November 30, 2011

Garden lessons learned: autumn 2011

What a glorious autumn we’ve had this year! Before the snow falls, I’m taking stock of garden lessons I’ve learned this season. I hope you’ll join in the meme sometime between now and December 22. This season, I learned:

1. Take a drive. Get out and explore a favorite section of roadway at the peak of fall color. Or travel where you’ve never been before. Several drives to visit our daughter at college got us out on the road. I need to make time for this every autumn, because the views are incredible!

2. Put down the camera. None of my shots out the window of the speeding car were acceptable. (Don’t worry, I wasn’t driving at the time.) So I paused and simply experienced the incredible scenery. Sometimes being forced to part with a camera can be a good thing. It helps you live in the moment and imagine great shots for later. It’s almost like it helps develop perspective and an eye for a good photo without actually taking the shot.

3. Pick up the camera. Take a lot of photos of fall color. This is the first year I’ve done this. I can’t answer why. I guess in the past I’ve mainly focused on documenting specific plants. This autumn I zoomed out a little more and captured a few colorful landscapes. But whether you zoom in or out, take advantage of the magical light and the incredible color autumn provides and put that camera to work!

4. Stay in one spot and observe. One exceptionally wonderful, mild fall day I sat on a lawn chair for about an hour and experimented with my new camera. It helped me to see things in a different way. While it was challenging to stay in one spot without moving around from plant to plant, it was a great exercise in observation and photo composition.

5. Take a walk. Autumn air is refreshing and easy to breathe. Enjoy the mild weather while you can, because before you know it walks will be less comfortable. And you’ll have to wear heavy boots, coats, mittens, and scarves. And your fingers will freeze as you try to snap just the right photo.

6. Look up and down. One day I looked up into the Oak trees, and I felt like I was in a cathedral. The sun was shining at just the right angle to make the leaves glow like stained glass. Another day I captured shots for Donna’s meme (Garden Walk, Garden Talk) about “texture” and “pattern.” Even things that seem mundane and ordinary are beautiful if you look closely.

7. Tidy up when you can. If you have a windless, clear, mild day in autumn, make it a priority to spend time in the garden. Raking, trimming, and planting don’t work as well on windy, wet days. Fortunately, we didn’t have many of these this autumn, but that may not be the case next year.

8. Appreciate each stage of autumn. One day in early October on my drive to work, the colors of the Maple, Beech, Ash, and Hickory nearly brought tears to my eyes. It was overwhelmingly breathtaking. When those trees started to lose their leaves, I was a little sad. But then the Oak, Burning Bush, and Sumacand later the Spirea and Hydrangeaput on brilliant displays. Each stage was stunning in its own way.

But the biggest lesson of all was to truly appreciate autumn. I think I’ve been in too much of a hurry in the past to really enjoy it. Autumn is stunning!

What garden lessons have you learned this season? Whether you’re in the Northern or Southern Hemisphere, please link a recent post about your advice, reflections, or ideas to the Garden Lessons Learned Mr. Linky meme below. I’ll post about your lessons near the solstice (Dec. 22). Enjoy the last days of the season!

November 26, 2011

Bud break before the deep freeze

Every year about this time I start worrying about my perennials and ornamental shrubs. Will they make it through the winter? The buds look like they’re about to break already!

Last year in late November, I posted about Star Magnolias in the neighborhood. They looked pregnant with new life and it was hard to believe they’d survive through the long, cold winter. Of course, they did survive and the blossoms were as spectacular as ever. (One of these days, I must plant Magnolias in my garden!)

Magnolia stellata

This year, some plants and shrubs are showing premature signs of new growth, and it has me worried more than usual. When I look back at my posts about Magnolias from last year, I see that the temperatures were cold enough that I was uncomfortable outside snapping photos. Nothing could be further from the truth this year. Our Thanksgiving and Black Friday were among the mildest on record, with highs approaching 60 degrees.

While I’m not complaining about the mild weather for my own comfort, I’m worried that some plants might have a huge shock when the cold weather hits. They’re probably just fine, but the change will be tough on people and plants alike.

The Scallions and Irises always look like this. Their new growth is evergreen, and they simply take a long nap under the snow.

