Too close to winter

I’ve just returned from a delightful week along the Gulf Coast with daytime temperatures around eighty and few signs of autumn anywhere, much less of winter. I have nothing against winter, except that I’d rather it not be winter, though the cold is clearly necessary to grow the plants I treasure.

I stepped off the plane as the sun set, with temperatures dropping into the low twenties, and already spoiled by my week of tropical temperatures.  A few minutes after I returned home, I was out  on the back patio in the dark and cold dragging pots of agaves and elephant ears into the basement. The sharp spines and heavy, waterlogged pots are the reason this was not done weeks sooner, at our first frost, but with this cold night it was fortunate that I returned home and not a day later.

A week ago, foliage of this lacecap hydrangea was beautifully colored. After two nights in the low and mid twenties, brown leaves hang limply (above).

There was a significant change to the garden after a single night that dropped into the low twenties, but after a second the garden has clearly moved into its winter phase. Leaves of several Japanese maples that typically turn late, instead changed from green to brown overnight. Hydrangeas were green, with some small flowers and a several buds a week ago, but now leaves and flowers have blackened.

While much of the garden is covered by a blanket of fallen leaves, foliage remains on scattered trees and shrubs. Leaves of Oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercifolia, above) are late to turn, and more shaded shrubs remain green while ones in part sun have begun to change. The colorful leaves often remain into January.

A week ago, I mentioned the varying colors of leaves of witch hazels, and now, after freezing temperatures, the Vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis, above) has turned to a splendid, rich yellow, with scattered branches of red. While the nearby ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba, below) has recently dropped all leaves, as it does almost overnight, colorful foliage that does remain is particularly appreciated. 


After the freeze

A single twenty degree night changes the garden. A day before, coneflowers (below), azaleas, camellias (2nd photo, below), and toad lilies were flowering despite repeated frosts and a light freeze a few weeks ago. After this freeze, flowers remain, but in an altered state that shows effects of the cold.

This coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) seedling began flowering in early November. Predictably, the bloom is short lived after a typically cold November night.

The garden’s camellias were in full bloom until this freeze. It is likely that flowers will continue through the next month, or longer, with blooms damaging on very cold nights and buds opening after a few mild days.

While some extol the beauties of seedheads and browned grasses, I prefer leaves and flowers to the dormancy of winter. The silhouettes of Japanese maples (below), and particularly of Harry Lauder’s walking stick (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’), can be quite marvelous, and colorful berries attract bluejays and cardinals, but these are small consolation.

With recent cold, leaves of the Fernleaf Japanese maple (Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifolium’) have turned mottled colors ranging from yellows to reds.

Paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha) holds its deciduous leaves until the first hard freeze. After a twenty degree night, leaves hang limply, and these will soon drop.

Though damaged blooms will not recover, unopened buds of camellias (below) will continue to flower for at least another month, and there could be additional blooms on Encore azaleas. Flowers of ‘Eternal Fragrance’ daphne are slightly damaged in the cold, but there are likely to be more blooms if mild temperatures return.

Though flowers of camellias remain colorful, damaged blooms will fade quickly to brown.

Numerous unopened buds remain on camellias that will flower through periods of mild temperatures.

‘Winter Sun’ mahonia began flowering in late October. Other hybrid mahonias are following, and most will flower into the the new year.

Flowers of hybrid mahonias are not damaged by cold. ‘Winter Sun’ (Mahonia x media ‘Winter Sun’, above) began flowering several weeks ago, and ‘Charity’, ‘Underway’, and the newly planted ‘Marvel’ (below) will follow and are likely to flower through repeated spells of cold into the new year.

‘Marvel’ mahonia is a new and welcome addition to the garden. One in part sun begins to flower while another in shade is just starting to bud.

