Autumn foliage – better late than never

There is general acknowledgment that coloring of autumn leaves is tardy, and living just off the route taken by many thousands of leaf watchers, I hope that their experiences visiting the nearby Blue Ridge have not been disappointing. Foliage in the garden is also late in turning, and as in every year there are disappointments, though there are sufficient numbers of triumphs to satisfy the gardener.

In past years the Golden Full Moon maple has displayed superior autumn foliage color. This year, none, as leaves dropped early after a dry late summer.

The Golden Full Moon Japanese maple (Acer shirasawanum ‘Aureum’, above) is often splendid, but most leaves fell early in October with no discernible change in color on one, while a second has been covered by powdery mildew in recent months. Its foliage remains a notable white that catches the eye, but unnaturally so.

Also, several native dogwoods (Cornus florida) have turned much later than usual, and with less intense color, though from the distance of the road I see others in the neighborhood that were also tardy, but more splendidly colored. I’ve recently noted that the red flowering, variegated leafed ‘Cherokee Sunset’, has developed flower buds for the first time in years, and while this event is months into the future it is a worthwhile exchange for slightly disappointing autumn leaf color.

For whatever lacking with the native, the hybrid ‘Celestial Shadow’ (above) colors consistently, though a few weeks later. Chinese (Cornus kousa) and other hybrid dogwoods have not begun to turn, but with recent chilly temperatures that is likely soon to change.

While the Golden Full Moon maple was a disappointment, other Japanese maples are proceeding on schedule. The Fernleaf maple (Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’, above), most remarkable of all in autumn to my thinking, is just beginning to display its mottled combination of colors from yellow to deep burgundy, and Lion’s Head (Acer palmatum ‘Shishigashira’) and several other Japanese maples are typically slow, with their prime season in mid November still to come.

Oridono Nishiki is a variegated leaf Japanese maple, though this particular tree shows little variegation on green leaves through spring and summer. It’s autumn color is excellent.

This laceleaf Japanese maple had faded through the summer, but it regains its color in autumn.

While reds and oranges are most celebrated, yellow autumn foliage colors range from drab and distressed, to vibrant. Swamp maples (Acer rubrum) of the forest that borders the garden are rarely better in color than a faded yellow, but ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba, below) and Bottlebrush buckeye (Aesculus parviflora, below) are exceptional, glowing yellows.

Fortunately, much of the understory of this forest is covered in spicebush (Lindera benzoin, below) rather than multiflora rose and other invasives, and though red berries have long ago been consumed by wildlife, yellow foliage is a pleasant backdrop to the garden. There will be much more color in this garden through November, much of it a few weeks tardier than usual, but today there is color enough not to be tempted to venture onto crowded highways into the mountains.


Bees in autumn

Last winter was so mild that the sight of bees and other insects was not unusual, though more typically these are rarely seen from late October until mid March except for occasional extended periods of warmth in the winter months. Early autumn has been quite warm, so on a sunny October afternoon a variety of beasts can be seen on flowers in the garden. 

Several toad lilies (Tricyrtis, above) continue to flower into late October, which is not particularly unusual since hard frost often does not arrive in northwestern Virginia until November. Most frequent visitors to toad lilies to gather nectar are bumblebees that are too large to fit beneath the upturned petals, so they “steal” nectar by biting through the underside of the flowers.

October weather has been ideal for flowering of camellias. With mild temperatures, and flowers several weeks earlier than usual, more bees and wasps are seen (above and below), though camellias are clearly not a favored flower.

The seedling purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is a favorite of bees and the few Monarch butterflies (below, and the moth, or whatever above) that pass through the garden. Interestingly, the purple flowered coneflower grows through a dense clump of white coneflowers, which are largely ignored. Seedheads will not be removed until the time for spring cleaning in late winter, so there will be some food for birds, and certainly some seed will fall to germinate so that more purple coneflowers grow up through the ‘Powwow White’. I will transplant the two seedlings that are now growing so that they do not eventually crowd the white flowered parent plant, and as more grow next spring these will be moved until there’s no space for more. 

In spring or autumn, azaleas are not favorites of pollinators, but with fewer blooms in late October bees have little choice. Here (below), a bumblebee visits ‘Autumn Amethyst’ azalea, one of several reblooming azaleas still flowering despite several frosts.

An early start

By most reports, leaves are late in turning this autumn, though with recent cold temperatures I expect this could change in a hurry. Oddly, mahonias and camellias, that often do not flower until mid November in this garden, are getting an early start. The vagaries of the interaction of weather and flowering are a bit beyond my comprehension, so I’m happy not to give it much thought and enjoy whenever there are flowers.

A year ago, flowering of hybrid camellias was disappointing, with few flowers from ‘Winter’s Star’ until the warm spells in January, and only brief, scattered November blooms on ‘Winter’s Snowman’. There were no flowers on ‘Winter’s Interlude’ and other autumn flowering camellias. Certainly, the weather had something to do with this, but why, I don’t know.