Allium cepa

Iris germanica

Old growth on the Hollyhocks simply hasn't shriveled up yet.

Alcea rosea

The Daylilies seem to have a little more new growth at the base than usual. Should I be worried?

Hemerocallis fulva

My dear Hellebores seem way too far along for November! I repacked the Oak leaves around them. And learning from last year, I won’t remove the leaf mulch until April! The snow should provide a comfy blanket.

Helleborus orientalis

But the plant that really has me worried is the Hydrangea. This new leaf growth is a goner already. It sure is beautiful, though, in its premature bud break. Hopefully the rest of the shrub will make it through unscathed.

Hydrangea macrophylla

I can’t say these two sources comforted me much, but they do offer great information on plant cold-hardiness:

November 23, 2011

No frost on the pumpkin



(Submitted for Wordless Wednesday. Happy Thanksgiving!)

November 20, 2011

Flavor of the day

Mulch is on my mind today. There are so many different types of mulch—all of which supply unique benefits to the garden. One could almost think of them as “flavors” for plants. What flavors of mulch do you use for your garden?

Lately I’ve been reading—through blogs, master gardener sites, and other sources—about the benefits of using leaf mulch on the garden. Years ago, our family was meticulous about clearing away all the leaves from our lawn and most of the leaves from around perennials and shrubs. We’d replace the piles of leaves with piles of shredded bark mulch.

We’ve changed our strategy a bit in recent years—partly because of age, wisdom, and laziness, and partly because the experts are recommending recycling leaves on the yard and garden. Actually, it makes sense—why bag and cart away your leaves when they make excellent protective mulch and return precious nutrients back to the soil? With that said, we do rake most of the Oak leaves away because they decompose very slowly. And, of course, we don’t want the wind to blow the bulk of them into the storm gutters and the neighbors’ yards. We drag most of them into the woods to compost.

But if a few leaves remain, we mow them into the turf. And we retain the accumulated Oak leaves around shrubs and perennials until spring, when we rake them off to allow the sun to warm the wakening plants.

Here are excellent sources on the topic of garden mulch:

On my small vegetable/cut flower plot, I’ve usually covered the entirety with Marsh Hay, year-round. It decomposes quickly, and planting under and through it is pretty easy. Marsh Hay, unlike Straw and Field Hay is usually weed-free.

But that means paying for and carting in a bale—not a huge deal, although why go outside the yard for mulching materials when we can use what we have here?

This year, I’m trying something new for the veggie/cut flower bed: Honey Locust leaves. We have two large Honey Locust trees in our front yard. I know some people find them bothersome and invasive, but I’m a fan. I’ll save listing the reasons why for another post.

The leaves of the Honey Locust are small and light, and they break down in one season.

This year, we mowed most of the Honey Locust leaves that fell on the grass back into the lawn. We also gathered a large pile to use as mulch on the veggie/flower garden. I'm thinking they'll be the perfect mulch to protect perennials, reduce weeds, and prepare the soil for next year’s Tomatoes, Cucumbers, Zinnias, Cosmos, and other lovelies.

I’ll let you know next growing season how it all turns out.

November 15, 2011

Transition time

I don’t recall a November as mild as this one. While writing this post, I sat on the screen porch listening to the wind chimes, the bird calls, and the kids across the street playing ball.

I’d think it was spring, except for the musky smell of decomposing leaves, the bare tree branches, and the lack of flowering plants. A few blossoms still survive—Mums, Liatris, and a few persistent potted annuals. But frankly, the more interesting features of the current landscape are the patterns and textures.

When I learned that Donna of Garden Walk, Garden Talk planned to focus on “texture” and “pattern” for this week’s “Word 4 Wednesday” meme, I was pleased. I’d planned to do a post on that theme for a while.

Often in the quest to photograph the most beautiful blooms in the garden, I find myself just as fascinated with intricate patterns and textures. Especially upon very close inspection. For example, when photographing Cosmos blossoms recently, it was the texture of the backlit petals that really sparkled.

From a distance, Moss just looks like a mass of green matter. But close up, the intricate textures and patterns of the tiny plants are mesmerizing.

