Tuesday, September 21, 2010

End of a Bloomin’ Cold Summer

Photo0887 Normally, I love autumn. I love the changing colors, the nip in the air, having a fire at night. I love sweaters and boots, the smells of pumpkin bread and of newly sharpened pencils. I even love the early nightfall that provides more time for catching up on all that reading that has been stacking up over the summer. But, seriously? Summer was way too short and far too cool this year. As usual, it didn’t begin until after July 4. Usually, it continues almost into October, but this year, summer gave out around the last week of August. Even our local news commented:

…conditions cooler than normal for most of the summer. Seattle's April-to-August average temperature through Aug. 27 was 58.9 degrees…

However, despite my reluctance to let summer go, there is a lot going on in the garden this fall. I am still enjoying'Madame Emile Mouliere' a good variety of blooms. Some of my favorites this year are the hydrangeas. They are  blooming like crazy, providing armloads of cut flowers and still making a great show. The Hibiscus syriacus are also lovely; ‘Blue Bird’ just finished its parade of shining, single blue flowers and ‘Blushing Bride’ is still going strong with smaller but fully double pale pink blooms. Clethra alnifolia has fragrant white bottlebrush flowers that will soon give way to golden fall foliage. The bees are besotted with the Caryopteris; ‘Jason’ has bright yellow foliage with blue flowers; ‘First Choice’ has green foliage but a dense habit and dark blue blooms.

Nigra Magnolia liliflora ‘Nigra’ puts on its main event in spring when the large, dark pink blooms show dramatically against the nearly bare branches. I always get a few blossoms popping out all summer and through the fall, but this year the tree is covered with blooms, as if it is hurrying to get them all displayed before frost. Many of the roses are in full bloom once again, notably Rosa ‘Golden Celebration’, ‘Just Joey’ and ‘Graham Thomas.

Some of the perennials have been blooming for months. Astilbe chinensis pumila, for example; also CoreopHeliopsis 'Loraine Sunshine'sis verticillata, Heliopsis ‘Loraine Sunshine’, Potentilla nepalensis ‘Miss Willmot’ , Knautia macedonica and Veronica ‘Giles van Hees.’ Geranium sanguineum ‘Max von Frei’ and ‘Lancastriense’ and Campanula ‘Birch Hybrid’ have been in bloom since early May.

Actaea simplex 'Brunette'Other perennials have been waiting till now to put on their show.  Aster fritarkii and A. ‘Purple Dome’ love the sun, but A. divaricatus will bloom in some shade. Actaea simplex ‘Brunette’ has wonderfully fragrant white bottlebrush blooms against dark brown foliage. Other perennials famous for fall bloom are in full flower, such as Crocosmia, Dahlia, Fuchsia, Helenium, Rudbeckia, Sedum and Solidago.

Lobelia is a great plant that blooms in autumn. Most people are familiar with annual lobelia, a bedding plant with brilliant blue flowers held close to a mat of green foliage. I’m speaking of perennial lobelia. L. syphilitia is a rangy, somewhat coarse plant with great spikes of blue blossoms. L. cardinalis is slightly more refined with scarlet red blooms. Hybrids have beeLobelia 'Monet Moment'n selected with both refinement and beautiful colors. Lobelia ‘Monet Moment’ has exquisite  magenta spires on slender stalks; L. vedrariensis is a looser in form with purple flowers; L. ‘Grape Knee Hi’ is, predictably, a more compact purple version. All of the lobelias provide a great form contrast to the daisy type flowers that predominate in fall.

All in all, that is a lot of consolation for the early departure of summer.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Happy Fall, Y’all

You may have noticed some gardeners have strong opinions about fall maintenance. The two camps are represented by those who believe the garden needs a good scrubbing, so to speak, before being put to bed; and those who believe nature has been my dogtaking care of itself for a long time and needs little assistance. I don’t really have a dog in this fight (as you can see, my dog is a lover, not a fighter), but I can offer suggestions that seem sensible.

