Native or cultivar?

Alongside my garden are towering native swamp maples (Acer rubrum, more commonly called red maples), tulip poplars (Liriodendron tulipifera), and an occasional oak (Quercus rubra) and dogwood (Cornus florida) in the narrow swath of forest that is bisected by a small, spring fed creek. The native forest is a blessing, and sometimes a hindrance as thick branches crash to the ground after any gust of wind. The shallow roots of the maples make digging on this side of the garden a chore, and the resulting dry shade is a considerable challenge.Native swamp maple autumn foliage

If you are expecting the autumn foliage of the native maples to be glorious in late October, think again, unless you favor faded yellow and spotted leaves to be in any way attractive (above). I refer to the maples as swamp maples rather than the more commonly used “red” maple because there’s not one trace of red to them. They’re all a sad yellow (unlike the glowing yellow of Sugar maple, Acer saccharum, or Trident maple, Acer buergeranum, below), and this is the predominant foliage color of any group of swamp maples that I’ve ever seen. Not just bordering my garden, but everywhere.Maple autumn foliage

So, where do the maples with brilliant red autumn foliage that you see in the neighborhood come from? These are cultivars such as ‘Red Sunset’ (Acer rubrum ‘Red Sunset’, below) and ‘October Glory’ (and several others), trees that were initially selected from seedlings for one or more desirable characteristics. If I were to allow any number of the thousands of seeds that germinate annually in my garden from the forest’s maples to grow, there would be few trees that would grow to be identical. Many would appear the same, but there would be slight differences in leaf size, color, branching, or any number of characteristics that would hardly be noticed. A small percentage of seedlings would have red autumn foliage color.

Red Sunset maple autumn foliage

If rooted cuttings, grafts, buds, or samples for  tissue culture are taken from the red leafed tree, the newly propagated tree (a cultivar) will be a clone of the parent. Very often, seedlings from a cultivar will not duplicate the desirable characteristics of the parent tree, so many must be propagated asexually (rooted cuttings, tissue culture, etc.) rather than growing new trees from seed.

The question posed today is for you to consider which tree you favor, the yellow or red leafed tree? And, if you prefer (or demand) native trees, should cultivars be considered to be native, or not? Native tree purists insist that the cultivars are not native since they do not grow true from seed (among other reasons), but the red maple cultivars began as seedlings. These were not genetically modified, and they are not hybrids such as ‘Autumn Blaze’ maple (Acer x freemanii ‘Jeffersred’, below), a cross between silver (Acer saccharinum) and red maples with a fast growth habit and marvelous red autumn foliage.

Autumn Blaze maple autumn foliage

In fact, an advantage of ‘Autumn Blaze’ is that it sets few seeds, so if these were growing in the forest bordering my garden I would spend many fewer hours plucking out the small seedlings. Cultivar maples ‘Sun Valley’ and ‘Brandywine’ are male selections, so these also set no seed. But, are they native, and does it make any difference to you? Or, is close enough, good enough?

I lean towards agreeing that the red maple cultivars are not natives, but to me the distinction is trivial. I regularly plant natives, but not exclusively, and I tend towards trees with outstanding characteristics (with red autumn foliage and seedless being my primary considerations in choosing a red maple). So, I would choose ‘Sun Valley’ or ‘Brandywine’ rather than ‘Red Sunset’ or ‘Autumn Blaze’, and any of the cultivars or the hybrid maple is preferable to the yellow leafed seedlings.Maple autumn foliage

In fact, I won’t plant a red maple at all, not because of anything to do with it being native or not, or red autumn foliage. There are plenty of red maples in this neighborhood (too many?), and every other neighborhood, I suspect, and I’d like something a little different. There are too few katsuras (Cercidiphyllum japonicium),  beech (Fagus), and any number of wonderful trees. Or, perhaps a blackgum should be considered, but do I plant the native or the cultivar ‘Wildfire’?

Next time, we’ll tackle dogwoods, and here there are similar choices to make. The native is a superb tree, but so are cultivars, and hybrids, and trees introduced from southeast Asia. So, here’s another worthy discussion for another day.

