Years ago — maybe 18 or so — I was a member of an arboretum that gave out rooted cuttings of free plants to subscribers at a certain level of membership. These were often plants relatively new to the horticulture trade that the arboretum was testing for my area. One year, they offered a three-for-one deal: cuttings of three different varieties of loropetalum (Chinese witch hazel). This was a new plant for me then, the description sounded appealing to my tastes — purplish leaves and magenta flowers, so I tried them.
We chain-sawed one to the ground this year. It grew way, way larger than promised, and it was crowding out plants I like better. So — off with its head!
I do still love the leaves that emerge purple, and with some varieties, remain a deep maroon. And I love the pizzazz of the magenta flowers. But these shrubs are not native here; Asia is their native land. And after 18 years of observation, I can affirm they do absolutely nothing for the local ecosystem that justifies the space they take. Why? Nothing eats them.
These plants are shunned by every insect and warm- and cold-blooded native animal that lives in my yard. They must taste very bad indeed. The only life I observe in these shrubs — which are 15-feet tall and 10-feet wide now — are birds, which use them as shelter during storms and as nesting sites in spring.
I wanted these shrubs to screen the front of my house from cars entering my driveway, and they serve that purpose admirably. But so would any number of native evergreen shrubs and small trees.
Some of you may be thinking that I am crazy to want to remove plants unbothered by “pests,” but if you’ve been reading my blog for long, you’ll recall that the rapidly increasing eradication of native southeastern forests is leaving native animals with diminishing options for survival. For more information, try this post or this one.
We gardeners are on the front lines of the battle to save our native ecosystems. I didn’t fully realize this when I happily acquired and planted three tiny new purple non-native shrubs almost two decades ago. Every plant choice we make contributes to the preservation or destruction of the natural world we love.
The more I think about it, the more certain I am that Wonder Spouse and I are going to have to figure out a way to remove these giant purple sterile shrubs and replace them with well-adapted natives. I am a sucker for purple leaves and flowers, but in the future, I will stick with native options. I owe that to the natural world that nurtures my mind, body, and soul every day.
As soon as bow-hunting season began a few weeks ago, I noticed that I was startling lounging deer from various overgrown spots in my landscape. I’d be walking along when, suddenly, a deer I hadn’t noticed no more than a few feet from me would jump up and bound away.
I saw almost no evidence of deer from summer through early fall. We had so much rain this year that all the native vegetation remained greenly lush throughout the growing season. I suspect most of my local deer opted to remain in the floodplain forest on the other side of my creek, rather than dine on my landscape.
Over the years, Wonder Spouse and I have used deer fencing to protect areas we consider to be likely deer targets. Our vegetable garden is well protected, and so is about an acre on the north side, where native magnolias, azaleas, viburnums, and other beauties flourish unmolested.
Adding deer fencing changed the trails deer used to traverse — and dine upon — our property, so much so that beds with vulnerable plants in my front garden are largely ignored, as long as I spray them with deer repellant once early in the growing season when new shoots prove too tempting for the hoofed marauders to ignore.
When I noticed that deer were spending most of their time in my yard, I meant to go out and spray my vulnerable plants. But Life’s complications distracted me, and I convinced myself that it wasn’t a priority. After all, the deer had ignored my beauties all summer. Why would they eat them now, when their leaves were fading toward winter anyway? Who was I kidding? Deer don’t negotiate, and they don’t reason. Their focus is survival. So they used my yard as a hideout from hunters, and dined on whatever was handy.
When I returned home at an unusual hour a day or two ago, one was sleeping in my front garden — not five feet from my front door, and right next to my beautiful oakleaf hydrangeas. I didn’t have time to spray the shrubs then, and they paid the price.
Abundant rains this fall kept my variegated hydrangeas that grow near the oakleafs especially lush. The deer ate nearly every leaf on both bushes, leaving petiole stubs adorning the sides of branches. The deer were a bit more covert with the oakleaf hydrangeas, which they nibbled enthusiastically on the side farthest from my house, where I’d be less likely to see them, and where they could make quick getaways if startled.