First of all, if you have worked to create a garden full of lovely autumn vignettes, you don’t want the detritus of fall to detract from their beauty. Just as in high summer, you will want to continue to remove anything tatty from the composition. Weeds will stage a coup and take control of your garden over Seattle’s mild winter if not fended off. Weeding, deadheading and Echinacea and Origanum removal of spent foliage goes on. Remember that anything diseased should be destroyed. If you leave it in the garden, you will surely see it again next year. Everything else can go into the compost for next year’s mulch.

After the first hard frost, remove the leaves from the beds. Leaves left in the beds over winter and harbor insect pests, bacteria and fungi. Even large perennial leaves, like those of hosta, should also be removed to eliminate a favorite slug habitat. I use iron phosphate bait which I try to put out twice a year, in April and October. Large leaves, such as vine maple, can smother lawns and even small plants. If you are able to effectively shred your fallen leaves with a mower, you can leave them right where they are and their nutrients will benefit your lawn. I’ve never been able to do this, perhaps because it is so wet this time of year.

After frost, you will also cut back your perennials, but be judicious. Some of the seed heads, pods or sturdy stalks are architecturally interesting and can attract birds to your garden to entertain you and provide some late season pest control. OrnamDeschampsia and F. 'Tom Thumb'ental grasses provide interest and movement in the winter garden and, in any event, they are petulant if you cut them back before spring. Like some perennials, notably mums and fuchsias, they will overwinter more successfully if you leave at least 10” or so of this year’s growth. Snow will potentially collect around the crown and insulate the plant during the coldest days. Just last year’s stems alone appear to give these plants the bit of cover they need to return for another year.

Fall is when you divide spring blooming perennials and plant new ones, as well as spring blooming bulbs and transplanted trees, shrubs and perennials. Some passionate dahlia aficionados will dig and store their bulbs; I have tried this and never been successful. I was treating my dahlias as annuals until I got a tip from Cisco. Now, when  I cut my frost blackened dahlias to the ground, I cover them with fern fronds and then evergreen boughs. It seems that most of the problem with dahlias, fall pinkswhich are native to Mexico, is not the cold in our Zone 8-9 gardens, but the RAIN! Keep them mostly dry (some rain filters through both the fronds and the boughs) and some varieties will return for you year after year. Try this with any bulb that detests wet feet.

Many gardeners, especially in very cold areas, mulch in the fall to regulate the soil temperature and protect roots from frost-heave. I mulch in late winter for weed suppression and moisture retention. Remember that if you decide to use bark, you must add nitrogen to compensate. The decomposition of the bark uses all the available nitrogen in the soil. If you use compost, you are improving your soil every time you mulch.

Basically, my approach to fall maintenance is: if I like it, make it look good. If I don’t like it, rip it out. If a little work in the fall can eliminate a lot of work later, do it. Actually, that is my approach to a lot of things. Try it-you may like it.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Can You Dig it?

Those of us who live in the Seattle area can tell when fall arrives. The date depends not only on the vagaries of our climate cycles, such as El Nino but also on the given property’s microclimates and proximity to the Sound or to the mountains. Even though it may still be sunny there is a distinct nip in the air, usually sometime in September. It foretells months of shortened days and the rain, wind, and snow ahead. It is easy to be discouraged and want to batten down the hatches till spring. However, autumn is a season full of promise in the ghelictotrychonarden.

Fall is the ideal time to plant all kinds of things from ornamental grasses and perennials to evergreen and deciduous trees and shrubs. Of course, plants of borderline hardiness should not be planted in autumn. Fall begins about 6 weeks before the first hard frost-that averages mid-November in Seattle. So, our window for fall planting is during September and October.

Why is fall planting so good for plants? Cool, misty days are perfect for planting any time of year as they reduce transplant shock. The return of the rain is particularly auspicious for planting evergreens, trees and shrubs which may fail to thrive when planted in summer heat and drought. However, in the PNW, all hardy plants benefit from planting in the fall. It is a rare autumn indeed where we would need to give supplemental water in Seattle once the rain starts.