Blooming despite the cold

Frost, then freezing temperatures on recent nights has turned soft stemmed perennials in the garden to mush. Following this short period of cold, flowers of reblooming azaleas (‘Autumn Sundance’ Encore azalea, below) hang limp, though buds and flowers that have not quite opened are not damaged and these will continue to bloom so long as nighttime temperatures remain above freezing. Many of the Encore azaleas are late in blooming, but the buds are fat and a few scattered flowers promise that there will be more if the weather returns to seasonal norms.

Autumn Sundance Encore azalea in late October

Autumn Sundance Encore azalea in late October

In autumn, periods of cold are typically brief, and certainly are not sufficiently cold to damage flower buds of azaleas and camellias. While many of the Encore azaleas are tardy, hybrid camellias ‘Winter’s Star’ and ‘Winter’s Snowman’ display a few scattered blooms in late October. With thicker substance, the flowers show only a bit of freeze damage along the edges. Peak bloom for the hybrid camellias is typically in November in my garden, and then there will often be intermittent flowers through warm periods in December and January (and sometimes February).

Winter's Snowman camellia in October

Winter’s Snowman camellia in October

I don’t intend to be pushy, but there seems little reason for any gardener with a few feet of partially shaded ground not to grow at least one of the autumn flowering camellias, and planting several of these gems is even better. These are sturdy, low care evergreens with pleasant, glossy foliage and a form that is easily managed, but the large blooms are their most worthy enticement.

Winter's Interlude camellia

Winter’s Interlude camellia

In my garden, the winter is too long for my liking, so any flowers that help to fill this void are treasured. Besides late blooming azaleas and camellias, I’ve planted mahonias and witch hazels, and then late winter flowering bulbs and perennials to maintain my cheer until spring. The flowers of the cold hardy, hybrid camellias make the biggest show, but buds that open at intervals through the winter also provide a bit of mystery. ‘Winter’s Interlude’ (in particular) rarely flowers in November as it’s supposed to, and fat, swollen buds showing a glimpse of pink seem to open randomly through January or February. Or not, since some years the buds don’t open at all. While other winter flowers are fairly predictable, the camellias show no pattern and so they are greatly appreciated when they do pop out.

Winter's Star camellia in late October

Winter’s Star camellia in late October

When I first began gardening, camellias as a group were considered too tender, and with good reason since occasional temperatures below zero were typical through the winter. The autumn flowering Sasanquas were not cold hardy for my northwestern Virginia garden, and most are still too tender despite having few days that even approach zero. The spring blooming Japanese camellias survived the cold winters, but flower buds were often damaged, and blooms were rare even when the shrub survived. More recently, the National Arboretum hybrids I’ve planted are not bothered by any cold I’ve experienced over the past few decades, and flower buds are seldom damaged, even in the coldest periods.

Winter's Joy camellia in mid November

Winter’s Joy camellia in mid November

One variety or the other doesn’t matter much to me. All are splendid in bloom, and carefree otherwise. ‘Winter’s Star’ is the most prolific bloomer in my garden, but I suspect this is merely a consequence of being placed in a spot with just enough sun. With more shade buds are more scarce, and without sunlight they are often delayed into the winter, and then it’s a gamble if they will flower at all.

Spiders in the basement …

… and frogs in the kitchen.

The agaves, elephant ears, and assorted tropicals were brought inside over the weekend just prior to the first frost, and already there is trouble. For the record (and previous years tell me that it’s important to establish the facts before I’m blamed for every calamity), there were already spiders in the basement. They’ve been there for months, all sorts, so they didn’t come in with the pots. Well, maybe a few, but I gave the plants the once over before they came inside this year.

Elephant ears

Potted elephant ears ready to come indoors.

Most often the tropicals are brought indoors on a dark evening, with the wind howling and temperatures dropping quickly, but this year I checked the forecast to see that cold weather was coming in a few days. So, I had the luxury of moving the pots on Saturday, in the light of day, and with this a few spiders the size of tarantulas were plucked off before the plants were brought inside.

Problems began only a few hours after the pots were safely indoors. There is no plan for which plant goes where, but the dangerous agaves and the most wide spreading of the elephant ears must go out of the way to the basement. A few variegated gingers stay upstairs, a small lemon tree, and a philodendron of some sort, and I decided that one compact growing elephant ear with relatively small leaves could stay in the dining room.

