The November Garden


Cercis_Forest_PansyOutside my window, the Forest Pansy Redbud has started to display its spectacular burnt orange fall color. There’s a suet feeder hanging from the branches so I get to enjoy the antics of the Pygmy Nuthatches, Purple Finches and the Chestnut-backed Chickadees all day long as I watch the changing colors of the foliage. Out back I have a Catawba Crape Myrtle also starting to show fall color. Its leaves are turning a rich butterscotch shade which is lovely but not the reddish-orange described in the books. What causes fall color to vary from plant to plant? How does location in the garden, weather, climate and growing conditions affect what you see each fall?

The brilliant fall color we see in the leaves of trees and plants is always there. It’s just masked by Japanese_Maple-fall_color.1280chlorophyll during the growing season as the plant is busy making food while the sun shines during photosynthesis. Come autumn, shorter days and cooler temperatures cause the trees to switch into energy-storage mode, at which point their leaves stop producing chlorophyll. For the few weeks before the leave fall to the ground, they are colored only by their natural pigments. It’s these colors – red and purple anthocyanins and yellow and orange carotenoids that make fall foliage so glorious.

Some years the show is more dramatic than others. The best conditions for intense leaf color to develop are dry sunny days followed by cool, but not freezing nights. A warm, wet autumn will almost surely result in less-than-spectacular foliage because the process of chlorophyll loss will be less consistent. Freezing temperatures or winds meanwhile can cause leaves to drop suddenly denying them opportunity to enter their slow, colorful dormancy. Finally, trees that are under stress because of pests, disease, injury or drought may drop their leaves with no color change at all.

Japanese_Maple-fall_color2.1280So if your garden becomes shady early in the fall this may result in less vivid fall foliage. If your trees are stressed by drought like this year you may not get the usual colorful fall display. These and the above factors all affect the intensity of fall foliage colors.

Now is a good time to shop for plants and trees that can punch up the color of fall in your garden. Seeing your new addition in person will show you exactly what color you are going to get. Sure Autumn Gold Ginkgo will probably always color up bright yellow and Sango Kaku Japanese maples will show off their characteristic golden foliage but the fall color of Purple Smoke Bush, Katsura tree, Witch Hazel, Pomegranate, Oakleaf Hydrangea and Blueberry, to name just a few, can vary.

First Frost
I received an email from someone new to the area about when to expect our first frost. I’ve kept a weather Japanese_Maple_Sango-Kaku_fall_color.1600journal since 1992 and based on my records occasionally we get a light frost at the end of October. Mostly though, the earliest frost has occurred about second week of November with late November being the most common. Be prepared by moving frost tender plants under overhangs if possible or having frost blankets (not plastic) ready to cover delicate plants.

Transplanting in Fall
Need to move a plant or install plants out of containers and into the garden soil? Now through February offers the best time to do this. Soils are still warm at this time of year which helps new roots get established quicker than in later winter.

Prepare the new location first before excavating any plant. Dig a hole twice as wide as the rootball, but just the same depth. Use a sharp spade to make clean cuts through roots. Cut roots will form new, dense and healthy roots.

Before replanting, especially from a container, check for roots that have circled the interior of the pot. These must be tugged loose and straightened when planted. Don’t be shy about loosening roots. When replanting be certain to keep the rootball at the same level it was and don’t add soil over the rootball. Most plants need oxygen at the soil level.



Ormanental Grasses Take Center Stage


phormiumThroughout the year I am asked for design help and plant suggestions but it’s at this time of year that I especially hear the request, “I’d love to add more grasses to my garden”. There’s no doubt that the movement and sound of grasses in the landscape adds another dimension to our experience. Many grasses and grass-like plants use less water than other plants, too. This is the time of year that grasses say “Fall is here”.

There’s an ornamental grass for every type of garden. Whether you are striving to create the perfect perennial border or have a hot dry slope, grasses can work in harmony wherever you place them. There are some that are made for the shade, some that are perfect additions to a small water feature and many that are invaluable in container gardening.

Most grasses require little care, minimal fertilizer, only occasional grooming and just enough water to meet their needs. Diseases and insect pests are rare. They have succeeded because of their adaptability and have evolved to suit almost every environment and climate on earth.

