Thursday, October 29, 2015

Debate Analysis

There was a debate last night and it was raucous.

The wind blustered, knocking everything down. Leaves I had wanted to see color up in fall are lying on the ground, defeated. The wind did a smackdown.

The black gums in front are bare now, they won't compete for fall glory this year. Although the black gum in back by the bridge is still holding on to all its leaves.


And all the oaks still seem to be competing -- the wind did no damage to them and they offer the best red color now among all the fall trees. Even my skinny oak sapling in the side yard has a lot to offer.


The rain made a strong argument. A 2.75 inch argument for continuing the garden into November. After 28 days of dry weather, some trees and shrubs that I thought were desiccated from fall freezes actually made a comeback after all the rain. Well watered, some things picked up and look good again.


The temperatures moderated their earlier stands. It was warm and wet and summery after the skies cleared. A good day for boots and a walk. A real turnaround even though I know it's a false promise and the real intent is to return to fall chill soon.


Candidates for fall color are all over the map now. The hard freeze ruined so many, but let others go unaffected. The dry stretch made many brown up, but others display good color. There's just no consistency.


When I saw the browned leaves of the katsura tree, devoid of color and curled up and dried after the hard freeze, I gave up on it for any fall interest. It doesn't look like much now.


But if I stand in just the right spot, in between the little red oak and the dark green holly, right there in the middle of the sopping wet lawn, I catch a whiff of burnt sugar even though its leaves are brown. Redeemed.


Inconsistency, running hot and cold, takedowns and false promises, dry spells and torrents -- this season is having a confusing debate with itself. I can't keep up.



Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Two Skinny Trees

Rain is needed. I can't tell whether the browned leaves on so many trees and shrubs are from the hard freeze we got 10 days ago or from the last 27 days with no rain. Both, probably.

The worst is my katsura and the bottlebrush buckeyes and the panicle hydrangeas, all are just piles of dry leaves now. Disappointment.

But it's the end of the season, and I'm pretty organized, so I'm busy making checklists of things that I need to get done in the garden.

Then I go out on a fall day and do spontaneous things that were never on any version of any list.

An example: I pruned the sweetbay magnolias a few days ago. And by "pruned" I mean I took off half of each tree. Just sawed each one in half.

This is what the smaller sweetbay at the corner of the house looked like in late August:

And now, after a random pass with the pruners, the whole left side is gone. Is this an improvement?

I had intended to take it out. It is smaller than the one nearby, it is too near the house, it was leaning into the corner, and it needed to go. But I thought I'd start with removing the half nearest the corner.

The problem is that it still leans into the house.

After removing the side of one sweetbay magnolia, I went after the other one that is right outside the bedroom window. It is larger, and taller. How I love to see the fluttery leaves lit up by the sun on a summer morning when I wake. This tree fills the bedroom window and the sun catches the leaves when it rises, just as I awaken. So pretty.

It had an awkward low branch, shown here in an earlier fall, that was getting too full too near the window. The arrow points to the half of the tree I took off.

Now, with that branch off and fully half of the tree gone, I have a tall, narrow, skinny sweetbay magnolia remaining outside my bedroom window. Is this an improvement?

Here you see the two sweetbay trees, big and little, all branchy in summer:

And here is what they look like now after I pruned them:

(The brown blob at the right is a hydrangea that the freeze or the dry spell zapped.) The sweetbay magnolias both look more architectural, and branches are away from the house now. But really, half of each tree is gone.

In high summer the gardens beneath their skinny stems are fuller, with a big baptisia below the bedroom window, which got zapped in the freeze and has already been chopped back.

They are interesting trees and I love Magnolia virginiana, but I do think they look weedy, even trimmed up and reduced. They are understory woodland trees, usually multistemmed, and would look better away from the house, or massed in a grove, or something.

I still might take out the smaller one that leans into the corner. There should be one sweetbay or a group of three, but not two unequal skinny trees at the back of the house.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Seven Sassafras

After many years, multiple attempts and lots of failures, I have a stand of sassafras trees growing on the back hill. They are at different stages of maturity -- some are just young saplings, a few were eaten to the ground and are only now regrowing, and two of them are 9 years old and tall. There are seven thriving trees lined up along the slope and I call that a grove.


Sassafras albidum is a funny tree, with mitten shaped leaves and a Raggedy Ann look. In fall each of my seven trees has distinctly different fall coloring. In bright sunshine through the camera lens it's hard to distinguish the variations on orange, but really each one is quite different.


The largest one is still leafy and green well into October. The second one, with a strongly tiered shape, is butterscotch yellow. A small sapling is bright pumpkin orange, another is rusty burnt orange, and yet another has copper colored fall leaves.


