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Putting the Garden to Bed

November 23, 2015
asters late november Although I still have a few late blooms hanging on in my garden, last night’s light coating of wet snow provided a reminder that it is time to finish putting the garden to bed for the winter.

november snow

fence border ready for winterMany of these fall chores have already been completed. In the back garden, most plants have been cut back for winter, and organic matter has been added to flower beds by top-dressing them with compost left from my spring delivery. Only the back slope still needs to be cleaned up for winter.

In the Serenity Garden, a viburnum growing at the edge of the woods has been vulnerable to winter and spring browsing by deer. Before the ground freezes, I need to install the flexible garden frames covered with netting that I use to protect this plant.

planter chore Elsewhere, containers that held annuals need to be emptied and brought inside. Various pieces of garden furniture need to be stored in the basement or covered with tarps.

garden furniture chore

I hope to complete all these chores this week. Once they’re done, I will be able to enjoy the peaceful look of a garden tucked in for the winter under its blanket of snow.

A Mild November: GBBD, November 2015

November 16, 2015

November in Maine has a well-deserved reputation as the least desirable month of the year. It is typically cold, wet and raw. Last year, I wrote that

I think the whole point of November in Maine is to prepare us psychologically for winter. At the beginning of November, we don’t feel ready for winter. But November is dreary, and when the temperatures dip low enough for the precipitation to fall as snow instead of rain in late November or early December, we will greet the snow with pleasure. (November Transition)

November asterSo far, this November has defied these descriptions. Continuing the trend of an unusually mild autumn, November has had warmer than average temperatures and sunnier than average weather. The unlikely result is that, in mid-November, I still have flowers blooming in my garden! This despite many frosts and at least one night with a low temperature in the teens (F).

The flowers still blooming — the aster (Symphyotrichum laeve) ‘Bluebird’ and a late phlox, Phlox paniculata ‘Robert Poore’ — are tough native plants that are unfazed by a light frost. November phloxThey are also planted in two of the new flower beds facing south and southwest at the front of my house. These locations provide some protection from fall’s cold weather, soaking up the sun’s warmth during the day and radiating it back overnight.

Most plants in the garden have gone into dormancy, and flowers have turned to seedheads. On my witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) trees, the seed capsules look more like classically shaped flowers than did the yellow fringe of the blooms. The seed pods of common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) have opened and are scattering their seeds to the winds on puffs of silky down.

hamamelis seed pods milkweed seeds

windowsill gardenAs the outdoor garden transitions to winter, my attention turns to the indoor blooms that light my life in winter. In the living room plant window, two varieties of cyclamen and my holiday cactus (Schlumbergera) are all in bloom. Each year at this time, I am reminded to be thankful for the faithful cyclamen plants that bloom for most of the year and that I am often tempted to take for granted. The holiday cactus is a more fleeting pleasure, but its relatively short bloom period is more than offset by the extravagance of its flowers.

November pink cyclamen Thanksgiving cactus flower

Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day is hosted on the 15th of each month by Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Visit her blog to see November blooms from many gardens.

Leaf Fall

November 13, 2015

fallen leavesAt this time of year, the ground around my house and garden is carpeted with leaves fallen from deciduous trees. The process of leaf fall is such a dominant feature of autumn in this part of the United States that the season is usually known as “Fall.”

Since I last checked in on my red maple (Acer rubrum) tree, it has dropped all its leaves. The red maples, along with the birches, are among the first trees on my property to lose their leaves. By the end of the October, the red maple at the side of the driveway was pretty much bare of leaves – at a time when many of the oak (Quercus) and beech (Fagus) still had mostly green foliage. red maple bare

The United States National Arboretum’s wonderfully clear explanation of the science of fall foliage notes that when the hours of darkness reach a certain threshold level, deciduous trees form an “abscission layer,”

a corky layer of cells that slowly begins to block transport of materials such as carbohydrates from the leaf to the branch. It also blocks the flow of minerals from the roots into the leaves.

Over time, the abscission layer becomes more and more dry and corky and the connections between cells weaken until the leaf breaks off and falls to the ground. The amount of time it takes the abscission layer to reach this point seems to vary from species to species. While my red maple drops its leaves fairly quickly, many of the leaves on my red oak (Quercus rubra) trees and virtually all the leaves on American beech (Fagus grandifolia) trees hang on until early spring.

Fallen red maple leaves

Now that my red maple is bare of leaves, I can spend the coming months admiring its spare skeletal form and bark and watching for signs of new growth.

