The last autumn foliage

In the week past Seriyu and Lion’s Head maples have dropped their brilliantly colored foliage, the maples and poplars along the border of the garden are bare, and with only scattered evergreens to shield the property neighboring houses are readily seen. I value the large evergreen hollies, cypress, spruce, and Alaskan cedars, in particular when the deciduous leaves have dropped, but prefer some of each in the garden.

A few leaves cling to the Chinese dogwoods and the large weeping beech, but the foliage is bedraggled at the start of December. The leaves of Oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia, below) have not begun to drop, though they turned to a deep red more than a month earlier. These are wonderful shrubs, underutilized at the borders of shaded gardens with large, leathery, oak-like leaves, huge panicles of white blooms, and prolonged autumn foliage color.

Spireas (Spirea thunbergii ‘Ogon’, below) are rarely considered for their autumn foliage, but the leaves turn late in the season, and shine after other trees and shrubs have faded. ‘Ogon’, sometimes sold under the trade name ‘Mellow Yellow’, has yellow needle-like foliage and relatively inconspicuous white blooms in early spring, and in late November the shrub shimmers in the afternoon sun.


American hollies and others

Along the southern border of the garden is a two hundred foot wide swath of forest bisected by a small creek. The mature poplars and maples are remnants of forest left to stand at the edge of farmland that has been converted into housing lots of an acre or more. In the past twenty years the developer has harvested select hardwoods so that the forest’s canopy is now more open, and understory growth accustomed to the dense shade has struggled and been replaced by weedy multiflora roses and brambles. 

In the filtered sunlight numerous native American hollies (Ilex opaca, above) have sprouted from seed introduced by visiting birds, though the parent plants are not nearby. On occasion I dig out and otherwise attempt to control weedy growth, but encourage the hollies, dogwoods, and sassafras. The hollies are evidence of the genetic diversity that results from seedlings, and though all exhibit the distinctive dull green foliage of American hollies, the structure of the leaves (size, shape, quantity and prominence of spines) is unique from plant to plant.

American hollies are quite slow in growth, and in the shady understory with root competition from the maples few have grown taller than knee high over ten years. Given time the hollies will grow into fine, tall evergreens, and birds will feast on the red berries, but I am not likely to witness this in my lifetime.

A number of American hollies are cultivated by nurseries, with some selected for heavy crops of berries, and others for more rapid or fuller growth. Selections are propagated by rooted cuttings to assure desirable traits, but all are troublesome, difficult to transplant and too slow growing to develop a full plant within a reasonable period. Thus, other hollies that are easier to grow and transplant (and have more desirable glossy green foliage) are more widely available through nurseries.

‘Nellie R. Stevens’ (above) is the stalwart of the nursery trade, with dark leaves, vigorous pyramidal growth, and abundant red berries, but there are a number of excellent hollies that offer variations in height, spread, shape, and foliage color. 

‘Dragon Lady’ (above) is a more upright, somewhat more narrow growing holly, with black green leaves with notable spines, and a few degrees greater cold tolerance than Nellie Stevens. Berries seem to be less numerous than with other similar hollies, but Dragon Lady is a superb choice for use in screening or as a single plant. ‘Centennial Girl’ (below) is similar in appearance, though slower growing, and with foliage that is not quite so darkly colored, but also lacks the sharp spines.

English and Koeheana hollies (below) offer more abundant berries, and a broad pyramidal shape, though cold hardiness is not as great. Boughs of English holly loaded with red berries are typically used in holiday displays.

In my garden these hollies, as well as ‘Christmas Jewel’ (below), ‘Mary Nell’, ‘Patriot’, ‘Little Red’, ‘Cardinal’, and ‘Festive’, are scattered throughout. Some were planted to screen and enclose the garden, to provide food and shelter for birds, and others simply because I enjoy their commanding presence and cheerful berries. 

What to do with fallen leaves?

My garden is surrounded by trees, a mature forest of poplars and maples along one border, and on the opposite side (and scattered throughout) are an assortment of beech, katsura, hornbeams, black gum, cherries, dogwoods, and redbuds that drop an abundance of leaves each autumn. The dense plantings along the property lines capture leaves so that none are permitted to blow onto neighboring properties, so there are often deep piles in November as the breezes blow them about.

The latest windy, rainy day has stripped most of the trees bare, and so I will begin their collection, a bit at a time since there is little reason to hurry. The small areas of lawn, and low growing ground covers will be cleared first, as well as the stone paths and patios, but the majority of the garden beds will be cleaned up on the occasional pleasant winter day when I’m itching to get outside and anxious for spring.