One is a deep red, with green leaves still mixed in.


The last of the seven sassafrasses had cinnamon brown foliage before dropping most of its leaves to show bare branches while the others were still clad.


This may be a grove, but it's a group of seven individual personalities. Even in summer when they are all green, they show their separate dispositions.


With root beer flavored roots, whimsical leaf shapes, and a funny name, sassafras is a character in the woods. It's hard to grow if you plant it, but an aggressive colonizer on its own terms growing in any newly open space. If you cut it, it runs, sending up shoots everywhere and forever. It has no cultivars that I know of. It has no common name, unless you use the children's term "mitten tree".

It's a wild child, and if you get seven of them growing together, you get to see how each one is an original. It's taken me years to get this group of young trees to take, and even as they grow into the grove I envisioned, each one is doing its own thing.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Seasons Toy With Us

Sunday afternoon we had snow showers that came down thickly for a while, although nothing accumulated on the ground. It was cold and my fingers froze even wearing gloves as I did some clean up in the garden.

Then Sunday night we went from a frost that zapped the annuals to a hard overnight freeze with temperatures in the mid 20s all night.

Even well after the sun rose and I went out to break up the ice in the birdbath with a hammer, it was still only 25 degrees. It was not a skim of ice on the top; the birdbath was frozen in a solid block and all I could do was chop it into chunks.

I completely forgot about shutting off the outside faucets before the freeze. Two of the garden hoses were spouting fountains after the sun warmed the frozen hoses and the burst fittings gave way.

The beautiful yellow buckeye foliage is gone now, all brown and limp. The oakleaf hydrangea that was just reaching maturity this year is also limp now. I had been waiting to get good photos of it, but it's too late.

I was also waiting to take a picture of the flowering dogwood in its garnet red glory. It didn't brown from the freeze, but the leaves have curled, leaving it skimpy looking, and the red color is now on only the east side. Still pretty, but much diminished.

Lots of shrubs are also browned or curled, but not all is lost. The maples, black gums, birches and other trees are still fine and I am hoping they'll continue to color as fall progresses.

Ah, fall, how you plague us.

I was looking over my journal from prior years to see when a hard freeze first occurred in other years, and I came across last year's photo of the most glorious tree in my garden, the small Stewartia monadelpha.
Stewartia monadelpha on October 30, 2014

Last year it looked the best it ever had. Not only a stunning red in fall, but it was gaining a pretty shape.

It did not survive last winter, and this past spring it never leafed out at all. It's gone now. You wouldn't know -- the spot where it had been growing is filled in with other plants this year. You wouldn't miss it. But I do.

How the seasons provoke us. It's cruel.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Favorite

A hard frost last night. Nasturtiums are gone, and several shrubs including the hydrangeas took a hit and even the 'Sheffield Pink' mums that were just blooming got blasted. The bright yellow foliage of the bottlebrush buckeyes was just coming out and now it's brown. Just when colors were at their best a cold night ruined many.

But you want purple, we got it. This is aromatic aster, Symphyotrichum oblongifolius 'Raydon's Favorite' and I can see why it is a favorite.

It is a reliable bloomer, it is full and bushy and the leaves have an old fashioned perfumed scent. The aster flowers don't scent the air, they are not fragrant -- it's the foliage that has an aroma but only when touched.

The original aster was planted at the arbor entrance to the gravel garden. It was supposed to grow under the star magnolia, to complement it as the magnolia grew taller and the aster filled in under it. But the aster has pretty much overtaken the magnolia and blocked the swinging gate as well. Still, I love it there.

Not only does it fill the arbor entrance and block the gate, it spills over to the other side of the border too.

I dug divisions of this original plant and put them in other gardens. Now big purple mounds anchor the back side of the driveway garden too.

I put a division under the guest room window, beneath a standard-stemmed dwarf ginkgo. This is the first year for this combination of aster and ginkgo, and I hope the little tree turns bright yellow soon as ginkgos are supposed to in fall. Yellow and purple. Gaudy. I can't wait.

I planted a division of the original plant in the Blueberry Garden too, under the 'Forest Pansy' redbud, and so far this is working better than the plant under the magnolia -- this time the aster is rounded and fits below the redbud tree in a nice combination.

This aster, so easy and so reliable, has become a favorite, not just of Raydon Alexander, the propagator, but in my garden too.

Oh, and we got red too. This is sourwood, Oxydendrum arboreum, in all its fall glory. I am showing it here because I can, and because it has always been a favorite in my garden.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Sugar in the Air

Very few people smell it, but it is distinct and intoxicating to me. I have been on fall garden tours where I was stopped in my tracks by the sweet smell of sugar in the air, and no one else noticed a thing. Except our tour's arboretum guide -- he stopped too, we exchanged glances, we both sniffed, and we broke into smiles.