I was fiddling with something when my wife walked in with a rag and a sneering look. She mopped the wood floor beneath the elephant ear and set the rag on the back of a chair, presumably so that I could clean up later as tiny droplets that form at the tips of the leaves drop to the floor. Oh yes, we’ve had this before, with small black spots on the wood floor as evidence. So, I might be forgetful, but I’m not stupid. Within minutes the elephant ear was moved to the basement, where the carpet is indestructible.

Elephant ears are dug and potted to bring indoors.

Elephant ears are dug and potted to bring indoors.

I could hope that this is the end of it, but I’m not naive enough to think that’s possible. A day later my wife was working on the computer when I walked in. I stooped to pick up some debris that no doubt had fallen out while I was transporting the pots. (It’s a good day when I haven’t scratched floors and furniture, tipped a few pots over, dumped bucket fulls of potting soil onto the wood floors, and tracked mud across the basement carpet.) The litter hopped away, and of course what came next was predictable. Here we go again, she proclaims, with the assumption that this little frog came in with the pots.

Certainly, this is possible, but this summer we had a four foot black snake in the kitchen, and there were no pots inside at all. How is that explained, I wonder? But, there’s no winning this one, so the best that can be done is to capture the poor frog and return him outdoors, and hope that the ants stay put for at least a few weeks.

Black snake slithers across the kitchen floor.

Black snake slithers across the kitchen floor.

There is no doubt that there are ants in the soil in the pots, since there have been ants every other year, or so my wife claims. I suspect that it’s true, and this is why it’s recommended to submerge or flush the pots with water before they’re brought in. I figure that the people who recommend such things have only a few pots, and certainly small ones if they’re considering submerging the plants in a tub so that ants and spiders (and frogs?) float away.

The containers that I move back and forth between seasons are not so small. The agaves are nearly four feet across, and bone dry it’s all I can manage to pick them up to move them into the basement. And, that’s not even considering the spines. How could I possibly move them if the soil is saturated? So, for better or worse, the pots come in dry, and we’ll see what happens in the weeks and months to come until the tropicals go back outdoors in May. I suspect there will be more stories to tell.

Grasses, for better or worse

The black flowering fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Moudry’) is a lovely plant, though its foliage is perhaps a bit stiff and not as graceful as other grasses. Its black seeds are more dramatic than other fountain grasses, and the seedheads are more numerous so that it makes a splendid show in early autumn.

Long ago, I grew the black flowering fountain grass, but it began to seed itself about and I quickly rid the garden of it. In recent years black fountain grass has reappeared surrounding the margins of the local farm pond, and I don’t know whether to call this invasive or just aggressive. The proper definition of an invasive alien is that it displaces a native, but I don’t know what native it could have crowded out in this spot, so I’m not certain that it has. I am convinced, however, that it is a nuisance.Black fountain grass growing beside a farm pond

It seems that in past years there were more native asters and ironweeds at the pond’s edge, and still there are some, but this could be more a matter that weedy trees and shrubs have sprouted beside the pond so that there are fewer areas of full sun. In any case, from this observation I’m happy that the fountain grass was chopped out of my garden, and I’m confident enough time passed that the seeds did not originate in my garden.Ironweed in late August

I’m afraid that scattered silver grasses (Miscanthus sinensis  ‘Gracillimus’) growing in the meadow beside the pond could have originated in my garden, though it is a safe bet that this popular ornamental grass is grown elsewhere in the neighborhood. Along with other grasses, the miscanthus faded and disappeared from my garden as it became more shaded, and I’ve not been sad to see them go.

Fortunately, the silver grass seems to be losing the battle against vigorous briars and brambles on this hillside meadow, so my concern has eased a bit. Perhaps one problem has been replaced by another, but blackberries seem to proliferate at a slower pace.Northern Sea Oats

Other miscanthus and pennisetem varieties are not prone to seeding to become problems, though I have a dickens of a time with Northern Sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium, above). The native sea oats grow wonderfully in part shade, and they don’t spread very far, so it’s not a problem except that I have to pull a few hundred seedlings each year. My wife is not enthused at all by this weediness, but I’ve managed to keep up with it. I’ll recommend sea oats only with the warning that it might become a maintenance problem, but it’s not likely to take over the neighborhood.

