Archive for September, 2011
The botanists call it Euonymus americanus. One common name for it is Strawberry Bush. I prefer its other common name: Hearts A-Burstin’.
This often spindly native shrub of our moist woodlands has always been a favorite of mine, especially because the “hearts” open right around the time of my wedding anniversary.
Its common names refer to the showy fruits that take your breath away when you stumble across a specimen in the still-green forests of early fall. On a healthy plant, bumpy capsules colored and shaped like strawberries adorn every branch. When those capsules split open to reveal shiny orange-red seeds, you can easily imagine them to be hearts bursting open.
As neighboring forests have been erased by bulldozers, pushing more and more deer into my yard, I have only two shrubs remaining of the dozen that once graced my landscape. Both were fortuitously planted by birds in spots that disguise them from deer. One grows through a wire fence; the other through a native viburnum. They are both more than 6 feet tall, and right now bursting hearts weigh down every branch. Here’s a wider view to give you a sense of its visual impact:
The square stems of this plant remain green all year, which may explain their appeal to deer. In fact, my research tells me that this native occupant of our shady understory is a favorite food of deer. Consequently, the presence or absence of this shrub in the Piedmont landscape is an excellent indicator of deer population levels. If you see this shrub, your deer population is not too high; if you don’t, Bambi’s clan has overtaken your area.
Rabbits also eat the stems, and birds eat the berries, although not enthusiastically. But because the birds don’t devour the berries, they dangle longer on the open seed capsules, looking a bit like ornaments hanging on Christmas trees.
The greenish-white waxy flowers are inconspicuous. I have to remind myself to check the shrubs each spring so that I don’t miss them.
But if you are lucky enough to meet this native beauty in autumn, you will never forget it.
Autumn in the southeastern Piedmont is generally a gorgeous season. Summer humidity vanishes, creating deep azure skies that serve to highlight the changing colors of leaves of oaks, maples, hickories, tulip poplars, sweet gums, black gums, and sourwoods — those are some of our more colorful autumn native trees most years.
However, on this first day of Autumn, 2011, soft rain patters on the roof as I type. So much rain is predicted, in fact, that my area is under a Flash Flood Watch. However, the heavy rains have not materialized. I’m not complaining. My five acres got an inch-plus downpour a couple of days ago. This served to soften drought-hardened ground enough to absorb the current light rain, pulling water down to thirsty roots.
This weather is certainly not what I think of as typical for fall, but after the heat and drought of our summer, I gratefully accept every drop the sky cares to offer. I hope that today’s wet equinox signals a shift in regional rain patterns. A wet fall and winter would suit me and my green friends just fine.
It’s too early around here for fall leaf color anyway. The only trees displaying any color are the sourwoods. They start showing off crimson leaves by the middle of August. They’re lovely — in fact they are one of my favorite native understory trees. But their color tends to get swallowed up by all the late summer greenness of the vegetation surrounding them.
Very early autumn color in my Piedmont yard is provided by fall-blooming flowers. Myriad yellow composites — Rudbeckias, Helianthus, Coreopsis, etc. — lighten every corner with their sunny blooms. Goldenrods glow next to allergy-inducing ragweeds. And my Aromatic Asters begin their prolonged fall blooming period.
Even during drought years, my Aromatic Asters bloom for six weeks. This year, they are already covered so densely with inch-wide flowers that you can barely see the foliage.
The botanists have changed the scientific name to Symphyotrichum oblongifolium ‘October Skies,’ but you’ll still find it in plenty of catalogs as Aster oblongifolium ‘October Skies.’ The cultivar name is the key, aptly describing the color of the petals – a deep blue-lavender that echoes the cloudless skies we relish in our region this time of year.
The catalogs call this aster low-growing. But what it lacks in height (mine usually stay around 2 feet), it makes up for in spread. In my beds, its reach seems limited only by how far I’m willing to let it creep, but its spread is described as being between 1-3 feet.
