The morning after

I was at a trade show in Louisville, Kentucky earlier this week, but could not escape the excitement generated by the impending snow storm that was to arrive on Saturday. My initial skepticism that snow this early was improbable was quieted late in the week with realization that it was likely to snow, but I supposed that not much would come of it.

I don’t profess to having inside knowledge or great insight into such matters. I only know the propensity of the media to tease and amplify the buzz when significant weather approaches, and for many people to jump on the bandwagon. And, given that cool, but not cold temperatures were forecast, and that ground temperatures remain quite warm, there was only a small possibility that a wet snow would stick to roads, grassy areas, or to tree foliage that was widely predicted to be a potential disaster.

My return flight from Louisville and landing were at the storm’s peak, and the descent was as bumpy a ride as I can recall, but the runways were only wet with no evidence of snow removal equipment at the ready. Plow trucks idled along the major highways on the ride home, ready to push the first sign of slush that didn’t materialize.

Now, the morning after, only a few traces of snow remain, and of course there is no damage to the garden. Temperatures dropped below freezing for the night, and so thick leafed hostas and other perennials have taken a sudden turn towards their winter dormancy. I discovered that in my haste to move tropicals indoors last weekend I forgot two philodendrons, one of which is now hopelessly injured, but the other and a nearby tropical fern (above, also neglected) were unharmed.

In any case, this storm passed as just another cold and wet October day, though with a bit more wonder involved for those of us who don’t recall snow this early in the autumn. There are still blooms in the garden, and with warmer days ahead it is likely that the sporadic azalea (below), hydrangea, and rose blooms will persist for a few more weeks.

Proceed with caution

I don’t recall the exact timing, but it was probably twenty years ago when a fervor for ornamental grasses gripped the gardening world. At first I resisted, but slowly I was convinced to try a few in my garden that was just getting started. This seemed an inexpensive way to fill spaces quickly, and I was anxious to give the appearance of an established garden. I planted several types of miscanthus, a handful of fountain grasses, and northern sea oats and Japanese Forest grass in shady areas. Spots were found for Blue Dune grass (Elymus) and giant reed grass (Arundo donax), and blue fescue (Festuca glauca, below) was sprinkled in wherever a splash of color was needed.

At the time (before Google), information on most grasses was limited to a sentence or two in a nursery catalog describing the lovely seed heads, but there was no mention that some could be ruthless self-seeders. In my garden Blue Dune grass quickly became a scourge, not by seeding but by spreading below ground. Everywhere. In all directions. In a hurry. I tried digging, and digging more, but it stubbornly resisted until an herbicide finally brought it down. Good riddance, and a lesson learned to investigate before planting. For holding coastal sand dunes together in a storm this is probably a fine plant. In an ornamental garden, not so good. 

I planted all of the basic fountain grasses, and in a short time took a liking to the black fountain grass (Pennistem  alopecuroides ‘Moudry’, above) with stiff, black bottlebrush spikes. Its seed heads formed a month earlier, and they were showier than others. The foliage was a bit coarse, but it was an ideal size and it fit nicely into the garden. A year after planting I found a few seedlings nearby, but free plants are often a good thing, so some were left in place and others transplanted where they could be better enjoyed.

The following year there were more seedlings, and some that popped up in the lawn. Then a few were spied in the nearby field, and now it was becoming obvious that a demon was on the loose. Small seedlings were easily dug out of the garden, but more established clumps were sprayed with Roundup. I was careful to eliminate every trace of the grass I could find, and for years there was no sign of it in the neighborhood. Recently I’ve noticed a band of black fountain grass surrounding the farm pond just up the road, and though I’m confident that these did not originate from my garden I’ll work to eliminate this batch before it invades further.

I’ve also seen a problem with the common maiden grass (Miscanthus sinensis gracillimus) popping up at the wild edges of the garden, though variegated and dwarf maiden grasses have not been troublesome. I’ve had no problems with other grasses seeding, but through the years the garden has grown considerably more shady, and all but a few variegated leaf maiden grasses have faded away. Fountain grasses are more tolerant of the encroaching shade, but several are becoming more sparse each year.