After I cussed a blue streak upon seeing my denuded variegated hydrangeas, I walked around the front garden more carefully, looking at plants I know to be favored by the deer clan. Of course, the few evergreen azaleas in my landscape had been nibbled. They are deer candy, and I haven’t planted any for over two decades.
Most falls in my garden are very dry, so the daylilies retreat into the earth for another season. But the abundant rains this fall caused all the daylilies to push out fresh green growth — growth I hadn’t noticed, but the hoofed ones did.
When I saw the mangled variegated hydrangeas, I knew the truce I thought I had negotiated with my neighborhood deer was a delusion of my overactive imagination. I then undertook a careful survey of my yard to see what else had fallen victim to the voracious appetites of deer.
- The oakleaf hydrangeas were mostly eaten on one side. Enough leaves still remain for the late autumn color show they are famous for.
- Evergreen azaleas have been nibbled, but not devoured.
- Daylilies were nibbled, but they will live to sprout another day.
- The evergreen Kousa dogwood was another popular hangout while Wonder Spouse and I were away. We startled a deer sleeping beneath this tree early one evening. Some years in late winter if I’m not paying attention, the deer will eat every leaf of this tree they can reach. It is unusual for them to start nibbling on it this early.
If the deer had stopped here, I might not have even mentioned this latest intrusion. But when I was inspecting my evergreen Kousa dogwood, I realized that the beautiful little Magnolia stellata ‘Royal Star’ that was thriving near it had been almost completely annihilated. That’s when I really got mad.
This is buck damage. They remove the fuzz off their antlers by obsessively rubbing them against branches of a certain diameter and orientation. Apparently, my once-beautiful little ornamental magnolia was ideally configured for them. Ripped branches littered the ground, clearly uneaten. The bark of the central leader branch was shredded completely.
This tree is an offshoot that rooted from my original Royal Star magnolia — a 25-foot tall specimen nestled beneath tall loblolly pines. Out of curiosity, I inspected it after I saw what they did to the baby. A few lower branches had in fact been pulled off in a way that resembled the damage to the little tree. But the big one is so fully branched and large, I think the buck abusing it got frustrated and moved on.
After I finished cussing, I got out the deer repellant I keep in our garage. I’ve had best success with Liquid Fence. I sprayed it on anything that had been eaten or that I thought might be eaten. Then I sprayed it on a few plants that hadn’t been eaten but that I thought might serve as a stinky territorial message to the hoofed marauders: KEEP OFF! I even sprayed it on their little piles of excrement, hoping that by covering over their scent with the stink of the repellent they would be repelled.
That was yesterday. Today I walked the yard again seeking evidence of further damage and/or fresh deer tracks. I found neither. If you get close to the oakleaf hydrangeas, you can still smell the stink of the repellant. I think I coated every remaining leaf. Whatever it takes. I want that beautiful deep garnet late autumn leaf color!
Deer don’t negotiate, but they will take the path of least resistance. Now, while their haunts on the other side of the creek are still green thanks to autumn rains, they can find food. They must watch for hunters, but they can eat. For now, the lure of fresh green food untainted by repellant sprays will keep them mostly on the other side of the creek.
But when late winter ices over the stream and turns every leaf brown and tasteless, they’ll be back. And I’ll be waiting, ready to protect any green lovely rash enough to brave the chill for an early start on spring. Deer don’t negotiate, so I won’t either.
The prolonged wet gloom of an autumn heavily influenced by a strong El Nino weather pattern has once again settled itself atop my five acres. As of this writing, in the last three days my yard has received 2.6 inches of rain. Not — praise the heavens — the drenching deluges other regions have received, but enough to turn foliage into mush, dirt into squishy muck, and my enthusiasm into a tiny spark of its former self.
That’s why I’m so glad I spent several hours last Friday walking around my yard taking way too many pictures. I knew that if I didn’t grab hold of that blue-sky, sun-filled day, the autumn color on my trees and shrubs would be gone, and I would be left with nothing but fading leaves on muddy ground.