Katsura trees are nearby I said. Yes, he said. Over there. Cercidiphyllum japonicum.

No one else around us could detect the scent. That was at Polly Hill Arboretum on Martha's Vineyard last year.

I've gone on and on about katsura trees and their wonderful autumn scent for so long that I have gotten Jim to be able to smell them now, but few others ever notice.

At Cape Cod last week we stayed at a lovely resort in Chatham, and they had a small restaurant. Each day as we walked outside over to the main building, he commented that the pancakes smelled great, or that cookies were baking, or they must have just taken a cake out of the oven.

It's a katsura tree, I finally said. I looked for it and found a beautiful old specimen in a far courtyard, its leaves turning golden and scenting the air all around the resort with burnt sugar. Ah.

There are a couple streets in our neighborhood where many katsura trees were planted 10 and 15 years ago as yard specimens. They are mature now, and it's a delight to walk the neighborhood at this time of year.

I took these photos with my iPhone as I walked around the neighborhood, but got worried that anyone who saw me would become alarmed at someone audibly sniffing the air and snapping shots of their homes. So I only took a few pictures.

Some katsura trees are golden at this time in mid-October. They have reliably spectacular fall color, and it's when the leaves turn that they give off the delicate sugar smell.

Other katsura trees in the same area are still green and will color only briefly before they lose their leaves in November. I have smelled burnt sugar even after every last leaf had dropped and the lawn service raked them all up and the branches were bare. The scent was still there.

One home has a small grove of three katsuras which is lovely, and the fragrance is stronger there. But it's not like you can walk up to a tree and get a good whiff of it. The scent comes on the air at a distance and you have to wait for it to breeze by you.

I planted a katsura tree in my yard. It's good sized, but still relatively young. The heart shaped leaves are all still green, and I hope they start to turn before too long.

I planted it near the porch so I can sit out there by myself on a warm fall afternoon, and avoid worrying the neighbors on my walks through the neighborhood sniffing and getting high on their trees.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

A Brick Circle and Other Oddities

It's been beautiful for days. Very cold nights, cool sunny days, lots of fall color in the hills and in my garden. I got some of my fall tasks done.

I planted the 'Bartzella' peony in the middle of the open lawn where several gardens encircle an open area. But a single plant in the middle of the lawn looked forlorn, so I got the box of floor tiles that was left over from our porch renovation and made a brick circle.


I like it. The flat tiles are simply laid on the mulch. Next spring, after the peony is settled in and if the thin faux brick tiles survive frost and winter freezes without cracking, I'll expand the circle a bit and put down some stone dust to lay the tiles in permanently. This is just a trial.


I know it looks silly out there in the wide open lawn, but it does hint at a focal point among several adjacent gardens. Once the peony gains size, and once it is in bloom, it will have a real presence and anchor that open spot. When the peony is larger, the circle will need to be larger also.

For those of you who shrug and doubt, here is a reminder -- 'Bartzella' has big blowzy yellow blooms and it is a rounded, fluffy looking shrub-type intersectional peony. I think it will look nice in its brick circle.


With this success checked off the fall to-do list, I turned my attention to the 'Jackmanii' clematis that was overwhelming the iron tower in the Blueberry Garden. It dug up easily, and I moved it to the back of the berm, to climb the river birch there.

This isn't going to work at all. The clematis rootball was large, and the hole to put it in at the base of the river birch was sort of nonexistent, so it isn't really planted as much as just laid on top of the soil, resting against the trunk of the tree. Soil piled against a tree trunk is not good for the tree. This isn't going to work.


I added some rocks to hold the soil around the rootball from washing down. The bigger issue is how to get the tendrils of the clematis vine to latch on to the trunk of the tree. I'll need to come up with a system next spring -- some netting or strings, maybe. Clematis needs narrow structures to wrap around. I don't think it will wind itself around the fat trunk of the birch without help.

I moved it because it was way too big for the five foot iron tower out in the middle of the yard. It was too congested and top heavy, and its prolific purple blooms overwhelmed nearby plants. After blooming it was just a green dark mass.

My plan was to give it room to spread upward along the tall trunk of the river birch, with its flashy purple flowers contrasting with the white and pink peeling bark. It will be at a distance now, not smack in the middle of the yard. But I really have my doubts about this.


The other fall task that got done this weekend was the annual tree guard installation. I have had more young trees killed by antler rub than from weather, insects or even deer browse. The bucks come through in fall, rub their antlers on the bark of young trees, and open raw wounds on the trunks that kill the tree.

