Foliage, not flowers

Two ‘Flaming Silver’ pieris (Pieris japonica ‘Flaming Silver’, below) in part shade in the front garden have long been plagued by lace bugs, though much of the damage occurred when they were less shaded. One pieris has been overtaken by a wide spreading leatherleaf mahonia (Mahonia bealei) so that it’s barely visible, though if it was healthier it wouldn’t be any trouble at all to prune the mahonia. But, why bother?Flaming Silver pieris in November

Many varieties of pieris are susceptible to lace bugs, and it seems ‘Flaming Silver’ is a magnet for these pests. On the far side of the garden ‘Scarlet O’Hara’ suffers only slightly in nearly full sun, and from my experience it’s also more vigorous and less likely to have problems in poorly drained clay soils. The reason for growing ‘Flaming Silver’ of course, is the variegated foliage, and at its best this is quite extraordinary. While dormant the foliage has a distinct creamy white and green variegation, and spring growth is red (below) when planted with some portion of a day of direct sun.

Flaming Silver pieris

Deer don’t bother any of the pieris, even those planted along the margin of brambles and forest where deer hang out during daylight hours. But, between problems with lace bugs and an intolerance for damp clay soil, some of the varieties of pieris are an iffy proposition. Lace bugs are easily controlled if you are willing to use a systemic insecticide, but I don’t. ‘Flaming Silver’ is a splendid evergreen, with excellent foliage and early spring flowers, but if it fades away over the years because it requires pesticide treatments, I’ll just have to find something else to fill the spot instead.

In the past year I’ve had some problems with deer and the gold aucubas (Aucuba japonica ‘Gold Dust’, below). Last winter I neglected to spray the garden’s evergreens with a repellent as I typically do in November. When it finally occurred to me I decided that damage has already been done, half the aucubas and azaleas have been eaten, so why not experiment to see what happens? Well, what happens is that the deer get more desperate for food as the winter progresses, and before the start of February they’ve eaten every leaf they can get to. I’m not quite certain what I was trying to prove (except to avoid work and stay out of the cold), but despite the fact that neither aucuba or azaleas are the preferred diet of deer, in winter when there is less foliage deer will readily eat every leaf.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

So, the spring started with no leaves on the azaleas or aucubas, and along with foliage deer nibbled the branch tips so there were few flowers on the azaleas in the spring. Of course, everything recovered nicely, but the aucubas will take another year to regain their full vigor, except one large shrub that is planted in a nook along one of the garden’s ponds so that deer generally avoid it completely. Fortunately, this aucuba is the most visible, so while the others are sparse, this one is tall and full and particularly appreciated for its bright foliage when other plants are dormant.

Aucuba is regarded as only marginally cold hardy for northwestern Virginia, but even twenty some years ago when temperatures dipped more regularly below zero, young plants seldom showed any signs of cold damage. The mass of gold speckled evergreen foliage is particularly useful in shaded areas, and even in dry shade the aucubas manage quite well (though they are slower than in deeper soils). The aucubas were sprayed with a repellent several weeks ago, so I expect no further problems.


Colorful conifers

The yellow needles of golden fernspray cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Fernspray Gold’, below) brighten noticeably as temperatures cool in the autumn. I don’t suppose to fully understand the change in color at the time when most plants go into dormancy, but in November the cypress shines across the garden. The fernspray cypress is slower growing than many conifers, but in recent years it has surreptitiously grown to tower over my head.Golden fernspray cypress in November

The green version of the fernspray (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Filicoides’) that grows in the front garden along the driveway is often a victim of my wife’s ire as it arches slightly over the edge of the drive. Lower branches have been pruned, and then pruned again to keep them back, so at some point the look of wide spreading branches above and shorter ones nearer the ground could spell its doom. I don’t imagine that with continued butchering the fernspray will look right at all, and of course this is the hazard of planting such plants too close to structures, drives, or walks.Crippsi cypress in late summer

‘Crippsi’ (Chamaecyparis obtusa ‘Crippsii’, above in late summer) gold cypress and other yellow conifers in the garden fade as winter approaches, though a gold version of Leyland cypress (Cupressocyparis leylandii ‘Gold Rider’) is not discernibly different through any season. ‘Gold Rider’ grows considerably more slowly than its blue-green cousin that is used so commonly for screening, but it lacks the graceful appeal of the many varieties of hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa).

