No bulbs this year

For some reason it slipped my mind. When bulb catalogs arrived in early autumn I set them aside, then did nothing. I usually scour them thoroughly, and of course get excited by one thing or several that are then planted by the start of November. This year, nothing. No bulbs were ordered, so none will be planted.

I regularly moan and grown that there’s no room to plant in this twenty-three year old garden, but there’s plenty of space for more bulbs. First, they take very little space. And, many can be planted under other plants so that more than one plant occupies a single space. Though the garden is nearly fully planted I’m pretty certain I could go on planting bulbs forever.

Late November and early December are not ideal for planting, but it’s not too late for planting bulbs that might have been set aside and forgotten (or purchased at clearance). It would have been better if they’d been planted several weeks earlier, but these things happen, and sometimes the gardener discovers in January a sack of daffodils or crocuses set aside in the garage. These should be planted, preferably as soon as possible, but also when the ground is not frozen. They are likely to flower later than usual in the spring, and the flowers might be a bit small the first year, but it’s well worth planting them rather than tossing them onto the rubbish pile.

There’s no good reason I didn’t think of ordering bulbs when the time came. With trees damaged by storms, and a large patch of bamboo that was removed, there are gaps in the garden that must be filled, so to some extent I’ve been considering these open spaces. But, it’s not like my life’s so hectic that there’s no time for a stray thought. I just didn’t do it. Perhaps I’ll be a bit more motivated in the spring to plant some summer flowering bulbs instead. Lilies can be plugged into the smallest spaces, and autumn crocuses can be planted directly under shrubs, so I can continue in trying to fill every square inch of the garden.

Most years I plant several dozen narcissus, usually something a little different, and in recent years varieties that have been around for nearly as long as man has gardened. I’ve planted snowdrops and fritillarias, and a bit of anything if the mood strikes when I’m browsing the catalogs. I usually plant too few of whatever so that it takes several additional years for the snowdrops to seed and spread before they start to look like something. Fifteen or twenty crocus doesn’t make much of a show, and it can be several years before they have spread (if the squirrels don’t get them).

I’ve been talking myself in and out of planting a few things before winter sets in. As temperatures drop there is more risk in planting broadleaf evergreens, but that’s what I’m looking at doing. But, no bulbs this autumn.


An old spruce

The old columnar blue spruce (Picea pungens ‘Fastigiata’) is ready to give up. In twenty years it has gone from nearly full sun to part shade, and the Bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla) and a pink flowering ‘Satomi’ Chinese dogwood (Cornus kousa ‘Satomi’) have further crowded it. The lower limbs are nearly bare, and I figure that it’s too much to expect new growth in the spring.

Generally, conifers prefer sun, and it’s not at all unusual for the shaded limbs to gradually decline until there are no needles and the branches die. The tree’s decline could have been forecast a decade earlier, but I didn’t pay much attention until a few months ago. Still, as these things go, I might not do anything about it for another year, maybe longer, though if I get a hankering for something that will suit the spot it could be gone next week. It’s always painful to lose a plant that’s been around for awhile, and it hurts more when the tree is s focal point.

This blue spruce is near the front of the garden, and though lower shrubs and grasses are planted to the front it is readily seen from the street. In fact, most of what can be seen from the road is still alive, though much thinner than it once was. At one time the branches of the columnar spruce were rigidly upright, but heavy snow and ice spread the limbs so that it’s much more open. It’s narrower than other spruces, but it’s not so obvious that it’s a fastigiate form any longer.

When the spruce was smaller I tied the branches together with heavy twine in early winter as a precaution, but as a tree grows taller it’s more difficult to reach to do this, and the best that can practically be accomplished is to jostle the branches with a broom to dislodge snow before they are weighed down. Ice is harder to handle, and most gardeners (at least this one) are not motivated to get out of bed in the middle of the night to bang brooms against spruces, so eventually damage is done and a columnar tree is now just narrow.

I’ll ignore the question as to why the spruce was planted too close to other trees, and in a location that was predictably heading from a sunny exposure to shade. This isn’t the first time, and it’s not likely to be the last. My most notable flaw (among many) when it comes to the garden is a lack of patience so that too many plants are too close, and eventually mistakes must be paid for. The spruce had a good run, but now’s the time to consider, what’s next?

I’ve talked myself in and out of planting a catalpa (Catalpa bignonioides, above) this year, with the locations I considered far too small for a tree that will grow taller than fifty feet. I’ve figured that it might not grow to be a problem in my lifetime, but I don’t want to sell myself too short.