What struck me as I wandered from the top of my hill to the floodplain below was the marvelous colorful tapestry of interwoven canopy and shrub layers. Sweet Gum touched Sycamore, caressed River Birch, tickled Red Maple — all the colors blending together, contrasting with azure skies and kissed by sunlight — the tangled embrace of autumn.
So on this gloomy day, I want to re-live that recent autumn walk to remind myself of the beauty that was, is, and will be, and to share some of it with those who read this post.
I’m trying a new photo format today, so that I can share more photos more compactly. The photo galleries should allow you to click on what you’d like to see more closely while allowing me to organize content more neatly. Please let me know what you think of this display format.
Autumn transforms leaves of the many magnolia species I grow into soft golden farewell love notes.
The shrub layer was equally lovely last Friday during my walk.
When I realized how quickly some of the trees and shrubs were dropping their color, I was very glad I caught them when I did last Friday.
The canopy giants that tower 80-100 feet high on and beside our property dominate my landscape. In winter, bare branches draw lines in winter skies, opening my view of the floodplain so that I can see wildlife crossing the creek or hunting for food. Spring fills the canopy with pastel new vegetation, while summer matures leaves into tough green garments that shelter smaller creatures from storms and heat. Autumn transforms the canopy into swirling color and falling fruits, opening my view again so that I can watch Wood Ducks paddling the creek in the sun’s rising light.
Bird calls filled the air as I wandered through last Friday’s color. Woodpeckers and warblers chattered constantly about the tasty crimson fruits of the Southern Magnolia dangling from myriad cones. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers uttered their wheezy, almost cat-like calls as they hitched up and down Tulip Poplars and magnolias. Brown-headed Nuthatches busily squeaked at each other high in the tops of towering Loblolly Pines. Crows cawed at me, annoyed that I was too close to the bird feeders for them to raid them comfortably. And that night, as I laid in bed admiring a bright moon, the Barred Owls hooted back and forth to each other, so close to my house that their reverberating calls almost rattled the glass in my windows.
As much as I miss the green cathedral embrace of the summer canopy and the interwoven tapestry of autumn color, I also welcome the imminent stark landscape of winter. The cold, dark season brings stars closer, allowing moonlight to paint the landscape with bright silver highlights and ebony shadows.
Savoring these moments helps me remember that gloomy autumn rains also serve the turning of the seasonal wheel. Any minute now, seed catalogs will begin filling my mailbox. I will happily dream of planting next year’s gardens, rejoicing in the rain replenishing our streams and water tables for next year’s growing season.
I’ve been away from the blog a bit, because I’ve been outside trying to catch up on gardening tasks. Those tasks achieved urgent status this week when it became clear that the first killing freeze of the season was imminent. In my region, it is supposed to be tomorrow night. But I live in a cold pocket, so I’m betting we’ll see temperatures below freezing in my yard tonight.
Yesterday afternoon, I picked all the greens that were big enough to eat, along with fresh chives, parsley, dill, and basil, and every pepper left on the plants. Peppers faint at the slightest sign of chilly air. I also picked a big bouquet of nasturtium flowers. They are another plant that melts into mush when 30-degree temperatures visit the garden. I love the fragrance of nasturtiums; they smell like heirloom roses — sweet, but not cloying.
I’ve covered the greens bed with a tent of garden fabric, and I expect they will mostly survive the two-day chill we’re in for. Warmer temperatures are predicted to return after that, so I’m hopeful more home-grown salads will be in our near future.
My tented broccoli loved the two-week rain. I don’t think I’ve ever grown such happy fall broccoli. Flower heads are just beginning to look big enough to harvest. After the cold snap, I’m going to fertilize these veggies and the greens in the hopes of encouraging some faster growth before prolonged cold settles in.
The drought had turned the chives into dry stalks, but they got a new lease on life after two weeks of rain. I’ve never had such a healthy autumn chive crop. And the parsley perked up too.