First frost

The first frost of autumn is forecast for next week. This is not early or late, and certainly not surprising for the middle of October. I can recall frosts arriving before the end of September, though I can’t place the year, and there’s no doubt this is a little out of the ordinary. There might also be a year when frost was delayed until November, but I can’t verify that this is so.

The cold temperatures in next week’s forecast are a bit unusual only because the first frost might also be the season’s first freeze. Of course, when this happens there will be immediate predictions by fellow gardeners that we’re headed for an old fashioned, cold winter, but don’t believe a word of it. I hear reports that the winter of 1986 was cold, but I go back to 1977 for my last cold winter recollections. And there have been none since, or at least none in the past twenty years.Golden Full Moon maple in October

I can tell “I walked seventeen miles through waist deep snow to get to school” stories with the best, and some might even have a shred of truth to them. In fact, in those days I worked outside for a living, and memories of cold days spent outside stick with you for a while. The winter of ’77 is dear to my heart because my wife and I were newly married, we had only one old car that my wife commuted with to school in Georgetown, so I rode a bicycle to work each morning. It was only a couple miles, so there’s no heroic story here, but when it’s below zero, riding a bike is a memory that sticks with you.

Now, to get along the gardening part of this, there’s no big deal to be made about the first cold, but sometime before frost and freeze arrive it is appropriate to move indoors tropical plants that have summered outdoors. The preferred way to go about this is to be forewarned, as I’m doing now, to allow a few days to get around to it. I’ve had too many times that I’ve not paid any attention to forecasts until the evening when a freeze was predicted, and then I had to scurry about to get everything brought inside.Gingko

The timing of this warning is fortunate in that the weekend is coming up, and there should be plenty of time to accomplish this relatively simple task. So, it’s settled. Other than this, there is nothing of great significance to do in the garden this weekend that can’t be put off to another time. If you insist on raking leaves there will be a time in a few weeks when it’s necessary to do it again, so it seems wiser to put this off for another few weeks unless you are obsessed with tidiness.

There’s a chance that I will stretch the leaf netting over the large koi pond this weekend, though I typically hold off on this until the last possible date, just before the maples and tulip poplars that border the garden decide to drop every remaining leaf over a few day period. Covering the pond is a symbolic end of the gardening season project for me, so if I delay this chore for another few weeks I gain some small measure of satisfaction.Sugar maple autumn foliage

Regardless of frost or freeze, the garden is not finished for the season, and through autumn and early winter there will be camellias and mahonias flowering, then witch hazels, and winter jasmine, then hellebores, and soon enough spring will be here. It sounds simple to hear it, but these blooms are barely enough to satisfy the gardener over the cold months that stretch until March. And, it starts next week.

The last hurrah

The Tatarian daisies (Aster tataricus ‘Jindai’, below) at the back of the koi pond are blooming, but for a period in mid summer there was a question if they would. The daisies were in danger of being overwhelmed by exuberant hydrangeas and a paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha) that continues to spread far beyond the boundaries that I anticipated.Jindai aster in October

Lush growth has blocked easy access to this area, so now I must hop from boulder to damp boulder along the pond’s border while avoiding overhanging foxgloves and Joe Pye weeds. It’s quite a feat for an old guy, and I’m not enthused about attempting the crossing too frequently. The treacherous access delayed my pruning the hydrangeas earlier in the summer, but I became increasingly concerned that the Tatarian daisies would be lost completely.

So, finally I got around to it, and found, to my surprise they were doing quite well without my assistance. Some minor pruning was required, and this will be a growing concern in the future, but now in early October they are blooming without a problem. Except, the daisies are much harder to see now with the surrounding foliage, and I can only get close up with great difficulty to see how the bumblebees enjoy this late flowering perennial.Tatarian daisy 'Jindai'

In past years I’ve witnessed that this is often the last flower that many bumblebees visit before their demise. While some bees overwinter, many others perish in mid autumn, and often I find bumblebees that have succumbed while gathering nectar from the daisies. As the daisies’ blooms fade the dead bumblebees remain in place, and it’s a bit disturbing to think that the end of life can come so suddenly.