I cannot imagine beginning this daunting task armed only with a leaf rake. The property is large (somewhat over an acre), and my energy limited, so I’ll utilize every mechanical advantage available (mowers and leaf vacuums) to collect leaves. I applaud those who are motivated to perform these chores without resorting to engines that belch pollutants, and I’m all for exercising and enjoying the cool, fresh air, but this is work, not fun, and the quicker and easier it is accomplished the happier I’ll be.

Along the forest’s edge I will not bother with the leaves at all, and the large Oakleaf hydrangeas and various viburnums will not care that leaves are piled beneath. In the areas of the garden closer to the house, and near the garden’s ponds I will vacuum the leaves with an electric blower/vacuum and bag the shredded remnants to mulch new planting areas that are bare soil, and when these areas are covered some of the shredded leaves will go in the compost pile.

In more open areas of the garden (and these areas are considerable in size) I’ll remove the vacuum’s bag so that the shredded leaves fly in every direction, but fall onto the garden as mulch. The leaf litter improves the soil as it decays and serves as a mulch to conserve moisture and control weeds. I prefer to shred the leaves rather than leaving them whole because they break down quicker, and their appearance is neater, though there are a number of whole leaves that are left behind and covered over.

For the small lawn areas I’ll run the mower over them once the majority of  leaves have fallen so that the shredded leaves filter into the grass. The leaves quickly disappear and add some nutrients to the soil as they decay.

This is what I do. What should you do with your leaves? I understand that many properties are far more manicured than mine, space is more limited, and shredded leaves are not welcome used as a mulch for planted areas.

Composting is far easier than most people expect, though it can be made as difficult as you please. I have a small area in back of my garden shed where I’ve set up inexpensive wire fencing to contain leaves and other debris that I dump through the year. I prefer to shred the leaves, since they are easier for me to move in quantity, and they break down more quickly than whole leaves. I don’t turn the pile, or add any secret concoctions to speed the composting process, but occasionally I’ll dig out a wheelbarrow or two of decent, crumbly compost, and I never have to buy soil for new plantings. There are books written on composting, and if I had to follow those instructions I would have never begun, but an area of twenty-five square feet will hold a surprising quantity of leaves, and with very little effort and practically no expense you will have an answer to get rid of your leaves.

If you don’t have the need or the motivation to rake leaves into a compost pile, the next best alternative is to rake them onto the lawn and run over them with the mower a few times. After a few weeks the finely shredded leaves will disappear, and some organic material will be returned to the soil. The leaves will not cause a thatch problem since they break down quickly.

I find that any of these methods are easier than bagging and setting leaves out to be picked up, as many counties and cities allow. Most areas dump their leaves into large piles that are composted, and then the compost is available to the public. The worst of solutions is burning the piles of leaves, and why anyone would choose to waste this valuable resource, I can’t say.

Autumn colors – Japanese maples and more

In mid-November temperatures are regularly dipping below freezing, and late summer bloomers have faded. The late blooming camellias and ‘Winter Sun’ mahonia have only recently begun to bloom, and both will flower into December. The reblooming Encore azaleas melted with the first freeze with the exception of ‘Autumn Amethyst’ (below), which has weathered the cold to continue in bloom. The flowers are a bit rough around the edges, as I would expect, but there are more buds ready to open, I suppose so long as temperatures don’t drop into the mid-twenties.

The autumn foliage colors of Japanese maples are a highlight of the garden, and while some cultivars turn early and have nearly defoliated, others have just begun their autumn display with leaves that will hold onto the tree for another few weeks. The Fern Leaf maple (Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’, below)  is an exception, one of the first trees to show color in October, but also one of the last to drop its leaves. The foliage goes through a series of changes, and one part of the tree will display different hues, with marvelous effect.

Lion’s Head maple (Acer palmatum ‘Shishigashira’, below) remains green until early November, but then the change in color makes the wait worthwhile. While many trees, and most Japanese maples are more uniform, Fern Leaf and Lion’s Head maples display a range of colors.

The autumn foliage of Coral Bark maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’, below) is uniformly, and glowingly yellow. Once the color has changed the leaves do not last long, but the fallen leaves are followed by bright red stems.