This post is part of the Tree Following meme, formerly at Loose and Leafy and now hosted by Pat English at The Squirrel Basket.

Favorite Garden Books: The Garden in Autumn

November 2, 2015

Garden in Autumn

For several years, based on the recommendations of other garden bloggers, I have been wanting to read some of the garden writing of Allen Lacy. Many of his books are out of print and a bit difficult to find. But when I discovered in September that I could borrow a copy of The Garden in Autumn (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1990) from the public library, the timing was perfect.

Lacy calls autumn “the neglected season” in the garden and argues that this is a legacy of the English gardening tradition. But, he notes, autumn is a very different season in the United States than it is in England. “In September of 1988,” he writes, “I was suddenly struck by the accumulated evidence in my own [New Jersey] garden that autumn could be the very best of seasons.” (p. 2)

After an introduction extolling the glories of gardening in autumn, Allen Lacy gets to the heart of his book, 6 chapters each focused on a category of autumn garden plants: Lingering Perennials, Perennials Specific unto the Season, Bulbs of Autumn, Grasses of Autumn, Annuals in the Autumn Garden, and Some Woody Plants of Autumn. These chapters introduced me to plants I wasn’t familiar with and to ideas about how to extend the season in my own garden.

This list of chapters might suggest that The Garden in Autumn is primarily an encyclopedia of plants for the autumn garden, but it is much more than that. The book  is lavishly illustrated with full-color photographs of autumn gardens, featuring not only individual plants but also gorgeous plant combinations; and these photographs are mostly of Lacy’s own garden or of gardens he has visited. That last is an important detail, because this is a deeply personal book. Allen Lacy describes his vision for the book this way:

It was not my intent to be encyclopedic, nor do I claim that this book is the final word on gardens in autumn. It is written instead out of my own experience to date, buttressed by the experiences of good friends. The great majority of plants that are discussed I have either grown or seen and admired in gardens other than my own. (p. 4)

The personal nature of Lacy’s observations are highlighted by the fact that this book is written in the first person and is laced with anecdotes about his personal experience with various plants. The Garden in Autumn is thus as much garden essay as plant guide. To give you the flavor of this combination, let me quote this discussion of Coreopsis rosea (from the “Lingering Perennials” chapter):

As the species name indicates, it bears soft pink flowers. They are tiny, about half the size of a dime. Bloom is nonstop from summer into fall. It grows only twelve inches high, and its spreading, stoloniferous habit makes it a good ground cover for either full sun or light shade…. The only source I know for this seldom-grown but promising northeastern perennial is Canyon Creek Nursery, although some wholesale nurseries are beginning to take an interest in propagating it on a large scale. I hear rumors of a white form. I also harbor the suspicion, based on the stoloniferous habit of C. rosea and its equal success in sun or shade (plus a few rumblings from friends with whom I exchange tales of greedy plants that exceed in their takeover ambitions anything seen on Wall Street), that this coreopsis needs to be watched closely and vetted if it starts wanting Lebensraum. (The fears of “creeping Communism” with which we alarmed ourselves for some decades after World War II because of galloping Nazism, and our rhetoric about eternal vigilance, may finally prove unfounded. But any garden is liable to harbor creeping Communists, Trojan Horses, or what you will.) (pp. 41-2)

I found The Garden in Autumn both enjoyable and inspiring. It helped me to expand my garden horizons. Because Lacy gardens in a warmer climate than I do, I can’t grow all the plants that he recommends. But because, like me, he gardens in sandy soil, his book has encouraged me to try some plants that I previously thought needed more moisture than I can provide. As I read through The Garden in Autumn, I kept stopping to make notes – reminding myself that I wanted to add some fall-blooming bulbs and corms to the Serenity Garden, and incorporating some ornamental grasses into the beginnings of a design for the side slope garden that I plan to add next year.

While the value of The Garden in Autumn is enduring, there are ways that this 25-year-old volume is dated. Lacy’s advice about specific cultivars and plant sources are of less use today than is his more general discussion of plant genera for the autumn garden. I was taken aback by his glowing recommendations of some plants (e.g., Nandina domestica) now identified as invasive in the mid-Atlantic region where he gardens.  I also noticed some surprising absences. When I began trying to extend the blooming season in my own perennial garden, I turned first to late-blooming daylily cultivars like ‘Autumn Minaret,’ ‘Final Touch,’ and ‘Sandra Elizabeth.’ But there is no mention of the genus Hemerocallis in Allen Lacy’s discussion of “lingering perennials.” This may be because he is not a fan of daylilies; more likely it is because the wide selection of very late blooming and reblooming cultivars that have been developed to extend the daylily season into September and October were not widely available in 1990.