Grasses are distinguished from other plant families by their growth habit. They grow upward from the base of a leaf Orange_libertiaor shoot and can regrow from the crown when cut back. True grasses generally have extensive root systems which help control erosion. There are other grasslike plants that resemble grasses in their growth habits and are often some of the best companions for interplanting with grasses. These include New Zealand flax, carex family sedges, chondropetalum-a restio, kangaroo paw, lomandra, montbretia, liriope and their cousins ophiopogon.

So let’s say you are putting in a new patio and want a few low grasses as accents between some of the pavers. A variety like Northern Lights Tufted Hair Grass, with it’s creamy white foliage that turns pink in cold weather, would look great here. You could also use Ogon sweet flag for dense clumps the color of buttery in a shady spot, black mondo grass or blue fescue grass for even more color.

If you are trying to create a focal point or destination in your garden and think the texture of a grass with light and movement would be perfect, look to taller varieties to achieve this. Miscanthus purpurascens or Flame Grass grows 4 to 8 feet tall in the sun. Their magenta leaves turn to milky white in winter. Maiden grass sports narrow upright leaves 5 to 8 feet tall and creamy flowers. Their seed heads float and bounce in the the breeze. Planting them just above the horizon allow you to enjoy their swaying and dipping backlit at sunset.

Japanese_Blood_grassBesides texture, grasses provide color for your garden, too. Who hasn’t admired the burgundy foliage of red fountain grass? it’s one of our most popular grasses with it’s fox-tail like coppery flower heads. Another favorite of mine for color is Japanese blood grass, You’ll love this grass when you place it so the sun can shine through the brilliant red blades. This grass spreads slowly by underground runners and grows in sun or partial shade forming an upright clump 1 to 2 feet tall. Pink Muhly grass will stop traffic when in bloom.

Are sections of your garden hot and dry? Grasses are survivors and are good choices for sunny spots that get little irrigation. Good drainage is a must for these plants so OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAamend the soil with plenty of organic matter before planting. Combine drought tolerant grasses with companion plants and a few accent rocks to complete your dry theme. Good combinations for these areas are Pheasant Tail Grass with the sky blue flowers of Russian sage. This grass is extremely drought tolerant once established. Giant Feather grass looks great with the purple flowers of penstemon ‘Midnight’. If you like blue foliage, try ‘Elijah Blue’ fescue grass with Amazing Red flax for a show stopping combination.

For a touch of whimsy, you can’t beat fiber optic grass. This grass-like sedge from Europe and North Africa looks like a bad hairpiece. You can grow it at the edge of a shallow pond or display it inside in a pot on a pedestal to show off it’s flowering habit. Seeing is believing with this one.

These are just a few of the places where grasses can enhance and add beauty to your garden. Fall is the perfect time to plant a new one.



The Mountain Gardener’s Favorite Plant Combinations


combination_loropetalum-pieris-dianellaI love my smart phone. I can’t imagine a day without it. A friend of mine told me that I would discover uses that I could only have imagined when I first got it. One of the simple things I use it for is taking pictures. Since I always have it in my back pocket I can whip it out in gardens, nurseries, in the wild or in any landscape that catches my attention.

It wasn’t until I started photographing gardens that I realized the importance of combining plants. So now when I design a grouping of plants that look good together I’m thinking of strong foliage plants, colorful flower spikes alongside soft mounds of foliage and delicate flowers alongside bolder blooms.

With the first day of fall next week I’m thinking of ways that will have any garden bursting with interest for the next few months. These are strategies for combining plants that are adaptable to all types of garden conditions whether you live in the sun or the shade and will also look good in other seasons of the year.

A vignette is a small group of plants that make a pleasing scene because of theirplant_combo2-phormium_CreamDelight-blueFescue-sempervivum complementary and contrasting features. I have several lists of good plant combinations that I regularly refer to when designing a garden. I usually start with a strong foliage plant then add other plants that have interesting texture, form or color.

When you look at a garden that you admire it’s usually the dramatic form of one of the plants that draws you in. When you use a plant with a bold, architectural form it makes a statement. The spiky foliage of Cream Delight phormium alongside a Burgundy loropetalum would make a good combination. Or how about creating a vignette of Festival Burgundy cordyline with Annabelle hydrangea and Cream de Mint pittosporum?