It’s called Aromatic Aster because of the spicy sweet fragrance of the leaves, reminding me of the old-fashioned chrysanthemums of childhood gardens. Not only do the leaves smell wonderful when crushed, the oils in the leaves also protect the plants from deer predation.
Honeybees and other pollinators love this late bloomer too, making the spicy blue mound hum from dawn to dusk. I like to sit on my front deck on cool autumn afternoons listening to the soothing song of bees and inhaling the sweet spicy fragrance released by the lingering heat of the setting sun.
But that won’t happen today. Today I am snug inside my house as soft rains usher in the new season, quieting birds and bees, signaling a transition from summer’s frenzied pace to winter’s colder contemplations.
Happy Autumnal Equinox, everyone.
NOTE: If you arrived here via a link from a site run by The Garden Seeds, know that I had never heard of them until they linked to this article without my permission. Because they sell seeds, the link to my site makes it appear as if I’m endorsing them as a seed source. I AM NOT ENDORSING THEM. I DON’T KNOW THEM. But, apparently, I can’t stop them from misappropriating my words (they include a huge quote). Sometimes the Blogosphere shows its seedy underbelly, and today is one of those days for me.
We now return you to our regular blog entry:
I’ve been meaning to write about marigolds all growing season. Marigold varieties derive from two main species: Tagetes patula is the so-called French marigold species. These are the smaller, very spicily fragrant flowers often used as edging plants in borders. The so-called African marigolds are Tagetes erecta. These marigolds grow much taller, aren’t nearly as fragrant, and look more like chrysanthemums than marigolds to my eye. I put “so-called” in front of both common names, because these flowers didn’t originate in either France or Africa. Their natal origin is Central America, where they were discovered by Portuguese explorers in the 16th century.
I love French marigolds, and I’m especially a fan of the “Queen Sophia” variety. I think the complex mix of deep orange and gold epitomizes all that a marigold should be. Combine that with non-stop blooms from spring to hard frost, and you’ve got yourself a winning marigold.
In this gardener’s opinion, every vegetable garden should be full of French marigolds. The spicy fragrance apparently extends to emanations from the roots. Horticulturalists have noted that when Tagetes is grown in beds first, then tilled under, tomatoes planted in the same beds have fewer infestations of root-knot nematodes. Marigolds repel the bad guys and attract the good guys.
I always plant marigolds at the bases of my tomato plants. They may repel nasty soil inhabitants, and they definitely bring in pollinators. This time of year, my Queen Sophia flowers are usually occupied by slumbering carpenter bees every cool morning. They are nearing the end of their life cycles, and I imagine they find it harder to find reasons to leave their fragrant orange-gold beds as autumn creeps close.
I start my marigold seeds in my greenhouse, because I’ve found that small seedlings are a favorite food of slugs in my garden in early spring. As soon as my plants have some heft to them, the slugs don’t seem to bother them. My propagation chamber with the heating mat is usually full in spring, but the marigolds don’t require bottom heat to germinate. I just pop the seeds into moistened potting soil, set them on the greenhouse bench, and in just a few days, the seedlings appear.
They go out into the garden when I set out the tomatoes — usually late April. By September, the petite plants are petite no longer, instead morphing into bushes with woody stems that tend to bend with the weight of the foliage and flowers. Here’s a typical example; I took this photo yesterday:
To encourage continuous blooming, snap off the spent flowers; you’ll release the spicy fragrance into the air — instant aroma therapy! I usually toss the spent flowers on the dirt beside the plant. Right now, I’ve got quite a few new marigold seedlings popping up near the mother plants. The first freeze will kill them.
While the marigolds continue merrily along, the vegetables are most definitely winding down. But I’m still picking produce every other day. Today’s haul: 63 Sweet Treats cherry tomatoes (These plants have been nothing short of awesome this year.), 5 Viva Italia tomatoes (No more reliable paste tomato exists.), 2 Purple Russians (The surprise of the season — an heirloom that didn’t succumb to the summer.), 3 small slicers (These have fallen victim to greedy squirrels; I’m not finding many ripe ones that aren’t half-eaten.), 1 Carmen Italian pepper (Still many more coming along.), 2 Apple peppers (Still a few of these coming too.), a handful of Fortex pole beans (These are finally giving up the ghost after a spectacular season).