Northern sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium, above) thrives in shaded spots, and in moist soil it seeds thickly, though it does not spread far from the parent plant. I remove the seed heads when the plant goes dormant after November frosts, and this dependably manages the number of seedlings.

The gold leafed Japanese Forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’, above) brightens any shady spot in the garden. I have never seen a seedling from a handful of plants in my garden, and it is much slower to spread than other grasses. This is a marvelous plant for part shade to part sun, but I recommend starting with a one gallon container or larger since Forest grass seems a bit touchy in smaller sizes that are often mail ordered. 

I prefer the contrasting green and gold stripes of ‘Aureola’ rather than the all gold leafed version that can look washed out to me. Japanese Forest grass’ seed heads (above) are unremarkable, but attractive in an understated manner.

It took a while for me to figure the ideal spot for blue fescue (Festuca glauca), well drained, but not too dry, and I lost a few plants early on. The small tuft of blue foliage seems an easy fit in the garden, but they are easily overwhelmed by neighboring plants. Several blue fescues have grown in the garden for ten years or more, and now they are only slightly larger than when they were first planted, so there is no danger that these will escape from the garden.

I suppose that I’ve come nearly full circle, from not caring a bit about grasses, to heartily accepting them, and then feeling some relief when a few succumbed to deepening shade. Still, there are many fine grasses, and I don’t intend to scare you away from planting them. Earlier this summer I planted a variegated giant reed grass that I expect within a few years will tower over the damp rear garden. I planted a few more blue fescues, and divided two whopping clumps, one of a gold carex, and the other Japanese Forest grass.

I’ve found that divisions transplant easily, but planting of most grasses is best undertaken in the spring or summer rather than in autumn when roots are slow to grow and new plants are often injured by wet winters. And, I suggest checking before you plant to determine whether your choice will be a problem in seeding itself about, though most are safe and excellent choices.

Late October blooms

For whatever reason the deer have been particularly active in the garden this autumn. The shrubs and perennials that are protected by deer repellent have suffered no damage, but I’ve seen a few low hanging leaves eaten on a Chinese dogwood (Cornus kousa) that has never been bothered in the past. A few evergreens leaves of aucuba have been nipped, though I usually don’t need to worry about them until winter when there is less other foliage for the deer to eat.

As I was checking out the dogwood I discovered that one mophead hydrangea has nearly been defoliated by deer. The stems are green, but the leaves appear to have been freshly munched. This hydrangea is jammed between the dogwood and a large viburnum so that it is heavily shaded and barely seen from any vantage point, and though it seems to grow vigorously it flowers sparsely. I don’t recall when it was planted (probably twenty years ago), but I suspect that it was a ‘Nikko Blue’ or one of the old time cultivars that is often damaged by cold so that blooms are scarce. Since branches of hydrangeas often die back by a foot or more in the winter no real damage has been done, and if this one disappeared completely I probably wouldn’t notice.

As winter cold approaches the gardener expects fewer blooms each week. The perennial sunflowers (Helianthus) flowered a bit later in September than normal and faded more quickly than in most years, and though the toad lilies (Tricyrtis, above) were as floriferous as usual, the blooms of several varieties were more short lived. But, despite the late date, our recent splendid weather is matched by a number of blooms.

The ‘Chocolate’ Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium rugosum ‘Chocolate’, above) is fading quickly, though seedlings that popped up in shady spots in the garden are holding onto their blooms a bit longer. The native Joe Pye weeds flower in July and August, though the bloom can be prolonged by cutting the stems back so that they flush new growth in September. I have never done this, but occasionally a tall stem will break under the weight of the large flower, and the resulting growth quickly develops new blooms.