I have developed a system using plastic mesh fencing clipped on with plastic orchid clips. The mesh wraps the trunk and keeps the bucks from rubbing. It's a pain -- the plastic mesh is stiff and hard to handle, and it takes the better part of a day to wrap all the yard trees and all the saplings on the back hill. The mesh stays on from October to next spring.

The bucks scratch the forks of their antlers on slender sturdy saplings, and they seem to like smooth bark, which is why I lost a linden and a young magnolia, but they also went after a rough barked larger sassafras and they destroyed a young twiggy katsura too. So I try to cover everything, even trees I wouldn't expect them to seek out.

Just at the time my trees are at their best, gloriously showing fall color, I have to put these distracting green plastic things around them.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

A 3D Experience

We went to see The Martian -- the space movie about a stranded botanist on Mars, feeding himself by growing potatoes in Martian soil mixed with lavatory waste from the space station. It's Apollo 13, Castaway and Gravity all combined into a story that is better than any one of those. It's a great movie, go see it.
And it was in 3D! With the glasses!

I thought of that as I looked out at my garden this morning. Early autumn light enhances everything at this time of year, and the contrast in colors makes things in the foreground pop. Just like a 3D picture.

The black gum tree by the curved bridge is still green and small, and most of the summer it blends into the leafy green of the trees on the hill in the background so you don't even really notice it. But now, against wine red maples behind, it pops out.


This photo shows how its form and color are brought forward, but the 2D effect of a photo on a flat computer screen does not give you the real 3D effect I see out there. The black gum positively jumps forward, shimmering in the foreground with deep open space lit up behind it. Distinctly three dimensional and no funny glasses needed to see the effect.

Seriously, go see The Martian.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Early October at the Cape

We just got back from several days at Cape Cod visiting with a large group of retirees from my old company -- people I had worked with 30 and 40 years ago.

It's remarkable how this group still gathers periodically and that we go back so far. There was much story telling (embellished) and remembering (faulty) and bemoaning what has become of the company these days without us.

The Cape was stark and beautiful in early October. The summer tourists are gone, the crowds have left, and it's easier to appreciate how different the landscape is from my own New England garden.

There are many lovely towns all up and down the Cape with the traditional cozy Cape Cod style houses, pretty gardens and treed Main Streets. But the dunes are never far away, and it is the sandy open scenes that I love.

I am fascinated by the way plants grow in pure shifting sand -- Sahara style white blown fine sand. There is no soil to grab onto, but grasses spread out all over the dunes, bayberries grow in slight hollows, and cranberries and blueberries hunker down in the sand.

Poison ivy winds between everything, and in early October it was brilliant red in places, especially noticeable against all that white sand.

In the open windy sand dunes it is hard to picture how Cape Cod was thickly forested when the Pilgrims arrived in 1620, landing first here and then sailing on to Plymouth across the bay. The trees were all cut down in the first century after Europeans arrived, and the landscape was changed forever.

Our guide on a dune buggy tour we took through the dunes explained that huge numbers of volunteers spend time planting plugs of grass to stabilize the shifting sand. Otherwise it blows away.

When we returned home I still had those images in my mind of wands of grass standing up sturdy and strong in the wind, hanging on to shifting sand.

The way the sturdy little wands of fleeceflower in my garden stand up instantly reminded me of the grasses. These are not grasses of course, they are a groundcover persicaria.

But they have that tenacious quality of the beach grasses, anchoring my garden, and standing up all summer in a little army of rusty pink spikes. Really, they have been blooming forever, and as the fall garden goes by, they are still blooming, unfazed by long dry weather or too much rain.

When we got back I saw that the sourwood is just starting to turn bright red and soon it will match the color of the chairs.

But the red buckeye, Aesculus pavia, always loses all its leaves very early, and when we returned it was naked. This is just not a tree for fall interest. It redeems itself with red firecracker flowers in spring and big buckeye leaves all summer, but it's bare in autumn.

The peeling bark of the river birches is always interesting, but it takes autumn light to make them really shine. I noticed the stems of this one by the patio were glowing the day we got back.

And of course my fall gardens welcomed me back with some pretty sights. Montauk daisies make a happy white contrast with the red iteas now.

On the drive to Cape Cod we saw beautiful fall color in the forests all along the highway. Early October is the perfect time for a New England drive, and the colors did not disappoint. In my own garden the red maples are turning, and the sassafras is turning orange.

It's a pretty time of year, we got enough rain before we left for things to look refreshed, and the getaway to visit longtime friends in a lovely setting refreshed me too.

But how did we all get so old?