Unfortunately, a year ago two varieties of Colorado spruce were removed from the garden. In the front garden, neighboring trees grew to shade a tall columnar spruce (Picea pungens ‘Fastigiata’) so that its lower branches became bare. In the back, a ‘Fat Albert’ spruce (Picea pungens ‘Fat Albert’) suffered from a variety of calamities, with encroaching shade and substantial damage from a towering Canadian chokecherry (Prunus virginiana ‘Schubert’) that toppled onto the spruce when it was snapped at its base in a storm.Globosa blue spruce

Both spruces were reluctantly chopped out, though this was probably overdue by a few years. Now, more dwarf ‘Globosa’ spruces (Picea pungens ‘Globosa’, above) are the last of the blue spruces in the garden, and though these do not grow so tall, their eventual spread is often not given the proper consideration. Too frequently I see these grow to block walks where they have been placed too close, and I’ll admit that I’ve learned this one from experience. An aged ‘Globosa’ grows far over the edge of a small bluestone patio so that now it is only a walking path. On the opposite side, a green leafed Japanese maple (Acer palmatum dissectum ‘Viridis’) also grows far onto the patio, so in this garden it is not only the size of the spruce that has been ill considered.

In fact, the loss of space on the patio is not a concern at all, and I wouldn’t consider for a moment hacking either plant back to regain the few feet of space. I simply constructed another patio a feet down the path, this one slightly larger, and for now not obstructed by wide spreading plants.

Confused, at best

Confused? No, not me, not this time.

While reblooming hydrangeas and Encore azaleas flowered meekly through late summer and early autumn, a small rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis, below) continues to bloom, apparently unaware (or unconcerned) that temperatures dropped deep into the twenties this week. It is not sheltered, but somehow the rosemary has been fooled into continuing to flower long after it should have called it quits.Lavender flowering in mid November

Rightly, long time gardeners are not bothered when something or the other pops into bloom when it shouldn’t, since there is rarely any detriment that comes from it. But, the rosemary’s mid November flowers are a bit unusual, though quirkiness more often seems the rule rather than an exception in the garden.

The rosemary was carefully placed on a low mound along with a few ground cover roses, pieris, and perennials that I expect never to have to water. I have failed with plants that require well drained soils too often, and rosemary prefers the dry climate of the Mediterranean rather than the relative dampness of Virginia. The mound should take care of this, though one of three dwarf pieris planted nearby has died, so I cannot be certain. Adequate drainage or not, this is not the cause of the late flowers.

Periwinkle flowering in mid November

As I walked up from the lower garden a few days ago, I saw a lone bloom on a periwinkle vine (Vinca minor, above) that pokes out from beneath a wide spreading leatherleaf mahonia. Periwinkle typically flowers in early spring, but it is not unusual to see a stray bloom out of season. Flowering pears are commonly fooled into opening scattered buds in autumn, and after the new year any sort of early spring flowering bulbs, shrubs, or trees might be tricked by a stretch of warm temperatures.

Oddly (at least relative to these November blooms), the recent weather has been cooler than typical, so I have no explanation for why the periwinkle or the rosemary are flowering. In any case, the late season blooms are unlikely to be of any problem, and with only camellias and mahonias flowering in the garden in mid November, it is a pleasant distraction.

