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.

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