A change of seasons

Remnants of Hurricane Michael were hardly to be concerned about in this part of northwestern Virginia (except for another two inches of rain while areas nearby received three times this amount), but a breezy night as the storm exited was enough to dislodge many loosely attached leaves (and innumerable branches) of trees bordering the garden. Nothing that wasn’t nearly bare has gone bare, but today there are mounds of leaves where there were none a day ago.

Fothergilla colors dependably in autumn, the reason this one was transplanted in late winter from a far corner of the garden where it was seen infrequently.

With a chilly week ahead, and the first threat of frost, it’s likely that leaves will be turning or falling soon, and it appears that this will be a disappointing autumn for leaf watchers. The best coloring on trees in this garden are several Japanese maples that turn late, and though I am not a big fan of the end of the gardening year, I expect some brilliant colors despite our unusual weather.

The tall growing ‘Woodland’ toad lily is the last to flower this year. Though stems are tall, they have not flopped in rain or wind.

Depending on how far temperatures drop into the thirties, this could be the end for many of the flowers in the garden. Blooming of toad lilies, azaleas, and hydrangeas is brought to a close with temperatures nearing freezing, though the Encore azalea ‘Autumn Amethyst’ (below) has been known for a few stray flowers in a mild December.

Hybrid daphnes ‘Eternal Fragrance’ and ‘Summer Ice’ display sparse flowers in mid-October, and perhaps the last for the season if cold temperatures stay around. ‘Jim’s Pride’ (Daphne x transatlantica ‘Jim’s Pride’, below) is at peak bloom now, certainly a consequence of more sunlight exposure, though three daphnes are only fifteen feet apart. Like other hybrid x transatlantica daphnes, ‘Jim’s Pride’ has grown vigorously when given an area of dry ground and part sunlight. I am encouraged to try other similar daphnes with varied variegations, even if they must be purchased in small sizes from specialty mail order growers.

The first blooms of the autumn flowering camelia ‘Winter’s Star’ (below) have arrived. Flowers will continue for weeks, and another ‘Winter’s Star’ and ‘Winter’s Interlude’ in part shade will begin flowering no sooner than late December, though sometimes first blooms stray into January when they are often damaged by freezes.

Flowers of Canyon Creek abelia faded in late summer, but now there is a second flush of blooms to end its flowering season.


Summer rain, for better and worse

While several shrubs have perished in saturated soil after a summer of flooding rains, some plants on higher ground have grown with unusual and notable vigor. Two variegated ‘Silver Cloud’ redbuds (Cercis canadensis ‘Silver Cloud’) and an Oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia) have grown to engulf a Hinoki cypress (Hinoki gracillis ‘Compacta’).

I am not noted for attention to detail, but today I noticed the cypress, almost completely hidden. I’ve given little thought to it in recent years, though for a time the sprawling Oakleaf hydrangea was ruthlessly chopped to preserve the neighboring cypress. The plan from the start was something about the the textural contrast of a needled evergreen growing up through the broad leaves of the hydrangea, which worked, even if I paid little attention, until the redbud grew a few feet over the top.

The hydrangea will manage just fine with a few snips of the redbud, but the cypress will be lost in a few years if a few larger branches are not removed. Too often, I’m guilty of letting nature takes it course when it is my, not nature’s doing that has caused the complication. I suppose that other gardeners can be equally short sighted, but I’m ceaselessly exposed to my blunders.

Leaves of Munckin Oakleaf hydrangeas in damp ground have had autumn coloring for weeks.

While several Oakleaf hydrangeas in damp ground are stressed, showing autumn leaf coloring long before others, ones in drier ground have grown taller and wider than expected. Even in more typical summers the Oakleafs grow rampantly, requiring selective pruning every other year so neighboring shrubs are not overwhelmed.

Three Oakleaf hydrangeas in dry shade struggled for several years until gaining a foothold, and now with constant dampness, despite competing with maples and tulip poplars for moisture, they are thriving, as if this difficult situation was ideal. Part of this, I suspect, is the typical vigor of Oakleafs, and no credit should be given to the gardener who dug through thick roots to plant the hydrangeas. Occasionally, there are successes despite the gardener’s blunders. The three hydrangeas are still a bit sparse in flowering in shade that is too deep, and branching is less dense than in more sun, but the few scattered blooms and large leaves are perfectly suited to this part of the garden.