Catalpa is native to much of the southeast, but considered weedy because of its large leaves and coarse, irregular form. It seeds itself about so that where several large trees are found, scattered seedlings are inevitably growing nearby. But, I have a particular fondness for large leaves, and the catalpa’s flowers and long seedpods are quite unique. If only there was more space.

I’ve considered and reconsidered the catalpa for months, but so far the tree hasn’t made it onto the back of a truck for delivery. If good sense has anything to do with it, I won’t plant it. Anyway, the spot is more appropriate for a medium sized evergreen, but one that’s broad leafed to be more tolerant of shade. A large holly, or perhaps a small magnolia would work well, but there are already several of each (and handfuls of hollies, above).

Sweetbay magnolia (Magnolia virginiana, above) could be a good choice. It is partially evergreen, though only a few leaves will persist through an average winter (unless one of the more evergreen cultivars is selected). The multi-trunked tree is more shrub than tree-like, and its ultimate size is appropriate to the space.

Sweetbay is not exactly what I have in mind, but it’s growing on me, so we’ll see. There are a few other gaps in the garden from summer storms and the removal of a grove of bamboo, and it would be prudent to take time to consider all possibilities and to consider the consequences of planting something that grows too large or wide, or requires sun when the area to be planted is shaded. I suppose that it’s fortunate that winter is close, and I’m not highly motivated to be planting anyway, so this will force a bit more thought into the process of selecting a replacement for my declining spruce.

Winding down

My walk through the garden on Sunday afternoon was brief, too brief. And, my treks out into the garden are becoming more infrequent. There’s just not much to see.

With several nights over the past few weeks that have dropped into the mid-twenties most of the garden has gone dormant. The toad lilies and autumn flowering Encore azaleas were stopped in their tracks, the blooms turned to mush overnight by freezing temperatures. It’s not always like this. Last year there were hydrangeas, roses, and azaleas flowering through November, with a few straying into December. Not this year, with more typical mid-autumn weather.

Still, there are flowers. The hybrid camellias are blooming right on schedule, itself an oddity in this garden, though a few that are more heavily shaded have not flowered at all. ‘Winter’s Star’ and ‘Winter’s Interlude’ have been blooming for a month, and are likely to continue for at least another several weeks, or until temperatures regularly drop into the teens overnight. ‘Winter Snowman’ is more shaded, with buds that look to be ready to burst open any day, but I know that camellias will fool you and it could be weeks or months before they flower. Mildly freezing temperatures don’t bother these camellias, but colder weather will delay the blooms, and sometimes they are paused long enough that extreme cold damages the buds and there are no flowers at all.

Cold doesn’t bother the bright yellow blooms of ‘Winter Sun’ mahonia (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, above), and if temperatures remain moderately cold the flowers will extend into early January. If temperatures are extreme in either direction (warm or cold) the blooms will be shorter lived. Last year the flowers of Winter Sun’ persisted for a few weeks into January, and the late winter blooming leatherleaf mahonia flowered six weeks early so that there were mahonia blooms throughout the winter.

Since I’m not particularly motivated to get out into the garden, I’ve also not been encouraged to get outside to work. It doesn’t take much to convince me to be lazy, and I’m satisfied that my autumn clean up is somewhat on schedule, so there’s no reason to rush. Of course, there’s much to be done, and I’m truly never on schedule until it’s nearly too late, and then I labor dawn to dusk to catch up. But, that deadline is months away, so I can relax for now and fool myself that I can take the weekend off.

Some time or another I’ll have to get out to take care of the trees damaged by the summer’s derecho and the more minor limbs knocked down by the hurricane. There are large limbs scattered at the forest’s edge, and particularly in one area where my wife occasionally roams I must cut these into pieces small enough to move. The project will take no more than a few hours, but I’m having a difficult time getting started. It’s not at all that I’m too busy with other things. I suppose that one day in the weeks to come I’ll wake up, the sun will be shining, and I’ll get the itch to get outside to do something. There will be leaves to clean up, trees limbs to cut up and stack out of the way, and something must be done with the winter weeds before they get out of hand like they did last year. Certainly that day will come, but not this week.


Before the autumn foliage of deciduous trees and shrubs disappears completely I feel compelled to discuss the color yellow. Yellow is common, and perhaps the predominant color of autumn leaves, and for the most part it is my least favorite. With exceptions.