And the biggest surprise of September: another Diva cucumber. Usually my cucumbers expire by late July. To still be harvesting tasty green cucumber beauties is astonishing to this gardener. I suspect that the heat and drought may have reduced the number of fungal diseases that usually kill my cukes. I was able to give them just enough water to keep them going through the worst of the heat wave. And now that the weather is cooling, they have responded with a new flush of flowers and fruits. Diva, my friends — it’s the cuke you want for your Piedmont home garden, I am here to testify!
I’ve spent the last several days yanking out the weedy interlopers from my dormant veggie beds. Two days ago, I sowed crimson clover, which I always start this time of year. This is a so-called “green manure,” which means it adds nutrients to the soil when this annual dies back in the spring. It also serves to protect my soil through the winter, encouraging the activity of earthworms, preventing crusting of the top layer of the soil, and increasing overall soil health. I wouldn’t think of growing a veggie garden without this winter cover crop. I watered it in, and today I noticed that little roots are already poking out of the swelling seeds. Predicted rains over the next few days should encourage those roots to burrow deeply, producing enthusiastic seedlings to crowd out weeds and nurture my beds through the winter.
I’ll close this miscellaneous post with a quick reminder to those gardeners lucky enough to be gardening within driving distance of Chapel Hill, NC: Don’t forget the NC Botanical Garden’s fall plant sale this weekend. You won’t find a better selection of native plants from woodies to wildflowers. And the money goes to keep this special place going. Ya’ll come out and buy some green goodies!
Seven-Son Flower (Heptacodium miconioides) is a native small tree of China. From what I read today, it is rare in China, and actually more common in the United States, thanks to a horticulture industry with an eye for gorgeous plants.
The common name derives from the number of white flowers in a cluster (panicle), namely seven. These pure white flowers are small individually, but visually impressive in their clusters, and even more impressive in their fragrance. The sweet perfume of this tree in bloom dominates the humid air common to August mornings in my garden.
But the white flowers that bloom from August through mid-September are only part of the story of this small tree. After the flowers finish, the pink-to-mauve sepals elongate to produce a prolonged show of their own. You can just see them beginning to extend themselves in the photo above, which was taken in early August. Here’s what they looked like during the first week of September:
The sepals are actually showier than the white flowers — but without the fragrance. I’m not the only one who thinks the pink clusters look like flowers. The hummingbirds still lingering in my garden test these clusters regularly, convinced that any plant this red should hold tasty nectar. They may find a bit. As you can see, a few white flowers are still mixing in with the sepal display.
Heptacodiums are predicted to attain a height of no more than 25 feet in the United States. Mine is about fifteen feet tall, and has been growing for about ten years now. It is perfect for the small-scale landscapes common to houses with minimal yards. I planted mine beside my purple-leaved Loropetalums along my front walk, where it receives much admiration from visitors.
The sepals last until hard frost, which in my area is usually late October to early November. That’s what I call a winning landscape plant. But wait — there’s more!
I haven’t told you about my favorite part of this tree — its exfoliating bark. I am a sucker for landscape trees with peeling bark. I have quite a collection of different species that display about every permutation of color and peel characteristics that you might imagine.
The references I consulted describe the exfoliating bark as gray-brown. That is not how I’d describe the bark on my tree. The exfoliating bark on my Heptacodium is nearly white. It practically glows in the shadows cast by the Loropetalums. Winter is when you get the full effect of this gorgeous bark. That’s my tree on the right side of this photo that features the blooms of one of the Loropetalums that I wrote about last April. I guess I’d call the color of the bark grayish-white.