During the next few months plants begin to show soft, fall colors. Combine the fading foliage of these plants with plants that complement each other. The reddish fall color or Oakleaf hydrangea along with the pinkish-tan color of their fading flowers looks wonderful when combined with Japanese Forest Grass as it turns pink before winter. Another complementary fall combination is Royal Purple Smoke Tree surrounded by a bed of Autumn Joy sedum.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAStrong colors sometimes contrast instead of blend when plants change colors in the fall. I like to tone down a combination with silver foliage. An example of this would be a plant grouping of Evening Glow phormium, sedum Autumn Joy and Glacier Blue or Tasmanian Tiger euphorbia.

Another way to create a great plant combination is by blending textures. Coral Bark Japanese maple and Plum Passion nandina work well together. Cistus Sunset with Spanish lavender and rosemary is another good combination. I also like a large mass of Blue Oat Grass and Salmon salvia greggii planted together. Santa Barbara daisy goes well with Red Fountain Grass.

My list of potential plant combinations is pretty long as I’ve made notes over the years. Each garden has its own personality and growing conditions. A hot, dry garden might depend on a ground cover ceanothus along with lavender while a shadier garden might use natives like heuchera maxima, iris douglasiana, yerba buena and salvia spathacea. Whatever plants you choose, let them work together to make exciting vignettes in your garden.



Treats & Tips for the September Garden


salvia_m_Hot-LipsYou can feel the weather changing as summer winds down. It’s more than just the passing of the Labor Day holiday and the school year starting. The nights are longer and cooler. The days are not quite so hot and the flowers in the garden seem brighter and more colorful. I look past the soft blue and lavender blossoms and am drawn to the warm shades of gold, rust, orange, hot pink and red. They shout autumn is on the way.

There’s nothing quite like adding a few new perennials to brighten up the garden. There are many that don’t require a lot of water after they become established. I recently visited a garden where the irrigation was reduced to the point that that most of the plants were barely hanging on. But there among the crispy plants were two Hot Lips salvia blooming as big as you please. This plant is popular for a reason. Hummingbirds, butterflies and bees love it and it blooms for a long time. It stays compact and is a great carefree shrub for water wise gardens.

Daisy flowers always bring a smile to my face. As members of the composite family they have echinacea_Wild_Berrya flat landing surface for butterflies to land on. Coneflowers are one of my favorites. When they start blooming in the early summer I enjoy them both in the garden and as cut flowers inside. Some have a slight fragrance. Hybridizers have introduced beautiful shades of gold, yellow, orange, burgundy and coral in addition to the traditional purple and pure white. Because they are dormant in the winter they are good candidates for the garden that has summer sun but winter shade. They are not attractive to deer and are good additions to the low water garden.

gaillardiaAnother perennial that blooms throughout summer and fall is gaillardia also known as blanket flower. I’ve seen this tough plant grow in neglected gardens that the owner swears does nothing to keep it going. They are covered with dozens of large reddish-orange flowers with yellow edging and bloom over a long period. This plant also attracts butterflies. You can start perennials from seed at this time of year for next year’s bloom.

Don’t overlook the color of other foliage plants like Orange Libertia, Abelia ‘Kaleidescope’, New Zealand flax, red fountain grass and Japanese bloodgrass in the garden.

Now through October, divide summer blooming perennials like agapanthus, coreopsis, daylily and penstemon that are overgrown and not flowering well. You can also divide spring blooming perennials like candytuft, columbine, astilbe, bergenia and bleeding heart but sometimes they don’t bloom the first spring afterwards due to the energy they use re-establishing themselves.

Another thing to do while out in the garden this month is to cut back berries vines that have produced fruit. Canes of the current season should be trained in their place.

Spider mites are especially prolific during hot, dry weather. Sometimes you don’t even know how bad the infestation is until all your leaves are pale with stippling. Periodically rinse dust and dirt off leaves with water. Spray the undersides of infected leaves with organics like insecticidal soap switching to neem oil if they build up a resistance to one of the pesticides.

Soon it will be time to start cool season veggies or plant cover crops in the garden. It’s never too soon to start planning for erosion control in those areas that caused you problems during last spring’s storms. But for now add some early fall color and have fun in the garden.

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