The dreaded leaf clean up

I know gardeners who are deeply disturbed by any accumulation of leaves in the autumn months. Their gardens must remain tidy, so leaves are raked or vacuumed promptly. If you’ve visited these pages before, I’m certain you’ll not be surprised to learn that I’m not bothered at all by large piles of leaves. I must delay until every last leaf has fallen before beginning to rake and shred since I’ll only be motivated to do this once.

Today, the driveway is mostly covered with leaves from the magnolia, golden rain tree, hornbeam, and Japanese maples, and maple and sycamore leaves have blown in from the neighbors’. I’ll get around to these, maybe this weekend or the next, and surprisingly my wife has not yet insisted that the garage door be kept closed to prevent leaves from blowing in. She closes the door, then I follow immediately behind to open it since it’s a pain to wait every time I go in and out.Magnolia leaves in November

The stone paths that wander through the garden are gone, buried under inches or feet of leaves. It seems an immense luxury as I kick through the leaves as I stroll through the garden on those few evenings when I return home from work before dark. Every day that the chore of cleaning the leaves is delayed is a gift, since gathering and shredding leaves on an acre of garden that borders a forest is not accomplished quickly.

If there was more lawn the task would be simpler. I would happily mow the lawn to pulverize the leaves as frequently as necessary. But, there’s little lawn, and lots of garden, which complicates the process. I’ll admit that there have been times when I simply put the whole thing off, intending to do it, but never quite getting around to it. This inevitably leads to trouble.Hellebore

Small perennials, and particularly the hellebores that I treasure so much for their late winter blooms, do not appreciate being buried under a foot of leaves. It’s not so bad in November when the leaves are dry and loose, but after repeated winter rains and occasional snow the leaves become wet and densely packed. Then, they are much more difficult to rake and remove, and when some of the clean up is delayed into February (or sometimes March) it requires double the labor.

I often get stuck in the middle so that the worst of the leaves are cleared from the driveway, the paths, and patios, but I get lazy when it comes to the larger areas of garden where leaves have piled the deepest. This part of the garden runs alongside the forest, and rather than spending half my life raking, I use a gas blower to vacuum and shred the leaves. Nothing is bagged. The leaves go into the shredder whole, and go out the back end as mulch. This seems easy enough, but my consternation stems from small twigs that constantly clog the blower so that I must stop every minute or two.A carpet of ginkgo leaves

Sometimes I give myself credit for being very patient, and other times it’s obvious I’m not, but when I have a lengthy task at hand, admittedly my fuse runs short. I can take only so much of the clogging and cleaning of the blower before I’m inclined to call it a day, though I remind myself that the job will be ever so much more difficult if I delay and allow the leaves to become wet and matted. I debate this with every twig that causes the vacuum to grind to a halt, and finally the voices in favor of calling it quits win out. If tomorrow is Sunday, maybe there’s a chance to pick back up where I left off, but if it’s a back to work day the clean up might be delayed for another few weeks, or months.

Still flowers

Recent weeks have been occupied documenting autumn foliage colors, and after somewhat of a slow start (caused by a September drought?), colors became more remarkable into late October and early November. Also, berries of hollies have ripened to deep red (below), and despite mounds of fallen leaves there are abundant interests to entertain on a chilly evening stroll through the garden as the sun is sinking low.Berries on Koehneana holly in November

The reblooming Encore azaleas have been a disappointment this year. Only a few varieties flowered in September and October, and though many have fat buds waiting for a stretch of warm days before bursting into bloom, it seems unlikely there will be much bursting and no more than a few scattered blooms. In recent years one Encore azalea or another (below) has flowered from late August into November, but drought in September or cold, or some combination of weather events resulted in this less than stellar performance. The reblooming hydrangeas suffered a similar fate, with fewer flowers than usual in late summer and early autumn, but there will be better days. Maybe, next year.Autumn Twist Encore azalea in late April