This afternoon, Wonder Spouse helped me drain the front water feature and relocate the partially submerged pots of plants that summered there. It’s slimy, mucky work, and we had to relocate four unhappy frogs down the hill to the small pond on our floodplain. These frogs were not born in our little water feature; they migrate up from the creek during rainy summer nights. The tree frogs and toads that start as tadpoles in spring in our artificial pool metamorphose and move out into the yard.
Earlier this week, I cleaned up my greenhouse, which had been vacant all summer. Then I weeded my way to where my potted plants had been summering beneath the Southern Magnolia, cleaned up all the pots, then loaded them into a wheelbarrow for transport to the greenhouse. By the end of summer, these pots harbor a wide assortment of weeds, slugs, snails, rolly-polys, and occasionally (but not this year) tree frogs or a Carolina Anole. This year’s biggest surprise was a cranky black rat snake that considered the area its turf. I posted some photos of it on the Piedmont Gardener Facebook page. It has been quite annoyed by my weeding, and today it was very upset with us as we drained the water feature, even rearing up as if to strike when Wonder Spouse stepped closer for a look.
The good news is that the frenzy of activity prompted by the impending freeze is done — and a good thing, because I’m not sure that either Wonder Spouse or I will be walking fully upright tomorrow. We were pushing our joints and muscles pretty hard, and our “mature” bodies just don’t bounce back from that sort of abuse the way they did a few decades ago.
When I do recover and the warmer weather returns, I’ll resume my attempts to catch up on weeding. The prolonged rains caused every weed to quadruple in size, so it’s going to be a winter-long task.
That’s if the winter will let me. Weather scientists are saying we’re in the midst of a strong El Nino year, which for my region means average temperatures and above-normal precipitation. Frozen or liquid, precipitation impedes yard work. But perhaps that is just as well. I confess the idea of remaining warm indoors with books and my computer for a month or two is sounding pretty darn wonderful about now.
Most of our native North American orchids produce much subtler flowers than the ones people keep in pots in their houses, or see dangling among trees in exotic tropical jungles, or nervous teenage boys pin on their prom dates as corsages, but I think their subtlety makes them that much more special.
I have long admired the Nodding Ladies’-tresses orchids (Spiranthes cernua) that bloom abundantly among pitcher plants and Venus fly-traps this time every year in the carnivorous plant display at the NC Botanical Garden. That’s why last fall, when I spotted some healthy blooming specimens at their plant sale, I couldn’t resist buying a pot, even though I had promised myself I was only buying milkweeds. I picked out a pot with two plants in it that was in active, gorgeous bloom, as you can see if your scroll through the post I wrote about my acquisitions last year.
I planted my orchids in a pot with some moisture-loving milkweeds and a cardinal flower, keeping the pot evenly moist in my greenhouse through the winter, and partially immersing it in my front water feature after the last frost. On September 7, I suddenly realized I was seeing multiple orchid bloom stalks — twelve in all!
My research tells me that this is the most common species of Spiranthes in North America. You can find it in sandy, moist soil from eastern Canada all the way south to Texas and Florida, and as far west as southern North Dakota.
I was congratulating myself on my orchids’ productivity, until my research revealed that enthusiastic vegetative reproduction is a key trait of this species, and probably one of the reasons for its wide range. But you must provide the right growing conditions to see this kind of productivity, so I can pat myself on the back for giving these beauties what they needed to bloom so well.
As soon as I realized my orchids had sent up bloom stalks, I began taking photos, so that I could document the unfurling of the small-but-exquisite ivory flowers as they began to open. The buds spiral around the bloom stalk, looking a bit like a spiral staircase, with the first flowers opening at the bottom, then more and more in succession, winding their way to the top.
It took longer than I thought it would for most of the flowers to open. I blame the prolonged bout of cloudy weather my region has recently seen. But as soon as we got several sunny days in a row, the flowers took off.
I wish I could show you a super-close-up of one flower, but I think I need a macro lens for that. This is as close as I could manage on September 24:
If you grow pitcher plants or Venus fly-traps successfully, you can grow this orchid too. The blooming flower stalks look lovely mixed in with the reds and purples of mature pitcher plants (Saracenia spp.) I mixed a combination of half well-rotted compost and half sand to create the soil for my orchid pot. During the winter, it sat in a saucer of water in my cool (45 degrees Fahrenheit) greenhouse. It summered in my front water feature, nearly invisible as the drama queen milkweeds dazzled the pollinators with their multitudes of flowers.