Finally, remontant mophead hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla, flowering on new and old wood) are setting flower buds, that most often begins in September and occasionally in late August. Temperatures in the eighties are continuing, and if the setting of buds doesn’t hurry along flowers might be damaged by cold that is usually expected before the start of November.

The colors of autumn, before leaves turn

While leaves are slow to turn with summer temperatures extending into October, the garden remains colorful with abundant blooms. Without a doubt, cold weather and colorful leaves will be here soon, but I’m in no rush to be rid of this unusual warmth. 

While the pink blooms of Encore azalea ‘Carnation’ (above) are hardly my favorite, the azalea is the most dependable for flowering in late summer and early autumn, and blooms persist for weeks. Flowers of another dependable autumn bloomer, ‘Twist’ are just beginning, much later than usual. Flowers of other Encore azaleas are more scattered in autumn, with some flowering through November if temperatures are not too cold.

Toad lilies (Tricyrtis formosana var. grandiflora ‘W-Ho-ping Toad’, above) are at peak bloom in early October. Flowers will persist through light frosts, but fade quickly following a hard frost or freeze.

The tall, coarse leafed clump of Tatarian daisy (Aster tataricus ‘Jindai’, above) was rescued as a wide spreading paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha) crowded it. The transplant of the tall growing aster was easy, but the location beside a second paperbush is only temporary until a better spot can be found.  

Seedlings of ‘Chocolate’ Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium rugosum ‘Chocolate’, above) rise through a clump of variegated liriope (Liriope muscari ‘Variegata’). Foliage of seedlings is not as dark as the parent plant, which is long gone as far as I’m aware. 

Flowers of Autumn crocus (Colchicum, above) have been short lived in this early autumn. The white colchicum lasted only a few days in warm temperatures.

Berries of ‘Duet’ beautyberry (Callicarpa dichotoma ‘Duet’, above) are smaller than other beautyberries, but while other beautyberries are unremarkable through spring and summer, the variegated foliage is an added attraction.

A clump of several ‘Winterberry’ hollies (Ilex verticillata ‘Winterberry’, above) is loaded with berries. While leaves will drop soon, berries will persist into early winter.

While leaves of native dogwoods (Cornus florida, above) are scarred by black spot, and autumn coloring is late, trees are loaded with berries and buds for spring’s flowers. Another dogwood in the neighborhood is changing (below), but it has no berries, and no flower buds are evident. Berries are nearly ripe, so trees will soon be stripped bare by birds.

With plentiful rainfall through the summer, the ‘Orange Dream’ Japanese maple (Acer palmatum ‘Orange Dream’, below) in a container on the patio beside the koi pond has grown substantially in late summer. While foliage fades to green in summer, new growth is more colorful. Japanese maples display some of the most colorful autumn foliage, but this is the color of new growth, not leaves fading into winter.


Mostly minor problems

Among many, but mostly minor issues related to this year’s summer deluge is that Alstroemeria ‘Tangerine Tango’ barely grew, and only a few flowers were seen in early summer. In fact, I cannot be certain that the problem is not an overhanging Distylium instead, but shade from the evergreen seems not far different from a year ago, while rain is up substantially. I can’t stop the rain, but I can cut the Distylium back to give a bit more sunlight to ‘Tangerine Tango’. So, this is the plan for spring since it is too late for this year, though it is likely I will have forgotten by then.

While dogwoods in drier areas of the garden show no ill effect, perhaps not even more leaf spotting and mildew than is typical, native (Cornus florida ‘Cherokee Sunset’), Chinese (Cornus kousa ‘Wolf Eyes’), and hybrid dogwoods (Cornus ‘Celestial Shadow’) in the damp, lower garden have dropped all leaves much earlier than is typical. I expect no long term effect, assuming against recent evidence that drier weather patterns will return and that the lower garden will eventually dry out.

Two cherries on higher ground have also defoliated, though this is not so unusual since cherries are quite sensitive to excess moisture. Again, all should revive in spring.

Autumn coloring of leaves should begin soon, while foliage of Oakleaf hydrangeas (Hydrangea quercilfolia ‘Munchkin’) in damp soil turned weeks ago. I presume that constant dampness is a stress factor that accelerates the effects of autumn dormancy since leaves of Oakleafs in dry ground remain green. Cold temperatures to push foliage color changes must be just around the corner, though the current forecast is quite warm for early October.