Too often yellows are faded, or signs of disease. The foliage of hostas goes limp with the first temperatures below freezing, and briefly turns a dying yellow before disappearing completely. The yellow autumn foliage color of the native swamp red maple (Acer rubrum) is unremarkable, with leaves often spotted, and no one is bothered much when a chilly wind blows them off a few weeks early. There’s not much to get excited about here.

A few trees barely change at all before their leaves drop, but many that turn to yellow are just as forgettable, and leaves often fall quickly. Good riddance. Fortunately, there are exceptions, including rich and glowing yellows that are not drab, and certainly not unremarkable.

I’ve recently written of the late season foliage colors of several of the Japanese maples in my garden, and while I would not exactly describe their color as yellow, they are indeed glowing and a sort of orange-yellow with some red thrown in for good measure. Enough words have been expended on them already, so what else is there?

My garden is bordered by towering swamp red maples and tulip poplars, and don’t believe anyone who tells you that red maples (except for cultivars that are readily available through garden centers) really turn red in the autumn. Maybe a few out of a forest full, but mostly they’re yellow, a lousy, faded, spotted yellow. And the tulip poplars, they turn yellow, but the trees are so tall that the foliage can’t be seen, and even if it is magnificent, only birds can enjoy it before it drops early in the season.

So, along the edge of the garden are these humongous trees, and all you can do is hope the leaves fall quickly so they can be ground up for compost before too much bad weather moves in. In the garden is a small ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba, above) that has taken forever to grow much past ten feet, and will only grow to twenty in someone else’s lifetime (I suppose). In October the foliage of ginkgo turns an extraordinary, glowing yellow that distracts from its taller neighbors.

The ginkgo’s leaves are brightly yellow, and unblemished for the most part so that the color is pure, and certainly wonderful. No other yellow dares to compare, but a shrubby perennial with long needle-like foliage that is not bright, but soft yellow is nearly ginkgo’s equal. Bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii, above) is tough as nails, preferring dry and lean ground rather than more fertile soil. It bears an abundance of small blue flowers for a short while in the spring (below), but though late spring and summer it is a pleasing textural contrast to broad leaf plants.

By early October bluestar begins a slow turn from green to yellow, and by late in the month the color is nothing less than amazing. This is a simple and undemanding perennial, but as a single plant or in a mass there is no better bet for your autumn color dollar.

Japanese maples and late season foliage color

By mid November most tree foliage has turned color, faded, and leaves have fallen. If any foliage was hanging by a thread the hurricane winds surely took care to blow it into the next county, so that today most trees are bare. But, a few trees are almost fully in leaf, and now are at their peak color.

Most of the garden’s Japanese maples dropped their foliage several weeks ago, but several varieties typically hold their leaves until late in the season. The fern leaf maple (Acer aconitifolium, above) changes color early, but the leaves hang on long after most other trees have gone bare. This is perhaps the most spectacular of trees in my garden for autumn color, with parts of the tree turning dark red, others yellow, or orange, and some sections with a mix of all. In mid November the leaves are beginning to drop, but half of the tree remains in blazing full color.

There are two large Lion’s Head maples (Acer palmatum ‘Shishigashira’, above) in the garden. Both are fully leafed, and both were completely green until a few days ago, when suddenly they turned. One tree is now fringed with brown leaves that hide the delightful color beneath, but the second tree is perfectly beautiful to my eye, only a smidgen less grand than the fern leaf maple. Both trees glow in the late afternoon sun.

The ‘Okushimo’ maple (Acer palmatum ‘Okushimo’, above) is only slightly less stunning, and like the Lion’s Head maple it showed no sign of color until the hard freeze a week ago. Both ‘Okushimo’ and Lion’s Head maples are green leafed through much of the year, but the leaves are crinkled and curled so that they are unique, though still more attractive to collectors than the general gardening public.

The branches of two large ‘Seriyu’ Japanese maples (Acer palmatum ‘Seriyu’, above) planted close to the house arch over the front walk. When the foliage is damp from rain the branches hang low, so visitors must stoop low to reach the front door, but in mid November the red and yellow canopy of foliage is quite wonderful. The delicate leaves drift slowly to carpet the bluestone walk late into November.

Through freeze and frost, until ….

With little effort the gardener can find a surprising number of plants that flower late into the autumn so that the garden’s season is extended and the drab of winter is shortened. There are also winter hardy flowers for January and February, but that’s a story for another day.