But now that the milkweed flowers have morphed into expanding seed pods, my orchids have taken center stage. Given how much they have multiplied, and now knowing that vegetative reproduction is most definitely their thing, I’m thinking I’ll be dividing the orchids in this pot so that I can move some into yet another pot when I’m ready to relocate them back to the greenhouse for the winter. By this time next year, I should have a front water feature in early fall full of winding spires of delicate native orchids. How lovely will that be?
Want some Nodding Ladies-tresses for your garden?
A very reliable little bird tells me these orchids will be available at the NC Botanical Garden’s upcoming Fall Plant Sale. To be sure you get some, I recommend you come on Friday, Oct. 2 between 5:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. That sale is open only to members of the Garden, who use their 10% discounts to acquire all the green goodies they want. Plus there’s free food and drink and live music. I’ll be volunteering behind one of the many tables loaded with plants for sale. I hope I’ll see you there!
Finally, my favorite season of the year has arrived! In honor of this momentous moment, I offer you a few photos I took yesterday afternoon when the sun appeared after days of clouds. This is the season of fruits and nuts (I refer to botany, not humanity), so that’s mostly what you’ll see here.
If this gorgeous native is not yet part of your landscape, consider planting one this fall. And I know just the place you can pick one up the weekend-after-next.
I won this pink-berried form in a raffle when I was going through Green Gardener training at the NC Botanical Garden — yet another benefit of volunteering there.
This delicate nest woven of bark strips and pine needles fell from my evergreen Kousa dogwood. Very autumnal, don’t you think?
This is another lovely native shrub that will be available at the NC Botanical Garden’s upcoming Fall Plant Sale, but only plant it if you have a spot where deer can’t reach it. The evergreen stems of this beauty make it irresistible to them during food-scarce winter months.
The Asian Kousa dogwoods are not native, but I’ve seen no signs they are invasive, and their wow factor in the landscape is undeniable. The berries of my native dogwoods are already nearly gone, thanks to the Pileated Woodpeckers, which have been partying in those trees for several weeks now. The red globes produced by the Kousas don’t seem to appeal to as many birds, although I’ve seen Northern Cardinals enjoying them. Squirrels seem to like them quite a bit.
Most interesting to me are the subtle differences in the fruits of my deciduous Kousa dogwood and the evergreen Kousa. See for yourselves.
The fruits of the evergreen form never look as “spiky” as those of the deciduous Kousa. And they are never as deeply red.
My Red Buckeye is loaded down, as usual.
The pecan trees had a rough summer. It was just too dry, and there’s no way I can water them. Still, they managed to produce a few, rather unappetizing-looking nuts. The squirrels will no doubt try them before long.
The native Swamp Milkweed and Butterfly Weed seed pods continue to develop. You can pick these up at the NC Botanical Garden Fall Plant Sale too.
Not autumnal, but too pretty to ignore, my giant non-native Loropetalums are pushing out quite a number of flowers, even though they’re supposed to bloom in the spring. They do this almost every year, and it doesn’t seem to prevent them from doing it again when they’re supposed to bloom. I love the contrast with their lovely purple leaves — the reasons these non-natives made it into my garden.
This species of orb weaver moves in multitudes to my windows — on the outside — every fall. This one is pretending it’s not a spider, because I disturbed it. They grow fat off the moths attracted to the lights in our windows every night.
Of course, I can’t end a post welcoming fall without showing a few colorful fallen leaves. These are off one of my native Black Gums, which always color up early and spectacularly. This magnificent native tree will also be available at the NC Botanical Garden Fall Plant Sale.
I hope this post helps all my readers celebrate autumn’s arrival, and gets your fingers itching to plant some new native beauties in the cooling, moist soils of the season. So gather ye pumpkins while ye may — and add some new natives while you’re at it.
Happy fall, ya’ll!