Two peonies and daphnes were lost in the summer’s wetness, but here I should accept at least part of the blame for planting in conditions that were marginal, summer flooding or not. I’ll know better next time, and while another twenty inch increase in rainfall is unlikely, I now know from experience that these will not tolerate the dampness of the lower garden. A third newly planted daphne, in its second year and planted on a dry slope, also displays its displeasure, though it will survive.

Summer Ice daphne is planted in dry ground where it grows and flowers vigorously.

Mountain hydrangeas (Hydrangea serrata) were planted in place of two daphnes, and certainly these will not thrive if the lower garden remains a swamp. But, I expect it will dry out, and even with occasions when damp ground persists for weeks the hydrangeas are better suited to this area.

Ideal planting

Ideal spots for planting are easily identified in shaded areas of the garden. Here, sporelings of Japanese Painted and Sensitive ferns appear together, competing in scattered pockets of deep, moist soil. Too often, Japanese stilt grass encroaches, though it is less particular about the spaces it invades. Fortunately, while persistent and a considerable nuisance, the grass is shallow rooted and easily removed.

Sporelings of Sensitive fern intermingle with carex beneath azaleas and hydrangea.

While ideal conditions are rare in this dry shade beneath towering maples, blackgum, and tulip poplars, I search for the next best, soils where a hole can be carved between shallow roots to plant Solomon’s Seals, mayapples (below), and trilliums. I’m inspired by my early summer visit to woodland gardens on Washington’s Kitsap Peninsula to fill every inch of shaded spaces with lush foliage, though this effort is challenged by the thin layer of soil and irregular irrigation.

Long established native mayapples thrive in thin soils beneath maples and tulip poplars. I try to duplicate these conditions when planting Asian varieties.

In a bit more sun, and out of reach of the worst of tree roots, abundant seedlings of hellebores and toad lilies (Tricyrtis hirta) must be dug and potted for giveaways, or discarded. Several are transplanted, or left in place, though this takes space that is contrary to my lust to plant at least one of everything.

One of several anemones that survive for a year or two, but then disappear.

I hesitate to admit failures of common plants that anyone can grow. Japanese anemones are often aggressive in gardens, but here they have failed repeatedly in sun and shade, damp and dry. Certainly, there is some spot where soil and sunlight is ideal, but I’ve failed to find it, and probably never will since there’s no sense wasting another nickel on a plant I can’t find an ideal spot for.

Better late than never

The garden stinks, according to my wife, who is likely referring to the application of deer repellent yesterday, but who has also been known to make critical remarks about my pride and joy. Regarding my wife’s remarks as the more obvious, it is clear that spraying of the repellent was long overdue, though of interest in testing how long the repellent could remain effective, and in particular during a period of many inches of rain.

While first signs of deer nibbling were seen two weeks ago, and five weeks after the last application, this is now nearly two months. While a tip or two of mophead hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla) have been nipped, hostas are the true indicator in this garden. Spraying is done in a hurry, as are most chores in this garden, and I could not swear that the few out of the way hostas that are now completely defoliated were sprayed way back when. I’ve missed these before, which is partially why they were kind of puny, and of course this will not help for next year.

One new flower on a Mophead hydrangea in late August. Remontant (reblooming) hydrangeas will bud and flower again with cooler temperatures in September.

(Note – to address the obvious questions, what do I spray? Currently, I spray Bobbex, but I’ve used other repellents with success in the past. Until a year ago, I alternated two products under the theory, I believe confirmed by science, that deer become too familiar with one scent or taste. Now, instead of two products I add a small amount of hot pepper squirrel repellent in alternating months, which works marginally to dissuade squirrels from eating bird seed, but seems to do the job with deer.)

In any case, the repellent has been sprayed, with particular attention to toad lilies (Tricyrtis, below) that are beginning to flower, but have been chewed to stubs in prior years when I stretched too long. I’ve never intended to spray everything in the garden, nor is it necessary, and so a bit of trial and error is required. It is my hope that new plantings are not ruined before I determine whether they are resistant, or not, and then newcomers go on the list to be sprayed, or not.