The native dogwoods began to change color in September, and by mid-October were a deep crimson with the leaves dropping in my garden early in November. The Chinese dogwoods (Cornus kousa) do not color until late in October, or even in early November, but will hold their leaves for a few weeks longer. Their colors vary between cultivars, with the variegated leaf types fading to tan, but the pink flowered Satomi (above) and white blooming types (below) changing to reds and yellows.

Observations in mid-November

The maples and poplars in the forest that borders the garden are nearly bare, and with overnight temperatures below freezing the remaining vestiges of late summer blooms have faded. Leaves of smaller trees, Japanese maples, Franklinia, and Stewartia have not dropped yet, and though the colors in the forest trees have been muted the small trees are as extravagantly colored as in any year.

Japanese Stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia, autumn foliage above) is highly regarded for its white, camellia-like blooms in early summer and for exfoliating bark, but its variable autumn foliage colors are quite extraordinary, ranging from yellow to almost purple. I cannot adequately describe the color this November, which is quite unlike the hue from previous years, but the tree glows in the evening sunlight. Stewartia is slow to establish after transplanting, and might require several years to see a noticeable increase in size, but then will grow at a quickened pace. When the tree was in bloom this year the branches were bent from the weight of the numerous flower buds.

There are more than a dozen cultivars of Japanese maple in the garden, and some have displayed their autumn coloration for weeks already, but the Coral Bark maple (Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’, above) has just turned in the past few days. The yellow leaves are particularly lustrous this autumn, though this small upright growing maple is most renowned for its fiery, red branches that are most evident after the foliage drops. Through the spring and summer Coral Bark maple is unremarkable, with relatively drab light green leaves covering the red bark, but it begins to shine in November.

The late autumn blooming camellias are in bloom now, with ‘Winter Star’ (above) the most recent to open its buds. Numerous buds ensure blooms over the next several weeks, though there will be only a few handfuls at any time. 

The reblooming azaleas and hydrangeas have many buds that will not bloom this autumn, and both had many blooms that were injured by the sub-freezing temperatures. The blooms of the Knockout roses (above) were also damaged, but the remaining buds will continue to open so long as daytime temperatures are moderate. 

The flower buds of rhododendron, pieris, and Japanese camellias are evident, but tucked tightly to protect them through the winter. The buds of the late winter blooming Edgeworthia (above and below) display the beginnings of the multiple tube-like flowers, and as the season progresses the buds will continue to expand and become more defined. In February I will watch their progress every few days, eagerly awaiting the blooms late in the month.  

Garden disappointments

Disappointments in the garden are considerable, numerous and frequent, and the gardener should not be at all surprised when a favored plant does not bloom as expected, expires suddenly, or suffers a slow, agonizing demise.

Too much water or too little, too much shade or not enough, or a cow from the farm three miles up the road finds its way to the garden and stomps the newly planted toad lily to dust, the one you had yearned for but not gotten around to ordering for nearly a decade, which until yesterday was blooming splendidly.  Or, some such nonsense.

The point is that bad things will happen, and the gardener must be aware of this, and instead appreciate the everyday wonders, the blooms, buds, and berries, the bees, butterflies, and autumn foliage colors.

I can recall many failures, trees, shrubs, and perennials that have died, patios that have sunk and walls that have fallen, most due to neglect on my part, but others a result of extreme weather of one sort or another. Perhaps the greatest disappointment of my gardening years was suffered almost twenty years ago, and it lingers in memory. When this garden was in its infancy I planted a bit of this and that, a pendulous beech, Franklinia, Katsura, an assortment of dogwoods and Japanese maples, Japanese umbrella pines, and a monkey puzzle (Araucaria araucana, below).

All went well for a year, and after two all were growing to my delight, and then the monkey puzzle died. Practically overnight. I can’t say that there were no signs of its imminent doom because I had no reason to examine it closely, and perhaps there were indications that it was on its way out, but none that cried out, and so it was disturbing when one day I looked and it was brown.

In travels to Oregon I had long admired the occasional monkey puzzle I would encounter, and for years I searched nurseries in the region for a tree of reasonable size before finally acquiring a fine, four foot tall specimen. I had not a clue whether it would survive the acidic clay of the garden, or the high summer heat and humidity, but I had not seen this plant at home and was mightily determined to succeed with this novelty.  I was encouraged that it survived the first year, and often a finicky plant will flourish once it has lived through the first year after transplanting, but it was not to be.