Still, there are flowers in the garden, not only holdovers such as feeble, blackened roses that have barely survived the recent frosts and freezes, but flowers that open in November. The autumn flowering hybrid camellias are just getting started for me, though ‘Winter’s Snowman’ and ‘Winter’s Joy’ (below) were ahead of the curve and they’ve been flowering for weeks.Winter's Joy camellia in early December

‘Winter’s Interlude’ and ‘Winter’s Star’ camellias have just begun to flower, and these will bloom on and off in any period of a few warm days. Emerging flowers will be damaged in the worst freezes, but they are not bothered at all when temperatures dip only a few degrees below freezing. ‘Winter’s Interlude’ rarely flowers at all in my garden until late in December, and sometimes there are no flowers at all until there are a few warm days in January. Then, the blooms are at the mercy of severe temperatures, and often they have barely broken open when they are damaged by cold.

There seems no obvious answer why ‘Winter’s Interlude’ is reluctant to flower in November, or even December . Two well established shrubs are planted only a few feet from two ‘Winter’s Star’ camellias that flower dependably, though they are slightly further into the shade of a wide spreading ‘Jane’ magnolia. In any case, there are numerous buds on ‘Winter’s Interlude’ and many buds and a few flowers on ‘Winter’s Star’, so there should be flowers on and off for weeks.Soft Caress mahonia in October

While the autumn flowering camellias vary in the timing of their flowers, the mahonias are more dependable. ‘Soft Caress’ mahonia (Mahonia eurybracteata ‘Soft Caress’, above). with fern like foliage, is only marginally cold hardy for my garden, so while it survives, it does not grow or flower with vigor. More than once I’ve been discouraged and promised to dig it out, but here it remains, and perhaps one day it will gain a foothold to perk up and find a permanent home.Winter's Sun mahonia in November

Being spoiled by the showy, panicled blooms of leatherleaf (Mahonia bealei) and ‘Winter Sun’ mahonias (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, above), the stubby flowers of ‘Soft Caress’ are unremarkable to me, and if not for the low spreading growth and unique foliage it would hardly be worth the bother. ‘Winter Sun’ has just come into nearly full bloom, and there’s little doubt that it will remain in flower long into December, and most probably into January.

If the start of the new year is warm (for winter) leatherleaf mahonia’s blooms can begin early, joining ‘Winter Sun’, a few flowers from ‘Winter’s Star’ and ‘Winter’s Interlude’ camellias, then the Vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) by mid January. It’s almost like spring (except for the snow and ice, and windchill).


The yellow flowered, hybrid ‘Arnold Promise’ witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Arnold Promise’) has struggled through this year. As far as I can see, nothing of consequence has changed in the nearby area to cause the soil to be continually damp, but water has often pooled in the area and the witch hazel objected by dropping its foliage in early October. Flower buds that will bloom in February appear viable, but no doubt there ‘s a problem and I’ll be fortunate if this large shrub allows me a second year to solve this puzzleArnold Promise witch hazel autumn foliage.

Other witch hazels in the garden remain in leaf in early November, and this year their colors are more vibrant than in most autumns. The upright growing Vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis, below) is on higher ground on the opposite side of the lower garden, and this year it has grown vigorously. In past years I haven’t noticed its color much, but now it is a shimmering yellow in the low afternoon sun.

Vernal witch hazel in early November

When I purchased this as a large shrub it was labeled as the native Common witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana), though I was suspicious from the start because it lacked the distinctive wide spreading form. When it failed to flower in November while leaves were still present, I wrote this off as a result of stress from the transplant, but when small flowers appeared in January the identification as Vernal witch hazel was confirmed.Vernal witch hazel in January

Vernal witch hazel is native to the upper South, west of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which is close enough by definition for many gardeners to claim it as a native in my northwestern Virginia garden. In fact, I question whether Common witch hazel (that can be found at higher elevations within a few miles of my garden) should legitimately be considered a native, but that is an argument for another day. In fact, the common and vernal witch hazels grow quite nicely in this area (native or not) without being troubled by heat or humidity, and certainly without any pest or disease problems.Diane witch hazel in early November