Some of the bloomers in the garden have been cut back to encourage reblooming, and so today’s flowers are the last in a series that in some instances began in the spring. The reblooming ‘Boomerang’ lilac (Syringa x ‘Boomerang’, above) flowered in the spring with the other lilacs, and with gentle pruning this is the third set of flowers. I don’t know that I’ll keep after it so regularly in future years, but I have jammed two shrubs into spots that are too small for the full grown shrub, so that it’s more likely that I’ll be forced to pay more attention to it.

A few perennials have rebloomed, and though I didn’t consciously deadhead the spent flowers I might have snapped off the flowering stem in the summer when it was finished, and in doing so encouraged another round of flowers. Several of the small grouping of foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea, above) are flowering, and if they’ve bloomed this late in the past I haven’t noticed it. One yellow leafed spiderwort (Tradescantia, below) was squashed in the summer by a clumsy oaf (I admit) so that the fragile foliage was torn from the roots, and I suppose that inadvertently new growth and additional blooms were encouraged.

The Japanese windflowers (Anemone) and tall Tatarian asters (Aster tataricus ‘Jindai’, below) have not rebloomed, but with plentiful rainfall and moderately cool temperatures their flowering has been prolonged. The aster is particularly pleasing since I have never been impressed with more compact asters that flower for shorter periods, and I am guessing that ‘Jindai’ blooms for six weeks or longer in my garden. It is a tall (nearly six feet) and coarsely leafed perennial, and perhaps it could be difficult to use in smaller gardens, but in this over planted jungle it stands above most of the crowd. On sunny days in late September and October it is often covered with bees, most commonly bumblebees, but with the rain and cloudy weather recently there have not been so many.

We have recently covered the fall blooming azaleas, hydrangeas, and roses, so there’s no need to spend any further time with them today, but we’ll bring the day to a close with the burgundy leafed shamrock (Oxalis regnellii atropurpurea, below) that continues to bloom. For whatever reason I had not tried these tiny bulbs until a year ago, and though I was of the unfounded opinion that they would be too tender, I have been surprised by their vigor. In fact, as many gardeners are aware, oxalis can be difficult to be rid of once you have it and it insists on spreading itself about. My other plantings are so thick that I have little concern for this, unless it should decide to invade the lawn. But, the foliage has remained consistently dark through the year, and even if it did not bloom at all it would be a splendid backdrop for taller plants. The delicate pink blooms are delightful, and they have increased in abundance through the late summer and early autumn.

In the nick of time

I am accustomed to doing things in the garden in the nick of time, or often after the fact when damage has already been done. I don’t know if procrastination is the exact term for it, or if it’s just plain laziness, but in the end most everything seems to get done, and of course some of the things that don’t get done didn’t really need to be done.

The forecast for Saturday night was for lows in the upper thirties to forty, and I decided that I had put off the inevitable long enough. A few dozen tropical plants are scattered on patios in the front and rear gardens, and they had to be brought inside eventually. I’ve too much time invested in the large agaves and bananas, and too much money on a bunch of smaller tropicals to let them spoil over one cold night. By good fortune the cold was forecast for the weekend, and I had no convenient excuses for putting this off any longer. There were several minor projects to be attended to first in the morning, then a few hours of dawdling before getting around to moving the heavy pots in late afternoon.

Either I’ve gotten old or the pots have grown since last year. Certainly I’ve never moved the huge ceramic container with the large lime colored elephant ear, or the one with the banana that was once well over my head that is now much shorter but filled with multiple trunks. Even in my younger years I couldn’t manage to lift these monsters, and so I set off to the basement to find the dolly, which came up missing though I can faintly recall that it’s flimsy wheels crumpled when moving something or other and it has probably been discarded.

I fetched the wheelbarrow, which had been overturned so that it did not collect water, but without much thought since one handle was buried in the swampy mud behind the shed. I’m not averse to getting dirty, but muddy hands made it that much more difficult to get a good hand hold on the large pots to wrangle them into the wheelbarrow. I’ll admit to a bit of mild cussing as I struggled, but finally the deed was done, and I managed to drag the wheelbarrow to the basement door.