I’m hopeful that the camellias, now heavily budded, continue to flower over the next several weeks, which would be the longest stretch of flowering since any of the camellias was planted. I’ve recently noted exceptional growth from most of the camellias this year, and again, why I don’t know, but several have now stretched above my head.

I was surprised earlier this year when a large fernspray cypress was removed, to find a tall camellia wedged between the cypress and an Umbrella pine. I hesitate to admit it, but finding plants that had long ago been forgotten is a likely sign that the garden could be over crowded. The area has been replanted with lower growing plants so that the camellia’s flowers can now be seen.

I presume that early flowering of camellias and mahonias must be triggered by early cold, but certainly that has not been the case, and in fact I would judge that recent months have been unusually warm. I cannot recall a time when mahonias began flowering in mid October, though my recollections are too often unreliable and subject to revision. All hybrid mahonias, including the new addition ‘Marvel’ with many fewer spines than others, are showing first blooms, or showing buds that will open in the next few weeks, which is closer to the typical schedule for flowering.

A pink Carnation

Ideally, the gardener will love plants in his garden, or at the least he should not despise them. So, what to do with ‘Autumn Carnation’ Encore azalea?

Unquestionably, ‘Carnation’ is a flowering machine, with first blooms in early August and now into the second week of October with no end in sight. I believed flowers were fading in mid September, but it was just the heat and lack of rain. After a few cool days, ‘Carnation’ was back to full bloom. Perhaps this lengthy bloom is a bit monotonous, but I can live with that.   

The problem is (and thankfully my life is unburdened by real problems), I dislike the color of the flowers. A lot, or at least badly enough that I would chop the azaleas out if they were in a more conspicuous spot. But they’re not, and in fact my wife and I are the only ones who can see them. I haven’t asked, but she probably adores the bubblegum pink, which seems to me to be a completely unnatural color. Other pinks I can live with, though I much prefer purple and red flowered azaleas, and of the reblooming Encores I particularly favor ‘Royalty’ and ‘Twist’.

Almost certainly I will do nothing about this, though if you check back a year from now it’s likely I’ll be whining again.

An autumn update

After a warm and dry late summer, a week of cooler temperatures was greeted enthusiastically. But, this lasted only a few days until unusual heat returned. As folks often say, it’s not the heat but the humidity, and certainly both have been abnormally high for October. At least the dry spell has ended, though rainfall has fallen short of forecasts and the gardener hopes for a bit more before cold moves in.

Monarch butterflies are regularly seen in early autumn, though rarely at other times when mostly Tiger swallowtails are present. Here, a Monarch visits a purple flowered seedling of a white flowered coneflower (Echinacea purpurea ‘Powwow White’) flowering in mid October.

None of this is particularly unusual, but the gardener is ever hopeful. For what? Rain that falls overnight several times each week, but waking to bright sunshine that cuts the chill of early autumn. We’re not there yet, and who can tell what rainfall is to come, though we are assured that cooler temperatures must soon be on the way.

Stems of Peruvian lily wind through low hanging branches of an Oakleaf hydrangea. Flopping stems and foliage of this Peruvian lily are unremarkable, but it has been in flower since mid spring.

There is some advantage that cold has been delayed. There are more blooms in the garden, with toad lilies and Peruvian lilies (Alstroemeria, above) continuing to flower, and camellias (Camellia ‘Winter’s Star’, below) and the coarse leafed Tatarian aster coming into bloom. Several toad lilies have flowered since early in August, and others will continue for several weeks, or until the first hard frost.

Winter’s Star camellia was off cycle a year ago, so there were few flowers until January. This autumn, flowers are weeks earlier than expected with first blooms usually delayed until November,

Summer Ice daphne has flowered continuously since late March. In its second year in the garden, Summer Ice shows impressive growth and flowering. Summer Ice and Eternal Fragrance are changing my opinion that daphnes are finicky. Both thrive in part sun, with reports that they manage well in full sun.

The hybrid daphnes, ‘Eternal Fragrance’ and ‘Summer Ice’ have been in flower to varying degrees since late March, and these will continue through early freezes. There are times in mid winter that the gardener will swear that buds will open if only a short period of mild temperatures stretches another day or two, and with the first mild spring weather the daphnes are not without flowers until November, and sometimes early December.  

This has been an exceptional season for the reblooming Encore azaleas (above), though the usually dependable ‘Twist’ flowered early and then faded in the heat of late August. Other Encores have flowered for weeks, with the pink ‘Carnation’ in solid bloom for two months and still going. In truth, I’m ready for its bubblegum pink flowers to fade, but there are no complaints otherwise.

Berries of red chokeberry are very glossy. Deer are a constant problem nibbling foliage, and occasionally I miss spraying them with repellent, so shrubs are tall and narrow.