In addition, the warm soil of fall encourages root growth. It’s  estimated that 80% of root growth occurs in the latePhoto0091 summer and fall. Roots continue to grow through the winter until the ground freezes. In early spring, roots continue to develop before top growth begins. While the fall-planted specimens are already becoming well established, the same size and variety planted in spring gets a slow start due to cool soils and lags behind in development. When summer finally arrives, the plant installed in autumn is far better equipped to deal with our dry Mediterranean summer, largely due to its well established root system.

There are other good reasons to plant in the fall. The cooler weather tends to reduce pest and disease problems. Also, it is an excellent idea to buy plants in their season of highest interest. QTupelouality and intensity of fall color may vary even within a particular variety, so when you buy during the season you can ensure that you get the color you want. Many plants are on sale at nurseries. Selection is reduced but sometimes the discounts reach 60-70% off the original price. Autumn is the perfect time to assess your garden. Decide what worked well this year and what didn’t. Does your garden give you beauty to look at in the fall? Just a few plants with gaudy autumn finery can make it spectacular. 

Now is the perfect time to improve your fall garden. Next year you will be glad you did!

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Analyzing Autumn

Have you been admiring local fall landscapes that are starting to flaunt their foliage? “Fine Gardening” has a terrific layout and some great articles in the current issue.1 title page Gorgeous gardens in the fall don’t just happen. I have some suggestions that will help you create an autumn garden that gives you great pleasure.

First, take some time to analyze your garden as it is. Walk through your property this fall-more than once-and make note of what is interesting and admirable in autumn. Take notes or photographs; what is it that you like? What is missing? Think about where you are when you are most likely to observe the garden during the fall months. There will be windows through which you look; the sidewalk, the driveway, front and back doors. Where else?

How much time, money and space do you want to devote to the off-season interest in your garden? How about strategically placed containers? (Don’t forget that plants overwintered in a container should be rated 2 zones hardier to insure viability.) It’s been said that if you limit your efforts to your front walk, it is probably all that is necessary for the majority of your visitors. But, think also of yourself and your family and where you might enjoy some color or fragrance in the autumn.

Consider rearranging plants you already have from singleton positions to create lovely autumn vignettes. Make sure that the cultural cond25 shishigashiraitions for all of the plants in a group is the same. One of the challenges and also the greatest satisfaction in gardening may be in creating pleasing plant combinations which together have a greater impact than the individual plants. Create color echoes between berries and blooms, foliage and grasses. If you have a tree with stunning fall color, pick some leaves and carry them with you to help select companion plants that will pick up the same tones.

Make a note of any microclimates that might influence where you site plants for the fall; a sun facing wall will store a bit of solar heat; the bottom of a slope is a frost pocket, protection from winter winds will improve the odds for a marginally hardy plant.

Keep a running list of plants that you would like to include in your garden. Visit nurseries, public and private gardens during the fall. You can check out what the plants actually look like and how large they become. This is really important; one of our local garden writers talks about the cute, puppy-like quality of plants at the nursery. They beg you to take them home and slip them into the garden somewhere and then they become the Hound of the Baskervilles.

Take photos-to remember what you like and also to get assistance in identifying plants you don’t recognize. If possible, revisit your favorites in winter, spring and summer, because if you 15 aster fritarkiiacquire a plant, you will have to look at it through all the  seasons. Some nurseries, such as Wells Medina, have exquisite seasonal containers full of shrubs and perennials-a great place to get  ideas for stunning plant combos. Read everything you can find on plants that shine in autumn. The local library is a goldmine of information. I keep a list of garden books that I see recommended or reviewed, then I use the winter months to catch up on all that reading.

Keep a notebook of photos, magazine pages, and internet printouts of plants and ideas that appeal to you. You can keep your notebook electronically using OneNote or EverNote. The internet has an astounding array of horticultural resources. Take your time and do your research. But after all is considered, don’t be bullied into choosing some ballyhooed brute with one season of interest that is too big, too coarse or too temperamental for your garden. Choose the plants that are best for you. Then integrate your carefully chosen trees, shrubs and perennials into a design with all year interest.