Now, this is the place to tell you that no-flat wheelbarrow tires are wonderful in theory, and in practice they indeed don’t suffer from flats, but they are too stiff to easily bounce over the large stepping stone slabs and steps that lead to the basement. So, there was of course more harsh language, which is okay so long as I’m not too loud and my wife and the neighbors are indoors.

Two large, yellow striped yuccas were submerged in their pots into soil this year, and since they were extremely root bound at the time I potted them up into larger plastic containers. The yuccas are not cold hardy, and I knew that I’d have to dig them up to bring them in for the winter. Fortunately, they had rooted into the container so the yuccas pulled out in one piece, but one of the two was anchored in sloppy mud, so it was pulled from the hole with some difficulty. And then there are the spines!

Once the yuccas are brought indoors my wife insists on clipping off the extremely sharp spines, but after spending the summer in the garden they have grown substantially, and each new leaf has a needle-like spine. Imagine a waterlogged two hundred pound container of mud and vicious yucca needles, and me, leaning over this dangerous beast, grasping for a handhold. I can hear you laugh, but I can assure you that it was not a pretty sight. Yucca spines are not as brittle as the thorns of barberries, and luckily do not break off so easily, but they are stiff enough that they penetrate as deeply as you continue to push.

In any case, the yuccas were unearthed without too much blood being shed, and one was safely moved to the basement. The other made it halfway before I gave up due to the previously mentioned struggle to drag wheelbarrow over stones, and mud and spines that made it impossible to move the yucca any further. My determination not to skewer myself was stronger than the need to move the yucca indoors this evening, and so it will remain on the patio (halfway to the basement) until I get around to purchasing another dolly (one with pneumatic tires rather than hard rubber).

The low temperature for the night turned out to be only forty-one, so the tropicals would have gone through the night safely, but it’s good to get this task out of the way (with the exception of the remaining yucca). By Sunday morning my wife was complaining that I’ve brought hundreds of spiders inside, and I’m quite certain that this is exaggerating the problem by at least a few, but I’ve little doubt that in the days to come there will be ants and other little flying things that I can’t identify. I’ve been bringing tropicals from the garden into the house for a bunch of years now, and every year is an adventure.

Encore azaleas

‘Autumn Twist’ azalea (below) began with a few scattered blooms early in August, and from the start of September and into mid October there are dozens of flowers clustered at branch tips. Other Encore azaleas hold off until cooler temperatures arrive in mid September before beginning to flower, and these will bloom through the first early frosts, often with a few flowers into early November in my northwestern Virginia garden.

I first planted Encore azaleas to test their cold hardiness, and to see if they would reliably rebloom in late summer and early autumn. My first experience was disappointing, with only a few flowers on azaleas planted in medium shade. I was encouraged by the nursery grower to plant in a sunnier location, and many varieties now bloom in spring and late summer without fail. Now, even the original shaded azaleas have begun to flower dependably.

Along the way I noticed that the Encore azaleas did not suffer lacebug damage nearly to the extent of the old favorites that I planted in my early gardens, ones that I gave up on as their vigor diminished each year. For years I had only a few scattered azaleas remaining in the garden, and I was convinced never to plant another until the Encores were introduced.

I’ve not been converted to an azalea lover, but the Encores are less bother than many other evergreen azaleas, and their extended bloom into early autumn is welcomed when there are few other flowers.

A small deer on a Sunday morning

Sunday was a beautiful morning with sun breaking through the early fog and a bit less chill than the preceding days. My wife and I sipped coffee, read the newspaper, and while discussing the sad state of affairs that is today’s world I noticed a small deer on the slate patio just below our kitchen window. It was nibbling on black mondo grass that borders the patio, and apparently not finding that particularly appetizing, it moved on to sniff one plant, then another without any satisfaction. In a minute the young deer wandered a few steps further and was lost in the jungle of camellias, mahonias, and hydrangeas that surround the house.