I notice that berries are coming along nicely. Beautyberries (Callicarpa) have been in color for a month, and now dogwood and red chokeberry (Aronia arbutifolia, above) berries are fully ripe. Several hollies have red berries, but others will not turn for several weeks.

A great find

At long last, a yellow flowered toad lily (Tricyrtis flava, below) has been procured of sufficient sturdiness and vigor that there are high hopes for its survival. While there is no reason that yellow flowered toad lilies should be more fragile than others, prior plantings have been skimpy specimens purchased by mail order, and with my penchant for neglect all perished in the first spell of dry weather. Admittedly, I was also not careful with placement, with toad lilies planted in ground that was possibly too damp, maybe too dry, or shaded.

The yellow flowered toad lily is densely branched with a good pot full of roots, giving confidence that it will survive the occasional dry spell until it is established.

While references recommend shade, other toad lilies in the garden perform best with only the slightest shade from the afternoon sun. Ones planted in more shade struggle, and that’s what’s happened with the yellow flowered toad lilies I’ve planted. Struggle for a year, if they made it that long, then disappear.

As a bonus, this toad lily arrived in flower, with a few unopened buds still to go. The plant was stocky, and though the pot was small it was full of roots, so I should not have to be overly attentive through the current spell of dry weather. I’m hesitant to purchase plants in small pots through mail order, though I often have little choice to expand collections of less common varieties. I’ve never seen toad lilies besides the few basics in the garden center, and given their relative lack of popularity, I expect I never will. And, certainly not a yellow or any of the other uncommon cultivars I’ve planted, to my great delight.

One of several Sinonome toad lilies is planted in part sun in soil that is often damp, resulting in vigorous growth that flops in late summer. This could be avoided by pruning it by half earlier in the summer, but those are the kind of chores that don’t happen in this garden.

As is usually the case, I had no idea where the new toad lily would be planted, but figured that I’d work it out once it and another one arrived. (I don’t recall what the second toad lily is supposed to do, and why I added it. Perhaps it was a tall grower, or maybe very short.) I was discouraged after a few circles around the sunnier parts of the garden, but finally decided on what I think will be an ideal spot along the back side of the koi pond. Another toad lily a few paces into damper ground grows vigorously, perhaps too vigorously so that it flops. The sunlight exposure is similar, so I’m expecting the best. After multiple failures with yellow flowered toad lilies, I’ll be overjoyed to finally have one succeed, and I think I’ve done it this time.

Lightening Strike is positioned in an area with increasing shade, so it will have to be transplanted before it fades away.

Miyazaki is a vigorous grower with occasional seedlings that appear true to the variety. While most toad lilies fare well in nearly full sun, leaves of Miyazaki can burn a bit by late summer. It is also one of the last to flower, beginning in mid September in this garden while others begin to bloom in August to early September.


The garden’s ponds

Given the number of, and space in the garden allotted to ponds, there are disproportionate mentions of plants on these pages and few comments relating to water features. Except for discussion of snakes, that is, and after a summer of harassment from my wife, the one remaining Northern Brown is keeping a low profile.

In recent years, Oakleaf hydrangeas and paperbush have grown to overwhelm colorful perennials planted just outside the pond, though Japanese irises remain in shallow water. The changed landscape surrounding the pond is not for better or worse, just different. The current concern is that clear water is now cloudy. Additional filtration is required to take of this.

Probably, many readers would suppose that keeping up with five ponds in the garden, ranging from a hundred to fourteen hundred square feet, would be a full time proposition, even without another acre of garden to care for. Wrong again. Little time is spent maintaining the ponds, most months none, and only in the spring is a quick clean out necessary, though the large koi pond is never cleaned.

Sweetflag, yellowflag, water lilies, and pickerelweed along the pond’s edge

Occasionally, there’s a little something. A pump gets gummed up, or a leaf basket must be emptied. Plants along the edges of the ponds must be managed, cut back in early spring, and occasionally pruned if they become too rambunctious. Sweetflag (Acorus) and yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacorus, above) can go a bit wild growing in shallow water, and it won’t be long before the vigorous clump of Pickerel weed (Pontederia cordata, below) requires some attention. But this is minutes a year, not hours. By far, more time is spent feeding the koi than maintaining the ponds, much less time than it takes to weed any single area of planting.

However, the koi pond has reached the point that something must be done. The biological filtration that kept the pond clear for years is being overwhelmed by the increased koi population. I’ve resisted as long as possible, but it’s time to invest in more advanced filtration. It’s killing me, but I’ve been forced to add an external filter. Installation is pretty simple, but not inexpensive for this large volume of water.

I’ve little doubt that with the filter hooked up the water will quickly clear up, so I’ll be able to see the koi again, not only when they surface to feed. For the smaller ponds, this should never be a problem, but the koi pond started with ten fish and now there are many, many more, with exponentially more every year. I tried netting and moving some to the other ponds, but it became clear that I can’t keep up. So, I’m not complaining about there being too many koi, but this requires better filtration, and now’s the time.

I’ll report back as I see results.