Foliage and flowers of early November

After a lengthy delay through an unusually mild October, leaves of swamp maples (Acer rubrum, below) in the forest that borders the garden have turned to their typical yellow. Selections of this same tree, then called red maple, are preferred by local homeowners for red autumn foliage, but leaf color of most native trees is not so desirable. On a breezy afternoon, leaves fall from the towering trees, and with glowing yellow leaves of thickets of spicebush (Lindera benzoin) also dropping, nearby houses are visible that have not been seen for months.

Following recent frosts and a single freeze, the Fernleaf Japanese maple (Acer japonicum ‘Aconitifloium’, above) is beginning to show color that will intensify in the next few weeks. While other Japanese maples are often splendid in autumn, the Fernleaf is consistently extraordinary.

Seriyu Japanese maple is green leafed until early November.

Viridis Japanese holds its yellow autumn foliage for weeks.

While foliage colors of a variety of witch hazels are usually short lived, this first week of November is their peak. Hybrid witch hazels ‘Arnold Promise’ and ‘Jelena’ (Hamamelis x intermedia) display shades of red and orange, and portions of the vernal witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) turn yellow one large stem after the other until the shrubby tree has turned completely.

There are a surprising number of flowers in the garden for November, many of which have been featured recently on this page. As often happens, there are few strays out of season. The threadleaf spirea ‘Ogon’ (Spiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon’, below) flowers in early spring, but a few November flowers are not unusual. 

The autumn flowering hybrid camellias are at peak bloom, which is rare since flowers times are typically spread over weeks, and sometimes months. A year ago, flowering was particularly disappointing until the unusually warm January and February.

In mild temperatures, Encore azaleas continue to flower. A cold night will ruin flowers, but buds will continue to open with warmer days.

Leaves of Ruby Spice clethra turn to yellow in mid autumn.

Bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii) makes an exceptional show in mid autumn,


Coneflower magic

After mediocre, or worse, results with coneflowers in prior years, it suddenly seems I’ve gained a magical touch. In recent years, only a lone white flowered ‘Coconut Lime’ has survived, which is remarkable since it must peek out for sunlight from beneath an ever spreading cypress.

A year ago, after repeated failures with purple coneflowers that any novice can succeed with, I planted a second white, ‘Powwow White’ (above), with the reasoning that if one white can succeed, perhaps a second will also. And, it has.

In fact, ‘Powwow’ has now spawned several vigorous seedlings, all in shades of purple. These are thriving, and in truth it is clear that I have done nothing except plant this coneflower in an ideal situation. Which is, of course, as many of the notable successes of this garden are, a complete accident since the coneflower was planted in one of very few spots open at the time.

Most remarkable, it is now the first of November and all coneflowers are again flowering. Certainly, some extraordinary care has been necessary to bring this about, you must say. But, I’ve barely been able to keep coneflowers alive in recent years. I cannot say if this late bloom is unusual or not, though I expect that unusually warm temperatures through October are the cause. Be assured, no special skill should be attributed to this event.

Treasures of the November garden

There are wonders to be seen any day in the garden, not only this garden, but in many, no matter the season. Certainly, there are a few to be excited about in early November, and not only colorful leaves. At the start of the month there are many more flowers than expected or typical, and for visitors who figure that there is some special treatment that yields late blooms, I can verify there is not. I can’t explain why Rankin jasmine (Gelsemium rankinii, below) is flowering, or why several toad lilies and reblooming azaleas have survived multiple frosts and thirty-one degrees and continue to bloom.

The stray late blooms of Canyon Creek abelia (Abelia x grandiflora ‘Canyon Creek’, below) are a bit unusual, but there were many flowers until a succession of frosts a few weeks ago, and no doubt the abnormally warm October has much to do with this. Hydrangeas (‘Bloomstruck’ hydrangea, below) have been a slight disappointment in late summer and early autumn, but a few stray buds are developing that might or might not survive through cold temperatures that are inevitable in November.