Watching through the window I was careful not to make a sound to startle the youngster, and my wife and I searched in vain to see if others were nearby since we often see three or more at a time. I was curious to see if the deer would find any plants to its liking since I last sprayed deer repellent several weeks ago, and as I surveyed that section of the garden later I found a few leaves of a large gold leafed aucuba that had been chewed, half a leaf on an oakleaf hydrangea, and a few tips of the mondo grass.

I will admit that I’ve become a little sloppy in spraying, a little too confident that deer won’t bother the larger shrubs, and I have no doubt that the few branches on the aucuba and hydrangea were missed when I sprayed them. The mondo grass, I don’t think was sprayed at all. So, the damage was negligible, and though I see new tracks through muddy parts of the garden every time I walk through, there has been no significant injury to plants since I began to spray with a repellent several years ago.

And I’ve become lazy. I neglected to spray at all at the start of August, and there’s plenty of blame to go around because I depend on my wife to keep after me, and where was she through the month? In any case, I came to my senses the second week of September when I noticed a few leaves had been nibbled on the ‘Blue Cadet’ hostas that are immediately beside the thicket where the deer rest in the heat of summer afternoons. It had been more than sixty days since I sprayed in early July, and after two months and a dozen inches of rain the repellent finally wore thin. I pledge to be more conscientious in the future, but no real harm was done, and if anything I am more resolute in my belief that deer repellent is the most effective means of protecting the garden.

Every day I hear people complain that deer have eaten this or that, and how their plants choices are so limited. They moan that even supposedly deer resistant plants have been eaten, and how can they have a decent garden? By spraying once each month (when my wife reminds me) from the start of May to October, I have no such troubles.

Fruits and berries in October

A year ago there were abundant juicy red fruits on the Chinese dogwood (Cornus kousa) along the southern border of the garden, but this year there are none. Four other Chinese dogwoods have never had a single fruit, two because they are heavily shaded (I suppose), and the others for whatever reason that is beyond my comprehension.

The fruits are large and red, similar in shape and size to a strawberry, and the Chinese dogwood is frequently listed as a tree for the edible garden. I once saw an aged dogwood loaded with several dozen fruits in a sun baked nursery field in Tennessee, but most often trees that I see have a few handfuls, at best. The fruits must be quite tasty to birds, or whatever wildlife it is that snatches them quickly upon ripening, but when I split one open the unappetizing looking mush dissuaded me from sampling it.

In any case, though the dogwood bloomed heavily in late May, there are no fruits this year. As far as I know, there is nothing that the gardener can do to encourage them, and it is likely that the lack of fruit can be attributed to some weather event that closely followed the tree’s flowering. Maybe next year.

The native dogwoods (Cornus florida, below) have plenty of glossy red berries, though as soon as the leaves drop the birds make short work of them. The berries are much smaller than Chinese dogwood’s, and they are carried in small clusters (usually two to five).

The large berry clusters of Nandina domestica (below) grow at the tips of each branch, and are often so heavy that branches arch under their weight. In mid October some berries remain green, though others are already a brilliant red. Some references state that the berries are favored by birds, but very few are eaten through the winter on ten or twelve large shrubs in my garden. So, either the berries are not as appetizing as claimed, or there are the wrong types of birds in my garden.

Cultivars of nandina in my garden have far fewer berries, so that they are rarely noticed, and I suspect that some have no berries at all.

The fruits of roses are rose hips (above), and their abundance varies by variety. Many of the rose hips have ripened to red now, and few will make it through the winter and not be snatched by birds, squirrels, rabbits, and rodents. 

I have planted a variety of American, Chinese, English, and hybrid hollies in the garden, and most are heavily laden with berries this autumn. Many are still green (Koehneana holly, above), but others have ripened to red (a hybrid holly, below), and through the winter these will slowly disappear as birds eat them.