Whatever color you call it, I think you’ll agree is is eye-catching. The bright green leaves do not turn beautifully in the fall, but I don’t mind, because the mauve sepals persist through most of our fall color season anyway. I call any plant that provides so much visual interest and fragrance a sure-fire landscape winner. If you try one in your yard, I think you’ll agree.
Have you noticed that it’s dark in the morning again? And that faint chill in the pre-dawn morning air — have you inhaled its promise of autumn days to come? I sure have. Thoughts of autumn mean one thing to this obsessed gardener: fall planting!
It is my opinion that even the smallest landscapes always have room for a new plant or two. It’s a matter of researching your best options (right plant for right place), and you must be willing, on occasion, to do a little landscape editing.
Take a step back and cast an objective eye on your home landscape. Have you been pruning your forsythias into globe-shaped submission because they otherwise take up too much room? Are your evergreen azaleas plagued by insect and deer predation? Consider a radical fix. Yank out those old and difficult plants, and think long and hard about what plants you choose to replace them.
Most plants native to the southeastern United States (and especially the Piedmont region) will likely adapt more easily to your Piedmont planting spot. Native options abound, including many cultivars developed by horticulturalists. You’ll find you have more than enough choices among native plant offerings.
Not sure where to find native plants for sale at reasonable prices? I have the solution. Try the Fall Plant Sale at the NC Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, NC. Members get first crack at the goodies on Friday, Sept. 23 from 5-7 p.m. The general public is invited on Saturday, Sept. 24 from 9:00 a.m. to noon. Sales support the NC Botanical Garden, and if you don’t know that great organization, go visit their Web site to learn why they are an essential resource to native plant lovers of the southeastern United States.
As for that flowering plant at the top of this entry, that’s a Green-Head Coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata), also called a Cutleaf Coneflower, because it has pretty dissected leaves. Although it’s called a coneflower, it’s not an Echinacea, like the Purple Coneflower I wrote about here. This flower is in the genus Rudbeckia, the same genus that gives us Black-Eyed Susans. However, Green-Head Coneflowers add much more drama to the landscape than Black-Eyed Susans.
Green-Head Coneflowers can grow as tall as 12 feet in shadier locations. And they tolerate shade very well. However, as you can see from the photo above, if you don’t stake them, they will fall over. I like this look. It keeps the flowers closer to where I can see them — and who has time for staking flowers anyway? This native likes a bit of moisture to be happiest, and it spreads via underground stems, so plant it where it can stretch out and dominate a corner of your landscape. They’re called coneflowers, because the green centers in the flowers elongate as the seeds mature, producing brownish bumps full of seeds that native birds delight in devouring.
I grew my Green-Head Coneflowers from seed that I received as a benefit of my membership in the NC Botanical Garden. The Fall Plant Sale may include some Green-Head Coneflower plants for sale; I can’t promise, because you never know what goodies will be offered. But it’s certainly a possibility.
If you don’t live close enough to take advantage of the NC Botanical Garden’s fall plant sale, look around your area. Most public gardens and local nurseries offer great sales this time of year. It’s a great way for them to reduce their inventory, and for you to acquire some choice specimens for your landscape — just in time for their optimal planting season.
So go forth, find some gems, and settle them into your garden before winter comes knocking. Next spring, you’ll be glad you did.
Pecans — quintessential southern nuts (I’m talking plants, not people here, folks) — were not growing on our five acres when we moved here 21+ years ago. Pecan trees (Carya illinoinensis) aren’t native to North Carolina — or the southeastern Piedmont, for that matter. They are natives of the Mississippi River valley and parts of Texas, preferring deep, rich, moist soils.
Of course, commercial growers have expanded the range of this species considerably, and you can find many groves and individual specimens growing magnificently in North Carolina, especially on our Coastal Plain, where our soils are sandier and generally more moist.