‘Arnold Promise’ is a hybrid, with a spreading, vase-like form that is common to many witch hazels, except for the upright oval shape of vernal witch hazel. In recent years the rust red flowered ‘Diane’ (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Diane’, above) has bloomed sparsely, but its autumn foliage is superb. It is planted in a bit too much shade, I suspect, and that reduces the number of blooms, though there appear to be more buds today than I’ve seen in prior years.Arnold's Promise witch hazel in mid February

Despite the marvelous autumn foliage colors, the small collection of witch hazels is most treasured for the mid and late winter blooms that fill the lower garden with fragrance on a still winter afternoon. Vernal witch hazel flowers in January, and by the time it begins to fade a month later the hybrids are blooming. This seems just enough to get me through till spring.

Early November

No doubt, days through October and early November are the most splendid of the year, with low humidity, and cool, clear afternoons. There are times when a few weeks in September will have delightful weather, though the month can also be dreadfully hot. In recent years September has been abnormally wet, with late season hurricanes and tropical storms that have dumped many inches of rain, but this year the month was dry and cool, and certainly the equal of our typical October.Japanese maple in early November

I suspect that due to September’s dryness, autumn foliage colors have been a bit more muted than usual, though I hesitate to make such pronouncements since I’ve seen sumacs (Rhus) and dogwoods that are as vivid as in any year. Mature poison ivy vines (Toxicodendron radicans) that climb far up into tulip poplars also seem particularly colorful.Celestial Shadow dogwood autumn foliage

In my garden the foliage colors of dogwoods are nearly as splendid as ever, though not the best I’ve seen. The hybrid dogwoods (Cornus x ‘Celestial Shadow’, above) are exceptional, and these seem more consistent from year to year with less variation than the native and Chinese dogwoods (Cornus kousa). The red berries of the native dogwoods (Cornus florida, below) are gone already, and while I don’t keep records of such things, this seems early for the birds to have stripped them bare.Dogwood berries

The Golden Full Moon Japanese maple (Acer shirasawanum ‘Aureum’, below) had no significant color this year. This is consistently one of the best trees for its autumn foliage, but It is prone to dropping foliage early in a drought. By late October it had few leaves remaining, with the color unremarkable. This Japanese maple will often display mottled colors of red and yellow, and most years it is quite magnificent. And, then there are years such as this when there is nothing at all.Golden Full Moon maple in October

It seems that many people do not consider Japanese maples for their autumn foliage, and thus red leafed varieties are most popular. I’ve planted a handful of red leafed maples in the garden, but most are green (or variegated), and with the exception of the Full Moon maple, I expect the autumn foliage will be as magnificent as ever. Many do not color much until late in October, but then they hold their leaves through much of November.Fernleaf maple in early November

The Fernleaf maple (Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’, above) is the best of the Japanese maples for autumn foliage in my garden, though it seems not to be highly regarded and is rarely planted, I suspect because its large, deeply divided leaves are not as delicate as other maples. The tree is a bit more wide spreading than other upright growing Japanese maples, but the foliage mottled with reds and yellows is ample reason to include the tree as a favorite in my garden. The leaves begin to turn early in October, but do not reach their full glory until November, so the display lasts for nearly two months.Japanese stewartia in early November

The colors of Japanese stewartia (Stewartia pseudocamellia, above) and Carolina silverbell (Halesia carolina) are more muted now than in their best years, but the Oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia, below) turned slowly to deep burgundy through October, and the foliage will often persist into early December.Oakleaf hydrangea in early November

Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) is the odd tree that changes to a golden, glowing yellow in early October, then drops its leaves all at once. One day the tree is fully leafed, and the next it’s bare with a carpet of yellow beneath. That happened ten days ago, so while other trees are at their peak, the ginkgo is bare.