Moss grows on the patio, too, giving the bricks more character.

Lichen forms on word surfaces in asymmetrical patterns.

Striations and Lichen on a granite rock tell stories about its history.

The unending Oak leaves I’ve grown tired of raking have a unique earthy structure that’s captivating—even if they are a boring brown.

The thickness and shiny surface structure of the evergreen Hellebore leaf showcase the plant’s hardiness.

The Shagbark Hickory appears to have a heart—I wonder if someone carved it there, or if it naturally formed this way?

Pine cones and branches lined up for winter kindling hold the promise of warmth in their fire-friendly form.

Blue Spruce is equally captivating on its own and with a dressing of white snow (which I will share another day).

The Cotoneaster shrub branches out in waves of green and crimson.

A child’s decorated rock from years gone by nestles next to translucent, decomposing Hosta leaves.

Apples stored on the porch look like perfect winter food—despite their lovely imperfections.

Flowers of all sorts come and go. Snow soon will fly and overstay her welcome. There are seasons to celebrate their splendor. I’m appreciating other simple things today—the patterns and textures of transition time.

(Be sure to head over to Garden Walk, Garden Talk to see the other Word 4 Wednesday posts.)

November 10, 2011

Plant of the month: Currant

Who doesn’t enjoy a virtually carefree plant? Aside from the fact that they’re easily taken for granted, carefree plants help form the “bones” of a garden—you know you can always count on them to survive and thrive from season to season.

One family of carefree plants is the genus Ribes L. or Currants and Gooseberries. There are more than 150 species of Ribes, according to the U.S. Agricultural Research Service (ARS). And approximately 50 of those are native to North America. This ARS webpage is an excellent resource on all things Ribes: Currant and Gooseberry Genetic Resources.

Ribes americanum

Alpine Currant (Ribes alpinum), while not native, is a common shrub form found in many residential settings. We have a line of them along the foundation of our sunroom at the back of the house. Frankly, they were neglected for years. I pruned them back pretty dramatically in the spring, so they looked better this year. But they’ll still need some attention next growing season.

Here’s an Ohio State University document with great detail about Ribes alpinum: Alpine Currant.

Ribes alpinum

Apparently only male plants are propagated and sold in the U.S., which would explain why my Alpine Currants never have berries. But they look pretty as a backdrop to more showy plants.

Here are more benefits of Alpine Currant:

  • Thrives in full sun to full shade (what other plant can claim that?);
  • Wide habitat range: zones 2 to 7;
  • Urban stress-tolerant and very cold-hardy;
  • Adaptable to various soil types, pH levels, and moisture levels;
  • Foliage forms all the way to the ground; and
  • Attractive bright green foliage darkens and turns glossy in the summer.

On that last point, several sources list Alpine Currant as having little ornamental appeal, but I rather fancy the Maple-like leaf form and its variegated color in autumn.

November 07, 2011

I’ll be seeing you in…April

I needed a little dirt therapy this weekend. I'm sure most of you can relate to craving this rich black/brown stuff under your fingernailsespecially in late winter when you're feeling withdrawal.

And the time was right to add a little color to the early spring line-up. During our first spring here 12 years ago, the front garden came alive with bright red and yellow Tulips, which the rabbits have slowly destroyed over the years. I won’t plant more Tulips here until I have a dog to chase away the long-eared demons.

But rabbit-resistant Daffodils are a different story! No time to lose.

I decided to plant large-cupped, bright yellow Narcissus ‘Carlton,’ which look similar to these mini-Daffodils, but grow to 16-18 inches tall.

I determined where to plant the bulbs, and divided them into equal piles.

Daffodils need to be planted to a depth of 6-8 inches. (Check out this handy bulb-planting guide, and follow the instructions on your bulbs' packaging.) A handled bulb planter doesn’t make much sense for this job, so I grabbed the shovel.

I checked to make sure each planting hole was deep enough, and then carefully placed the bulbs.

I added lava rocks at various depths to discourage little digging critters from disturbing the bulbs, and covered the top layer with bark mulch.

All that’s left is to look forward to the transformation and the big reveal in April.

Sheesh, that’s a long way off!