While ninety degree days are in the forecast for the coming week, there are numerous signs of autumn in the garden. Why, is beyond my understanding, though I suspect that dwindling hours of daylight are the cause. I should document the changes to compare over the next several years since this seems early, and perhaps related to unusually damp soils from our rainy summer. But, what do I know?

Foliage of this witch hazel is at its October best, in August.

Certainly, some premature leaf drop with water sensitive cherries is due to too much moisture, and a Persian witch hazel (Parrotia persica) turned deep red in June (I think) with roots that extend down into saturated ground even though I’ve considerably improved surface drainage by excavating deeper edges to planting beds in this low area of the garden. A second Parrotia, one planted early in the spring, is doing fine (with no leaf color change) despite being planted precisely where a treasured Franklinia (Franklinia alatamaha) declined and perished several years ago, most likely due to damp soil following the reemergence of a mostly dormant spring.

I am happy to see that there are numerous berries on the Winterberry hollies (Ilex verticillata, above) following a period when there were fewer every year. After talking about it for several years, finally I got around to planting another male holly, almost too late for berries a year ago, but today there could hardly be another berry crammed onto the mass of several shrubs. Occasionally things are done on time in this garden, but mostly I’m in the habit of claiming “better late than never”.

Ripe berries of Chinese dogwoods are quickly consumed by birds.

An August wildlife update

If Tiger swallowtails are a bit scarce in this year’s garden, hummingbirds are not, though typically only one is seen at a time, so taking a count is difficult. A tropical Firecracker plant (Cuphea) in a pot on the deck just outside the kitchen window is a hummingbird magnet, but I often see hummingbirds on the red flowered cannas beside the koi pond also.

Curiously, roughly equal numbers of Monarchs and swallowtails are now seen in the garden. Typically, swallowtails are numerous and Monarchs are not.

Again, there are white flannel moth caterpillars in the redbuds, though too few and too late in the season to be of concern. I do not spray to be rid of them, but last year there were none, for whatever reason. As I recall, this is a caterpillar with small spines that sting, so I will approach the redbuds carefully to avoid inflicting unnecessary pain.

In prior years the caterpillars stripped several branches of leaves, but the premature loss of foliage did no harm. Certainly, the small, white moth is not a beautiful addition to the garden, but the loss of a few leaves is not a tremendous sacrifice. I acknowledge the difference for the homeowner with a single redbud on his plot, and this is, of course, the luxury in having a large enough garden so that sharing with wildlife is welcomed.

A caterpillar of unknown provenance is slowly munching leaves of the swamp milkweed, but doing far less damage than hordes of marauding aphids. The aphids, not the caterpillar, are an annual invasion after flowering is completed, and little harm is done other than making the milkweed look horrible a few weeks early. Seemingly, the aphids go on to something else, somewhere else after the milkweeds are gone. Oddly, aphids do not infest other types of native milkweeds in the neighborhood.

After a lengthy, and notable absence, two Northern Brown water snakes were seen yesterday, one of the few sunny days in weeks, which I suspect is the reason for their appearance, sunning on boulders beside the pond. Koi remain shy this summer, perhaps cautious in the presence of the snakes, but also due to blue and smaller green herons that are commonly seen coming and going.

The sealed container of koi food stored beneath a bench by the pond has not been disturbed for weeks. Perhaps neighborhood racoons have realized the difficulty in opening the container after many tries, and several efforts to drag it into the bushes.

I have noticed the first nibbling of hostas by deer, a reminder that the last spray was seven weeks ago, and with over a foot of rain through this period it’s a small miracle that a molecule of the repellent remains. I must spray this weekend, but this has been delayed several times by imminent thunderstorms.

I see that deer have decimated several healthy clumps of the neighbor’s hostas. Signs directing deer across the street are working, I tell him, but several deer bed down in the thicket beside the garden, so every day I delay there is a risk.

The portly, yellow cat that regularly prowled the garden is not seen any longer. The neighbors are frequently heard outdoors (mostly their kids, who evidently do not own electronic devices, a rare and tremendous credit to mom and dad, I think), but not often seen through our dense plantings. We don’t talk as often as we should, so we’ve not heard bad news about this once frequent visitor. As is usually the case with overly domesticated cats, I suspect hunting instincts are greatly hindered by the easy life. In any case, all comers to the garden are welcome, though we reserve the right to squirt foul tasting substances to discourage munching by some four legged beasts.