However, I have seen nice trees growing in nearby towns, and when I realized our sandy loam soils would be suitable, of course, I had to add a couple of trees to our yard. Twenty years ago, we planted two different cultivars to ensure good pollination; the male and female flowers on pecans open at different times, so you need at least two trees with compatible overlapping flowering times to ensure good fruit production. I don’t remember the names of the cultivars we planted, but I do remember they were recommended for my area. (I really should write such things down in a more organized fashion.)
Our two trees reside near the top of our hill beside the vegetable garden. My research tells me I live near the northern edge of the range for pecans. Late frosts can wipe out the flowers and prevent fruit production. But by planting at the top of my hill on the southern side of the yard, I provided my pecans with a bit of protection from late spring cold air pockets, and some nearby tall Red Cedars further shelter the pecans from cold winds.
The trees are now about 40 feet tall, and although I thought I planted them quite far apart, the upper branches of the two trees lightly touch each other. They’ve been reliably producing good crops of nuts for about fifteen years. I know, because every year, I can see that the trees are heavily laden with expanding nuts, their green shucks (outer coverings) blending in with the long branches.
Every year I think, “This will be the year we harvest pecans!” But every year, I’m wrong. My problem: squirrels. You’d think these voracious rodents would be satisfied by the massive number of acorns that fall from my Northern Red Oaks, Black Oaks, Water Oaks, Willow Oaks, and Southern Red Oaks, not to mention the fruits of wild blackberries, elderberries, pokeweed, and dogwood that they wrestle the birds for.
But pecans must taste as good to squirrels as they do to people. The wily fuzzy-tailed rats in my yard monitor the progress of the pecan crop very closely. They always know the moment just before the shucks will open to drop their pecan nut treasures to the ground. Before the nuts can fall so I can gather them, the squirrels strip the trees of every single nut worth eating.
This year, the pecan nut crop appears to be as heavy as our massive acorn crop. And the nuts must be nearly ready, because the furry varmints are sampling a few daily to test their ripeness. Here’s a handful I found under the trees, where the squirrels left them after conducting their ripeness tests:
I keep thinking that eventually the trees will grow so large and so productive that the squirrels will eat their fill and there will still be some nuts left for me. However, I think perhaps I am underestimating the greed of these devious creatures.
Of course, that’s not their usual common name. I’m christening them Birthday Lilies today, because Wonder Spouse turned another year older (wiser, and generally more amazing) today. They do look appropriately celebratory, don’t you think?
Of course, to most southerners, these flowers are known as Hurricane Lilies. Hurricane Lilies (Lycoris radiata) have been part of southern gardens since the late 1800s, when they were imported from their native lands in Asia. Some folks call them Red Spider Lilies, and I’ve heard them called Magic Lilies or Surprise Lilies, but I prefer the name that associates them with our hurricane season (although the notion of calling them Birthday Lilies is growing on me).
The bloom stalks appear without leaves, which explains some of their names; it’s easy to forget they’re there. One early fall day, sturdy 18-24-inch bloom stalks appear, topped by fat reddish buds that open to reveal clusters of deep crimson tubular flowers with long anthers protruding out so far that some folks think the flowers resemble big red spiders.
If hurricane rains don’t beat them down, the clusters last about two weeks, signaling migrating hummingbirds to come in for a quick pitstop as they head south. When the flowers finish, strap-like shiny green leaves appear, persisting through the winter.
All parts of the plant are poisonous, especially the bulbs, which explains why the voles leave them unmolested. In severe drought years, I’ve noticed that deer will eat the flowers. That hasn’t happened this year, and I suspect the reason is my lagging weeding schedule. My enthusiastically blooming Birthday Lilies are currently showing off despite being surrounded by Sweet Gum seedlings, milkweeds, and the ever-expanding invasion of Bamboo Stilt Grass (Microstegium vimineum).
This year, about a dozen bloom stalks have appeared. Every time I think they’re done, the next rain event calls forth another surprise splash of red. I think of them as living fireworks, sent up in celebration of the quenching of our drought — and in celebration of Wonder Spouse’s birthday!