Now, monkey puzzle is not an ordinary dead tree. The tree is cloaked in dagger-like spines when alive, but dead, the tree cannot be handled with gloves lest the leather be torn to shreds. The dead tree stood in place for many months until I was able to push the decaying trunk over with my boot, and even then the spines left an indelible impression.

And so the point of this overly long story is that the most desired plants might fail, but that every day there are amazing and beautiful sights in the garden, and that the memory of the failure of the monkey puzzle endures to this day due only to the pain inflicted in removing it.

Preparing the garden for winter

There are, at minimum, dozens of tasks that should be, or could be completed to prepare the garden for winter. I will perhaps get around to a few, possibly not even those that should be considered the most critical, but those are the ones that will be accomplished, like it or not.

First and foremost on this list of chores, as any gardener knows, is raking leaves, and as my garden is bordered by enormous poplars and maples there is an abundance of fallen leaves. By good fortune there is no particular hurry, and I will often begin to collect, grind, and compost leaves in November, and work off and on until the task is complete in March. There are a few areas of ground covers where leaves must be removed or plants will suffer from the lack of sunlight, but otherwise this is a task to be undertaken on days with pleasant weather when I have an itch to get outdoors and out of the house.

Sooner, rather than later, I will pull a net over the ponds to keep leaves from blowing in and sinking to the bottom. This is not so much a matter of appearance as it is to keep the water from fouling with decaying leaves, and a few minutes in November makes the annual pond clean up in March considerably easier. There are fish only in one of the five ponds, the large swimming pond, and for water quality and the survival of the fish it is necessary to keep most of the leaves out.

One of the chores often  prescribed in preparing the garden for winter is to mulch planting  beds, and usually the advice requires us to apply mulch after the ground begins to freeze. The purpose is to maintain a more even soil temperature, and to avoid problems created by alternating periods of freeze and thaw. I have not found this to be a problem in my garden, though I have never applied a winter mulch, and in fact much of the garden has only a thin covering of pine bark and other parts have no mulch at all.

I will be using some of the leaves that are shredded to mulch two new beds that were recently planted with no mulch at all, but only for the purpose of thwarting winter weeds. The perennials, roses, and hydrangeas would have no problem surviving the winter without an insulating layer of mulch, but a three inch carpet of leaves will discourage the chickweed.

The heavy snow in the winter past demonstrated the need for tieing evergreens to prevent damage, and there were arborvitaes, junipers, cypress, boxwoods, and hollies in my garden that suffered injury from the snow. It is safe to presume that we will get much less snow this year, and I’ve never tied the evergreens in the past, so why bother? And I won’t, though the nylon strapping remains on many of the evergreens that were splayed in every direction in February and tied in March.

Reading the lists that are prepared for gardeners by overly cautious writers there seems to be concern for cold protection for evergreens, with recommendations on how to erect wind screens, and for anti-transpirants that can be sprayed to protect against the effects of frozen ground and chilly breezes. I have not seen the need to build structures to shelter plants that are accustomed to the outdoors, and are perfectly cold hardy, and evergreens in my garden have seldom suffered cold injury, even those that are marginally  hardy. I will not bother with burlap or sprays, and I expect the garden to survive the winter without a problem.

Of course, elephant ears and tropical bananas must be brought indoors for the winter or their roots dug and stored, and I will dig cannas and dahlias as well. The potted tropicals were hauled into the house almost two weeks ago, and if I must say so, without much of the usual trauma that waiting until the last possible moment entails.

A small frog was moved into the den, a hitchhiker on one plant or another, but after an evening spent chirping under the cover of lush foliage my wife discovered him the next morning gazing out a window and was able to capture and return him to the garden. Otherwise, there have been a few dropped leaves, normal for moving a plant to lower humidity, but thus far no major insect infestations.

I’ve found that garden writers seem quite fond of their tools, and perhaps all gardeners are this way, but I’ve been known to leave a spade in the weather for months at a time. Though I would not argue that this is the correct manner to handle tools, I have no emotional attachment to them, and so when I run across a shovel or trowel that has been cast aside and forgotten I will pick it up to stash in the garage or shed for the winter. I will not be sharpening and oiling tools, and have not seen an advantage gained by doing this, only that the spade becomes dangerously sharp and oily.

It is likely to be clear at this point that I am a perfectly awful gardener, irresponsible and lazy, but there is far too much garden, and only one of me, so I must determine which tasks are necessary and which are of the sort that are nice to do if I can get around to them. Most chores fit this category, and of course there is always something, or nothing at all that prevents their being accomplished.