Despite these limitations, I will turn to this book again and again as I design my garden for longer bloom and autumn interest. If, like me, you are trying to extend the season of bloom and beauty in your garden, I don’t think you can do better than Allen Lacy’s The Garden in Autumn for both inspiration and advice.

Hidden Treasure

October 24, 2015

hamamelis flowersLast July, when a botanist friend was visiting, I asked her to identify a tree growing by the side of my driveway with a leaf I did not recognize. Her identification was prompt and certain: my mystery tree was witch hazel, specifically the native witch hazel, Hamamelis virginiana. Once its leaves had been identified for me, I began to notice other small witch hazel trees and seedlings growing along the edge of the woods beside the driveway, and I wondered why I had never noticed the flowers of these fall-blooming trees.

As summer turned into fall, I kept an eye on the largest  witch hazel tree and watched its buds develop and open into fringy yellow flowers. At first, the flowers were difficult to see, because they are small and almost the same color of yellow as the tree’s fall foliage. As the leaves turned from golden yellow to burnt orange and then began to fall from the tree, however, the Hamamelis flowers became much more easily visible. And then I began to notice something else: there were many witch hazel trees blooming throughout the woods to the south and east of my house! When I went for my morning walk, I noticed dozens more blooming at the side of my dirt road, next to my mailbox at the bottom of the road, and all along the nearby paved road!

hamamelis in woods1 hamamelis in woods2

How could I have lived here for 25 years and never noticed any of this before? One explanation is that I was seldom here when the trees were in bloom. I would come up to Maine for my fall break in early October and not return again until Thanksgiving. If the Hamamelis trees were in bloom when I was here in October, their flowers would have been masked by the similarly colored foliage. But what about the years I was on sabbatical and here through the fall? And what about last year, after I retired and was living here full time? I think the witch hazel trees were hiding in plain sight, that I just didn’t have eyes to see.

Now that these hidden treasures have become visible to me, I’m very much enjoying the sight of their blooms. I have always assumed that I wouldn’t be able to grow Hamamelis, because my reference books say that it needs moisture-retentive soil. Seeing how readily H. virginiana grows in the sandy soil of my neighborhood gives me hope that I may also be able to establish H. vernalis in my garden. I have dreams of looking up from my desk in March, when I am suffering from cabin fever and heartily sick of winter, and seeing it blooming outside my study window, a promise of spring.

Flirting with Frost: GBBD, October 2015

October 15, 2015

fall perennialsWe are now past the average date of first frost in my part of Maine, and the days to enjoy blooms in my garden are numbered. We have been flirting with frost for several weeks now. Overnight lows have been hovering near the freezing mark, and twice I have seen scattered morning frost on roofs in my neighborhood. On many nights, I have covered some plants, including the morning glories growing on the garden fence with old sheets, protecting their blooms for yet another day. In response to the cold temperatures and shorter days, both woody and herbaceous perennials have been putting on fall colors and going dormant.

october gardenBut in mid-October, I do still have some flowers to share. These include varieties of “summer” phlox (Phlox paniculata). ‘Blue Paradise,’ which bloomed first in mid-July and then produced a second flush of blooms in September, still has a few flowers hanging on, even as its foliage goes dormant. In the front garden, the late-blooming ‘Robert Poore,’ is still flowering, although its flowers have faded from strong magenta to pale mauve. ‘Bright Eyes’ still has buds, but these may not get to open.

october blue paradise october robert poore october bright eyes

All those nights of running out before bed to throw sheets over the fence have paid off; my morning glories (Ipomoea tricolor ‘Heavenly Blue’) are still blooming. Their flowers are having more and more trouble opening in the morning cold, however, and have become ‘afternoon glories.’

morning glories opening afternoon glories

Nearby, in the raised bed, the garden stalwart Geranium x oxonianum has been blooming continuously since the first week in June and continues to make new buds. In the newly planted Lavender Walk, there are also still flowers on Lavandula augustifolia ‘Hidcote.’

october geranium october hidcote

These lingering summer flowers are blooming much more sparsely than they did at their peak, but other plants put on their best show in late summer and fall. Sedum spectabile and its hybrid kin fall in this category. ‘Matrona,’ which is the earliest of these to bloom in my garden, has largely completed its transformation from flowers to seedheads, and ‘Autumn Fire’ is well along on this transition. ‘Neon’ has turned from hot pink to a deep russet color, and ‘Autumn Joy’ has turned a rich, deep wine red.

