies (unlike the dead ones she had to clean up last year), but otherwise the move was made with a minimum of disruption.

Since fewer pots will fit in the living areas that have more plentiful natural light, there will be more sent to the darker basement, and it is just as well that I’ve decided to overwinter all of the elephant ears down there. The large leaves shed a regular drip of water, and the wood floors are dotted with water stains from prior years.

With fifteen or twenty large pots clustered around a lone glass door the natural light will be stretched further than in the past, with the shorter elephant ears and agaves close to the window and tall New Zealand flax and elephant ears to the back. There is no doubt that a few fluorescent lights and an inexpensive timer would make the overwintering much easier for the tropicals subjected to the dark basement, and perhaps I’ll work them into the budget.

A few tropicals will be left outside to freeze and die, though it would be quite simple to take cuttings of the strawflowers, coleus, and geraniums to root in water. There are already dozens of small potted this and thats scattered about, small agaves, haworthias, and echiverias, and this is quite enough to care for.

Now that the large pots have been brought indoors they will require little care, only an occasional sip of water, and certainly no fertilizer. Insect problems are rare, except for ants and crickets, but they do the plants no harm. 

The largest elephant ears, as well as cannas and dahlias (above), are planted in the ground, and the tubers and roots will be dug and stored in the cool garage after the foliage has been blackened by frost in the next few weeks. The digging and moving of pots has become quite a chore, but the large and robust tropicals scattered about the garden are ample reward for the effort.

A bumblebee’s life

While roaming through the garden this morning I was surprised to see dozens of lifeless bumblebees clustered on blooms atop the tall stalks of Tatarian daisy (Aster tataricus ‘Jindai’). In the years that I have been photographing the garden I’ve developed an affinity for these gentle beings, and so I was saddened that their cycle of life has ended quite unceremoniously perched on the beautiful flowers of this aster.

I wonder what draws the bumblebees to the aster as their final resting place. It has just passed its peak bloom earlier in October, and only a few days ago was alive with bees and butterflies foraging for its nectar. Perhaps the alarm on their biological clock struck midnight while they were feeding, for males do not survive the winter, and apparently the end comes quickly.

While I have noticed diminished numbers of honeybees over the years, the population of bumblebees has exploded in the garden. Beginning mid-summer there are abundant numbers collecting nectar from the flowers of Franklin Tree, caryopteris, and the Seven Son Tree. In late summer they visit the unique blooms of toad lilies, to crawl under the pollen laden anthers to reach the nectar below. On trumpet shaped flowers, too long and narrow for the large bees, I have seen them bite through the base of the bloom to access the nectar.

Many times I have drawn near as bumblebees swarm about, buzzing from flower to flower, and though they are clearly aware of my presence, they are not agitated, only inconvenienced as they detour to another bloom.

Soon, the blooms of the asters will fade, the stalks will wither and fall, and the cycle of life will circle to its starting point. The life of the male bumblebee has ended, but the queen lives on to begin a new colony in the spring.

Too many toad lilies? Impossible!

My wife asserts that there are far too many plants in the garden already, and how can I possibly consider planting more? Yes, the paths are blocked by hostas and nandinas flopping about, and now exuberant hydrangeas and sharp spined mahonias have obstructed another. And, the roses must be cut back severely in the spring or the black stone steps that lead to the back patio are impassable.

The creeping Blue Star (Isotoma fluviatilis, with tiny round leaves and pale blue flowers) has grown comfortable enough along the shady paths to blanket the large stone slabs, and thyme (Thymus) and Creeping Jenny (Lysimachia nummularia ‘Aurea’) do the same in partial sun. An assortment of gold leaf and variegated ivies are pruned occasionally, or other paths would have disappeared years ago.

So, point well taken, but, but, but …. she hasn’t been out in the garden for weeks, and if she had been would certainly have to admit that there’s adequate space for more toad lilies. Just look a them, lush foliage without a hint of stress from the awful summer, and covered in marvelous blooms. There’s room for several, at least. They’re well mannered, they don’t encroach on their neighbors, and though they’re planted near the paths, they don’t flop or seed themselves about, and are a perfectly pleasant sort.

I am only slightly embarrassed that I cannot recall all of the cultivars of toad lilies (Tricyrtis) in the garden, but all are splendid in bloom in late summer and early autumn, and I have not grown one that I wouldn’t highly recommend.

Earlier in the spring I planted one of the yellow flowering types, and now I can’t remember which, but it was rather small and spindly at the time (as new plants often are), and I must have walked the path past it dozens of times without thinking to stop to give the poor soul a drink. It had no chance in the face of early and prolonged heat, and so I will try another, and maybe several yellow bloomers again next spring.

Of course, this minor failure could happen to any new plant neglected to such a degree, and otherwise I am confident in recommending that toad lilies require no special care, no spraying for bugs or deer, no attention to deadheading, pruning, or fertilizing. Toad lilies insist that you wait until late summer to enjoy their blooms, but once the season has arrived, the blooms are incomparable, though not particularly showy from a distance.

I marvel at the unique architecture of the flowers that requires bumblebees to squeeze beneath the anthers with some effort so that the transfer of the sticky pollen is assured. The mottled coloring (usually a white background with a blending of yellow along the throat, with prominent purple spots) is exquisite, and is said to be the origin of its common name, though the toads in my garden are not spotted in such a grand fashion.

In the extreme heat this summer only one cultivar, the loosely branched though not quite floppy ‘Sinonone’ bloomed in mid August, with ‘Miyazaki’, ‘Gilt Edge’ and others barely showing a bud until early in September, a week or two later than is usual. The buds of many toad lilies are arranged at leaf nodes along the stem, and begin to bloom at the tips and then progress to the middle. Each bloom will last for a week if the temperatures are cool, and a two year old toad lily will be in bloom for a month or longer.

The flowers are quite small, and make little impact from more than a few paces away, so toad lilies should be located where they can be enjoyed at close range. If you are concerned with soiling your knees as you stoop to peruse the blooms, I would recommend planting them in a mostly sunny to partially shady spot beside a patio or path. While there is no danger that your toad lilies will become unruly and flop over the path, I caution that you could become hopelessly enthralled and obsessed with collecting as many cultivars as you can find.