By early November there were frequent frosts and a few nights when temperatures plunged just below freezing in my northwestern Virginia garden. Certainly, it showed. Most perennials melted in the early cold, and lush foliage of edgeworthias and hydrangeas hung limp, ready to drop in the next few days. But, still there were flowers, mostly unscathed by the cold, until a night when temperatures dropped to the mid twenties.

Many roses will continue to flower for weeks after hard frosts arrive (Red Knockout rose, above). On cold days the blooms are damaged, but new buds continue to open, often through the last week of November, and occasionally into early December. Neither foliage or flowers are at their peak, but who’s complaining, it’s November?

Many of the Encore azaleas continue to flower into November, and these show little ill effect from the cold. ‘Autumn Amethyst’ does not begin flowering until October, and occasionally there will be a few blooms remaining in December. ‘Sangria’, Twist’, and ‘Carnation’ have performed  best in my garden this autumn, with flowers that started in September and will continue until temperatures are consistently in the twenties overnight.  

The late autumn flowering camellias continue to open a few buds at a time, though they have slowed in the cold over the past week. With warmer temperatures forecast I expect more flowers over the next week. ‘Winter’s Interlude’, ‘Winter’s Star’, and ‘Winter Snowman’ are hybrids that are more cold hardy than the earlier autumn flowering sasanqua camellias, and often there will be scattered blooms through December and January. 

Most of the toad lilies (Tricyrtis) are past bloom, but a few were still going strong before the recent hard freeze, with more buds still to open that would flower for a few weeks longer if not for the cold night. The late  flowers are abundant, but not showy in the manner of mums, asters, or pansies that are planted en masse to be seen while speeding down the highway. Instead, the individual flowers are spotted and finely detailed so that they are best enjoyed at close range. Toad lilies are well know to gardeners, but are not common in the typical neighborhood landscape.

‘Winter Sun’ mahonia has proven to be a dependable late autumn bloomer despite any amount of cold, with bright yellow panicles that often persist into early January. I prefer the compact growth of ‘Winter Sun’ to the irregular habit of other mahonias, and the flowers are appreciated more when little else is blooming.

Winter’s coming …again!

I’m not ready for winter! It doesn’t seem possible that it’s November. I’m not ready for long pants or a jacket, and I definitely am not ready to start cleaning up leaves. I suppose I’ll get over it, but I won’t be happy about it.

Two weeks ago there was one night that dropped below freezing, but soon after daytime temperatures soared back into the seventies, and it hasn’t been particularly cold until the last four or five days. The cold night pushed me to bring the tropical bananas and elephant ears inside, but the ones that are planted in the ground were left to wither in the cold, then the roots will be dug and stored in the garage until May.

I covered the large swimming pond with a net a few days before the hurricane was due to arrive. For me, putting on the net is the unofficial end of the garden season, and I avoid it for as long as possible. But, there were plenty of leaves on the maples and tulip poplars that loom over the garden, and if the net hadn’t gone on when it did the pond would be filled with leaves today. Then, there’d be a huge mess to clean up in the spring, and that would be much worse a chore.

I will probably begin cleaning up leaves this weekend. Most of this will be accomplished with a leaf blower that pushes them into piles, then they are vacuumed and shredded. Most are left in place to mulch the garden, though in some spots there are too many for this, so I bag the shredded leaves to haul to cover other parts of the garden where leaves are not so thick. A few bags will go onto the compost pile.

The leaf clean up project will last for several weeks, and even then it is only partially accomplished so that another weekend or two in March are necessary to clean up the last of them. I tell myself that I’ll get around to the last of the leaves on warm days in February, but last winter there were a dozen of these days and I didn’t do a thing. I’m much more productive when there’s an imminent consequence to delaying any further, and in March I know that hostas and other perennials are emerging from their winter nap, and if the leaves are not gone soon there will be problems.

Once the ponds are covered and the worst of the leaves are cleaned up my work is mostly done until late winter. I’ll be watching this year to get a jump on removing winter weeds before they grow too large and go to seed. With the oddly warm temperatures last January and February weeds were growing vigorously when perennials began to emerge in mid March, so the task of removing the weeds was complicated and delayed and many went to seed before they could be pulled. I expect a bumper crop of weeds this winter, and I’m determined not to end up with the mess I had in early spring. The key is to get them while they’re small, before the weeds are fully rooted, and of course before they go to seed.