October Sedums

october bluebird The flower-power stars of the October garden, however, are not the sedums but the asters that are blooming on either side of the front steps in my new entry garden. Aster (Symphyotrichum laeve) ‘Bluebird’ is very happy in its new home in the Blues Border and is blooming much more profusely than it ever did when it was languishing at the back of the Blue and Yellow Border.
Nearby, the popular New England aster (Symphyotricum novae-angliae) ‘Alma Potschke’ is providing a vibrant splash of color in the Porch Border. october alma potschke

Perhaps the most lovely surprise in my garden this month, however, are the flowers of the native witch hazel (Hamamelis virginiana) that I didn’t even realize was growing at the edge of the woods along my driveway until a botanist friend pointed it out to me this summer. It’s easy to see how I missed it, however. When you first look, what you see is the golden color of fall foliage; only a closer look reveals the yellow fringe of its flowers among the leaves.

hammamelis foliage hammamelis flowers

Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day is hosted on the 15th of each month by Carol at May Dreams Gardens and provides a wonderful opportunity for garden bloggers to get together and share their blooms. Visit her blog to see what’s blooming in other October gardens.

Fall Foliage

October 11, 2015

red maple fallIt’s time to check in on the red maple tree (Acer rubrum) that I’m following through a round of the seasons as part of Lucy’s tree-following meme at Loose and Leafy.

October is fall foliage time in Maine – the season when the leaves of our deciduous trees turn glorious shades of scarlet, orange, and gold before fading to brown and falling off.

The United States National Arboretum web site has a wonderfully clear explanation of the science behind fall foliage. Color in leaves is created by pigment-producing chemicals. It seems that the chemicals producing yellow (xanthophylls) and orange pigments (carotenoids) are present in the leaves throughout the growing season, but those colors are covered up by the green pigment produced by chlorophyll in the leaves. As the days get shorter, however, the leaves stop producing chlorophyll, the green color fades, and the yellows and oranges begin to show. Because this process is an effect of the shortening hours of daylight, we can expect it to proceed from north (where the days get shorter more quickly after the autumnal equinox) to south and we can expect the yellows and oranges to begin showing through at about the same time each year.

This last bit of information surprised me because my sense is that the colors appear later some years than others and are also much more vivid in some years than others. This is because some parts of the process are dependent on weather conditions. According to the U.S. National Arboretum, “Abundant sunlight and low temperatures … cause the chlorophyll to be destroyed more rapidly.” In years when those conditions are met, the foliage color will reach the point where we are aware of it more quickly. In years like this year, when September was exceptionally warm, the fall foliage colors are slow to put on the big show that is known as “peak color.”

There is another way that weather influences fall foliage, and that is in the production of  additional pigment chemicals, anthocyanins, which produce the red and purple hues in autumn leaves. In most tree species, the anthocyanins are not present throughout the growing season but are produced in fall from sugars in the tree leaves. Warm sunny days and cool (but not freezing) nights are particularly conducive to the production of anthocyanins. When those scarlet hues mix with the yellows and oranges, we experience the foliage colors as more brilliant. Thus, years when weather conditions are good for the production of anthocyanins are experienced as more vivid foliage years. Soil moisture also plays a role here; in years when trees are stressed by drought, they are more likely to drop their leaves before the anthocyanins have much chance to do their magic.

The quality of fall foliage also depends on tree species. Different types of trees differ in when they begin to slow the production of cholorphyll, how quickly they do so, and how prone they are to produce anthocyanins. In New England, maple (Acer) trees are known for their brilliant fall colors. And, true to their name, red maples are particularly likely to produce red pigments in their autumn leaves. This is why it is a disappointment that my red maple by the driveway is showing lots of yellows and oranges in its canopy, but little red – especially since there are red maples across the road from my house that are a blaze of scarlet hues. Since all these trees have been experiencing the same weather conditions, micro-climates must be at work here. Do those trees across the road get more sunlight during the day? Are they exposed to lower nighttime temperatures? Are they growing in more moisture-retentive soil? I’m hoping that the leaves on the lower part of my tree, which are still mostly green, will produce more anthocyanins in the days to come and give me a memorable display of color.

Most people in Maine are not expecting outstanding foliage color this year. The folk wisdom is that our unusually dry summer will dull the colors. But our color is not yet at its peak, so there is still time for a beautiful season of fall foliage.


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