November 23, 2010

The Quest for Late Autumn Color

Today is November 23 and, while there is technically a month to go until winter begins here in New England, the truth of the matter is that autumn is just a memory. We’ve had a dusting of snow, days when the temperatures barely got above freezing, and even the shriveled brown oak leaves have fallen from the trees.

Viburnum 'Catskill' in
early November
Remarkably, though, there are still a few shrubs on our property that have defied the season and have pleasing autumn color. A few others have just succumbed to the inevitable. Among the latter, a viburnum ‘Catskill’ that held onto its bright yellow leaves until last week and a pair of fothergillas that succumbed at the same time.

Spirea Ogden 'Mellow Yellow'
The photos here, all taken this morning, tell the story of the final round contestants. In our street-side shrub bed, a spirea Ogden ‘Mellow Yellow’ is brilliantly yellow, red and gold. It has the twin distinction of being an early bloomer with a haze of white flowers in April.

Itea 'Henry Garnet' on
November 23
The champ, though, is this Itea ‘Henry Garnet’. There are two on the property; one in the afirementioned shrub bed, the other in a rock garden behind our home. The leaves are a beautiful palette of gold, red, rust and brown. If this isn’t enough to get the neighbors to dig out their invasive burning bush, nothing is.

Oak leaf hydrangea, also
November 23
The third late-autumn beauty is our oak leaf hydrangea (hydrangea quercifolia), which just began to turn at the beginning of the month. Some leaves are still green but most are now rimmed in red and yellow. The specimen in this photo is now about nine years old with a circumference of twenty feet or better. It’s a keeper.

There’s also a Carolina sweetshrub (calycanthus) on a protected side of the house that is full of yellow leaves. I won’t count it for now because of its location and the fact that its ‘mother’ out in the shrub bed, shed the last of its leaves about two weeks ago.

R.I.P., Thomas Sanders Blue

He wasn’t even thirty inches high and he had barely settled in as part of the family. Finding him this morning, savagely mauled, I could only think of what might he might have become when he grew up. But he was a victim of pointless violence and a public mindset that those who killed him are themselves innocent victims and cannot be held responsible for their actions.

Picea glauca ‘Sanders Blue’, a dwarf Alberta spruce with bright slate-blue needles, came to us in March; a gift from a landscaper friend who spotted it at a specialty nursery. Apart from its striking appearance, the ‘Sanders’ moniker is also our own. The ‘Thomas’ name was always an inside joke. For years, some marketing list-maker has suffered under the delusion that there is a teenager named ‘Thomas’ living at out address, and we get a steady stream of mailed offers for SAT test prep and technical school enrollment. When Sanders Blue arrived, we decided that this must be the long-awaited ‘Thomas’ prophecied by our postal carrier.

Sanders Blue in the
Manhattan bed
The tag said Thomas would do best in full sun and there is only one spot on our property that meets that requirement. And so we pulled out some uninvited, self-seeded rudbeckia from the Manhattan bed and gave Thomas a fitting site, a bucket of compost, and ample water.

Our property abuts several square miles of town conservation watershed and that land is infested with deer. ‘Infested’ is not too strong a word. There are hundreds of them and, like most suburban towns around Boston, hunting is prohibited.

We deal with the deer two ways. When we see them on our property, we run, scream and throw rocks at them. Because the deer would otherwise retreat just a few feet into the woods, we make a point of pursuing them until they are several hundred yards from our property line. But this is only effective during daylight hours when we can see them, or when we are home.

Our second, and more effective line of defense is a product called Liquid Fence. During the gardening season, we mix up as many as three gallons of the stuff and spray it once a month on everything that we care about. Liquid Fence smells awful – its active ingredients are putrefied eggs and other nasty stuff – for about three hours. Then it dries and the smell goes away, or at least abates to the human nose. To deer, it continues to smell and taste unpleasant. It is sufficiently effective that we have watched deer nose up to a hosta, start to take a nibble, then back off.

The culprit, in a recent photo
The plan is that the deer learn to avoid us, passing down accumulated wisdom from generation to generation. (“Pay attention, Bambi. The people who live here are crazy. They yell and throw rocks and their plants taste terrible.”)