Tatarian daisy is a tall growing, coarsely textured perennial, so it is inappropriate for any position except the back of the border. In my garden they are placed between shrubs, and so long as the shrubs don’t overwhelm them, this is an ideal situation. The daisies don’t grow too large to expose the large leaves until late summer, and then within a short period they are blooming. The flowers last for weeks, and even after fading they are colorful as long as you’re not looking from close up.Red Dragon persicaria in October

‘Red Dragon’ fleeceflower’ (Persicaria microcephala ‘Red Dragon’, above) is blooming beside one of the garden’s smaller ponds, though I’m guessing that these are seedlings of the originals since they are not so red anymore. ‘Red Dragon’ is best utilized for its foliage, and not the small white flowers that appear on and off from mid summer into autumn. But, when not too much else is flowering the blooms catch your eye, particularly against the backdrop of the glossy foliage of leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei).

Persicaria can be quite aggressive, but ‘Red Dragon’ not so much so, and here it is hemmed in by a red leafed loosestrife (Lysimachia ciliata ‘Firecracker’) that is also quite rambunctious if planted in damp soil. In dry soil it spreads enough to require some attention to pull rhizomes that pop up through neighboring hostas and liriopes, but this is easily done and it’s not too much trouble. Tangerine Tango Peruvian lily

A Peruvian lily (Alstroemeria ‘Tangerine Tango’, above) planted a few years ago had not managed to gain much of a foothold until this summer, and since then it has bloomed continuously. Its stems are floppy enough that I’m anxious for the small shrub planted beside it to grow a bit to provide some support, but the flowers are delightful. Earlier in the summer deer discovered the blooms, and for a short while I had a dickens of a time figuring how to spray the emerging buds to prevent them from being nibbled. Eventually everything worked out, and I figure that the lily will continue flowering until frost (which could come any day now that were into October).

There are a number of Peruvian lilies that are not sufficiently cold hardy to survive in my garden, but ‘Tangerine Tango’ should have no problems in my Virginia garden in the foothills of the Blue Ridge. Other varieties planted in more shade grow reluctantly and have refused to flower, but in full sun the Peruvian lily does fine. With seasonal temperatures forecast, the blooms could be enjoyed for several more weeks.

Autumn leaves

I’m content to leave as much garden clean up as possible to the devices of nature. I’ve often been successful in delaying a project until decay has eliminated the need to undertake any labor at all, but in a garden that is situated at the edge of a forest of towering maples, oaks, and tulip poplars, the natural processes have no chance of handling the volume of fallen leaves in autumn before small plants are smothered. Believe me, I’ve tried.Gingko in October

I take no pride in the accomplishment of routine garden tasks, and certainly this is the root of persistent quarrels with my wife, who prefers more tidiness. By default, she’s assumed responsibility for pruning ivies, hostas, and liriopes to keep the garden pathways passable, and for larger chores she’ll pester until I’ve no reasonable alternative except to follow her instructions. Unless, I can find an excuse to put it off until later, but that’s not really an option for the piles of leaves that accumulate through autumn.Parrotia in October

There seems to be two parts to the annual leaf drop. The first is in October, and with a dry September there are now more leaves dropping than is typical. As bare as it seems that trees are today, the bulk of the leaves are still to fall several weeks from now. So, in the interest of expending as little energy as possible, I wait until every last leaf has fallen to do anything. This means that the stone paths on the side of the house will be blanketed by an ankle deep layer of maple and tulip poplar leaves, but I’m pretty certain I can manage for a few more weeks.Blackgum in October

With cooler temperatures a few winter weeds are popping up, and now that it’s rained again I presume there will be more. The prudent thing is to uproot these early on, and certainly before they have a chance to go to seed, but that doesn’t always happen. So, it becomes a bigger chore, and seeds carry over to the next year. As leaves fall it seems that my motivation does also, and winter weeds have proven to be a particular problem in my garden.Franklinia in October

The simple solution would be to hire someone to take care of these tasks that I continually put off, but the last time I checked they want money to do this, so there’s no way that’s going to happen as long as I’m able. It might take me a while to get around to it, but eventually most everything gets done. And, the rest decays.