Despite the out of the ordinary number of blooms, this is far from my favored time in the garden, which is clearly in decline. Leaves of Japanese maples turning shades from yellow to burgundy guarantee that in days or weeks the trees will be bare, as some already are. A few shrubs stand against the early cold, but it will not be long before blue-green leaves of paperbushes (Edgeworthia chrysantha, below) turn to yellow and drop, almost overnight following a night that drops into the mid-twenties. I am encouraged that its buds, that will flower anywhere from early February to mid March, are prominent and in abundance. I’ve noted recently that several paperbushes have grown with unusual vigor this year, with pruning of select branches required before spring to salvage hostas and spireas that could be overwhelmed. 


Autumn’s Encore

I must begin today by stating that I am far from an azalea fanatic. Once, I declared that I would never grow another besides a grouping of three old Delaware Valley White’s that seemed indestructible. There were problems, lacebugs, clay soil, and diminishing health the longer azaleas were in the ground. Why bother? But, then I was introduced to Encore azaleas, and the possibility of azaleas blooming a second time in late summer and early autumn. Why not give them a try?

At times in the past I favored ‘Autumn Amethyst’ azalea over other rebloomers, but my ardor has faded a bit in recent years. Certainly, pick an azalea that could be flowering in a mild December that still has a fair share of nights below freezing, and that could only be ‘Amethyst’. An azalea with more flowers in November than September, and possibly May? ‘Amethyst’ again.

Autumn Amethyst is just beginning to flower in mid October. Depending on weather, it could continue to flower into December if temperatures do not drop below the mid twenties.

But, an azalea with sparser blooms than other Encores and azaleas in general, no matter the season, and that is also ‘Autumn Amethyst’. So, there’s a pro and a con, and once I valued the late blooms and minimized their scarcity. Now, not so much, though the late flowers remain a plus.

Autumn Sweetheart began flowering sparsely in mid October, but seems to be coming on as the month progresses. I’m guessing it will make a better show than Amethyst, but will not match Twist, Rouge, and Sangria.

A year ago, there were no flowers on ‘Amethyst’ in November. Daring deer not to invade (from forgetfulness or laziness, it doesn’t matter) I delayed spraying the repellent until the damage was already done. Along with daylilies and a few hostas, ‘Amethyst’ was one of the first to go. Every branch tip of two medium sized shrubs was nibbled, and while a few leaves remained, as well as a few buds so that there were a flower or two, the azaleas were pretty sad. And, spring was no better since new leaves had to grow on each branch, which started in late April, and then flower buds developed, which are blooming in early November.

This was a rare down year for Autumn Twist. It began flowering in August, which is typical, but flowers faded quickly, which is unusual. Twist is typically the most dependable and longest bloomer late August through early October.

The variations in how and when Encore azaleas flower is intriguing, and possibly a much wiser gardener could explain why ‘Autumn Twist’ and ‘Autumn Carnation’ begin flowering in August, while ‘Amethyst’ lags until mid October or later. The timetable can move weeks in either direction, depending on summer temperatures, or moisture, or whatever it is that effects the timing, but there are a few months between the first and last to flower. Spring flowering of most all azaleas is compressed into a shorter season, in this garden usually from mid April to the start of May, though that’s moved earlier in recent years.

Autumn Carnation is the most prolific bloomer for a second year, though I am far from thrilled with the color. For those who like this color, Carnation is a very strong grower and a superb bloomer.

Also interesting is why several of the Encores, ones that are plenty cold hardy, do not flower at all in my garden in autumn. There are fat buds that appear ready to open, and each year I figure this will happen any day, and then possibly if mild temperatures hold, but the buds don’t open until spring.

Autumn Fire is the slowest growing Encore in the garden. An earlier planting was too shaded, and this one is too recently planted to determine how good it is. The next Encore to be introduced, Bonfire, is said to have more vigorous growth with a similar red flower.

And, this is why I trialed Encores to try to figure out which ones would perform best in spring and autumn. The test conditions in this garden are far from optimal for a proper evaluation, but I’ve latched onto the few that seem to work best, given my sorry documentation, and varying soil, weather, and sunlight exposures. I wouldn’t claim for a moment that these will work best a mile down the street, or in more or less sun, but this is what works for me.

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.