But, come mid-autumn, we let our guard down. The beds are cleared of perennial stalks then mulched in with leaves so there is little for any critter to eat. We fence the vulnerable evergreens and spray Liquid Fence once a month through the winter as the weather allows. Had we been more diligent, perhaps Thomas would have been spared. Then again, being out on the street made him visible – and therefore vulnerable - to the deer that populate our neighbors’ lawns and gardens.

The photo shows the extent of the damage. The deer ate not only the needles (which have no nutritional value) but also the bark. There is no recovery from such an attack. Thomas is a goner.

This weekend, I’ll dig him out and take the carcass to the compost pile at the back of the property. I’ll do so with a sense of resignation that a hunter with a bow and arrow might have saved Thomas. Or even a well-aimed rock.

November 2, 2010

The Quest for Mid-Autumn Color

If you are reading this from outside New England, you are likely to develop a pitying look on your face by the end of this post. Those poor people, you will be thinking. They’re looking everywhere for any hint of color in their barren existence and it’s just the beginning of November…

And you are exactly right. Growing up in Miami, I knew it was ‘winter’ only because our crape myrtle lost its leaves (as did a large tropical almond, which after being toppled by a hurricane we made certain never grew back by ‘watering’ it with gasoline). In Virginia, any number of shrubs that are deciduous in New England retained their greenery year round.

Of course we have evergreens in New England – rhododendron, for example – but the hunt for color is for the reds and yellows that linger into mid-autumn. We’ve now had enough sub-freezing nighttime temperatures that the annuals planted back in May have long since gone to that Big Compost Heap in the Sky (or, more specifically, the one at the back of our property). The maples are down to a smattering of leaves that will be gone in a week or so. Even the oaks have turned a dismal yellow-brown and their leaves are clogging my gutters.

A pair of fothergillas
What remains are a handful of shrubs that delight the eye exactly because they offer rich color in the midst of a world relentlessly going brown. Except as noted, these are all located in the ‘Long Island’ shrub bed at the front of our property.

Fothergilla 'Mt. Airy' on November 1
First prize goes to a pair of fothergillas. The larger one is a ‘Mt. Airy’, the smaller (and newer) one pictured at left is a ‘Blue Shadow’. Both have produced long-lasting autumn coloring in which every leaf is a riot of crimson, yellow, red and purple. The shrubs are handsome in spring and summer, but it is now that they are proving their pedigrees.  Double-click on any of the photos for much more detail.

The Itea 'Henry Garnet' in our rock garden
A close second goes to an Itea ‘Henry Garnet’. Henry has been in the bed since its creation nearly a decade ago. We originally installed it as an object lesson for our neighbors in why they did not need their invasive burning bush (euonymus alata), which was planted in profusion along Wild Holly Lane in the mid-to-late-90s. Our itea has not only grown and prospered, it has produced runners that we pot up every year to spread the word that there’s a great native alternative that provides autumn glory. Yesterday, Henry was a terrific mix of red, orange and chocolate. The lower photo is of one of Henry’s offspring that is now eight or nine years old. Henry Junior is growing happily in Rock Garden 3 where it receives protection from the wind. As a result, we expect to see its foliage into December.

Enkianthus on November 1
We treated our enkianthus poorly this year. We planted it in May and then failed to properly water it through the long, dry summer. As a result, we had some late-summer die-back that called into question our gardening skills. Some judicious pruning and TLC brought it back from the brink and we are being rewarded by an autumn show of chocolate brown and dark red foliage that is as eye-catching as it is durable. We promise to treat it better in 2011.

Hosta 'Camelot' on November 1
Some honorable mentions: Our Devils Ninebark (physocarpus opulifolium) is still a rich chocolate color, though pretty much monochromatic. A hosta ‘Camelot’ turned a brilliant gold and brown and, as of this morning, has not collapsed despite being hit by frost. Until its water-laden stalks freeze and then thaw, it will be a show-stopper.

We use Leucothoe axillaris as an evergreen foundation planting, and it does some wonderful things in the autumn, with leaves that are speckled green and white during the spring and summer developing cranberry and white stripes. It makes for terrific viewing out the living room window.

Finally, I’m keeping an eye on our oakleaf hydrangea (hydrangea quercifolia). It has not been in the ground for eight or nine years and has a diameter approaching ten feet. Its leaves are just starting to turn. Photos will be posted when it gets interesting.