Posts Tagged fall planting

Planting Family Trees

Southern Red Oak (Quercus falcata)

Top of Southern Red Oak (Quercus falcata)

I love trees. All sizes, colors, species — as long as they’re natives or well-behaved non-natives. No invasive exotic species, please!

Loblolly pine

Loblolly pine

We’ve all appreciated the welcome shade of a wide-reaching oak, or the Christmasy scent of pines in a cozy grove. Trees symbolize stability; their roots anchor deeply into earth; their branches reach forever skyward.

Tulip Poplar flowers humming with pollinators adorn this towering canopy specimen every spring.

Tulip Poplar flowers humming with pollinators adorn this towering canopy specimen every spring.

In the southeastern US, the best time to plant trees is mid-to-late fall through late winter. I usually try to get all my planting done before the end of February, but if March holds on to winter’s chill, I’ll pop in a few more new trees and shrubs during that month too. As long as the ground isn’t frozen, the roots of new dormant trees can grow, allowing them to develop strong anchor and feeding roots before summer’s heat stresses them.

Mature Sweet Gum -- top two-thirds

Mature Sweet Gum — top two-thirds

Planting trees — especially our native canopy species — requires vision — time-traveling vision, actually. You must visualize the magnificent specimen your tree will become long after you are gone. You plant these trees for your children, and their children. These are family trees.

A "young" White Oak

A “young” White Oak

Not only human families will appreciate your visionary plantings. Myriad species of native wildlife rely on mature/maturing canopy trees for shelter and food. In Douglas Tallamy’s book, Bringing Nature Home, he provides a table that lists these tree species and the number of lepidopteran (moths and butterflies) species that rely on these trees to feed their caterpillar stages.

Woodpecker hole in a blooming mature Red Maple.

Woodpecker hole in a blooming mature Red Maple.

Given the time-scale required for an oak or hickory, a tulip poplar or a sweet gum to reach maturity, we all need to find room in our home landscapes for at least one of these essential family trees. Here are a few examples of native canopy trees with the time it takes them to reach maturity, and the number of moth and butterfly species that Tallamy says rely on them for larval food:

  • White Oak (Quercus alba) — 300-600 years to maturity — 534 species of moths and butterflies
  • Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda) — 100-300 years to maturity — 203 species of moths and butterflies
  • Red Maple (Acer rubrum) — 130-300 years to maturity — 285 species of moths and butterflies
  • Pignut Hickory (Carya glabra) — 200-300 years to maturity — 200 species of moths and butterflies
  • American Beech (Fagus grandifolia) — 300-400 years to maturity — 126 species of moths and butterflies

Now think about all the insect-eating birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians that eat the insects that rely on these great trees. Of course, many of these creatures also live in these trees. Truly, these are family trees, and we are all members of this family.

This tree is part of a group of River Birches, all 80 feet or taller.

This tree is part of a group of River Birches, all 80 feet or taller.

I hope you’ll consider planting some new native family trees this fall.   If you can, plant them with a child to remind both of you that family trees link us through generations, reaffirming our ties to all species, reminding us that we are all lost without trees.


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Fall Planting? Consider a smaller native tree.

A mature native dogwood approaching peak autumn color.

A mature native dogwood approaching peak autumn color.

Cooler weather is trying to creep in. Soon the persistent clouds will dissipate, replaced by crisp, cooler air and sunshine that warms but doesn’t sear weeders as we attempt to prepare our flowerbeds for their winter’s sleep.

Every experienced Piedmont gardener’s fingers get itchy this time of year. We know that this is the optimal season for planting new trees, shrubs, and many perennials to give them the best chance of flourishing in our yards. With that itch in mind, I thought I’d mention five small native trees that I believe deserve a spot in many Piedmont home landscapes.

I’ve offered tips for planting trees before, but here are a few key points.

  • Our smaller native trees are small because they evolved to be understory trees. They flourish beneath the taller canopy trees such as Tulip Poplars, Oaks, and Hickories, occurring along forest edges, where they are sheltered from searing afternoon sun by the taller canopy trees, but receive some light by being on the edges of clearings. Thus, when you plant your smaller native tree, locate it where it will be shaded from searing afternoon summer sun.
  • Our smaller native trees are forest natives. They will never flourish plunked down in the middle of a suburban lawn all by themselves. If your landscape is too small to plant them beneath canopy trees, consider grouping them with native trees and shrubs that are the same size or smaller. As the group of natives matures, you can add native wildflowers beneath them to create a more diverse and beautiful landscape that will also appeal to native wildlife.
  • Don’t dig a hole barely big enough for the root ball of your new addition, add the tree, and go your merry way. Tree roots need room to travel. A small hole carved into compacted clay soil works just like a flower pot. The roots will go round and round, never escaping the confines of their prison. Such a tree never flourishes. Ideally, your new addition should be sited in a prepared bed that you’ve tilled deeply and improved with compost or other organic materials.
  • Be sure the root ball isn’t below the surface of the surrounding soil. Tree roots need to breathe. If you bury them too deeply, the tree will never flourish. Mulch your new tree with an inch or two of an organic material such as wood chips or leaves. Pine needles are not a good choice.
  • Water your new tree during dry spells throughout the following year, even in winter, if precipitation doesn’t fall. Aim for an inch per week for that first year. Once your native is well-established, it will need less attention.
  • Don’t fertilize your new tree. Even organic fertilizers are too much for the traumatized root systems of new arrivals. Well-prepared soil, mulch, and adequate water are all they need.
  • Don’t spray herbicides near your tree. If the spray drifts onto even the bark of your new addition, your tree can be damaged.

Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida)

A Piedmont spring staple

A Piedmont spring staple

Flowering dogwood is native to all of the southeastern US, from the coast to the mountains, including the Piedmont region where I live. It is a magnificent four-season beauty. Spring, of course, covers the trees in a white cloud of long-lasting blooms. Summer brings bright green leaves, a spot of shade, and developing clusters of berries. Fall ripens those berries to red and colors the leaves in shades of maroon and crimson. Winter shows off the blocky fissured bark and the lateral arrangement of its branches, which snow accentuates in winter landscapes.

Many beautiful cultivars of this tree have been developed by horticulturalists. All local nurseries will be well-stocked with myriad choices this time of year. For the best selection, consider buying from a speciality nursery rather than a Big Box Store’s abused-plant holding area. Any difference in price will be well worth your investment, I promise.

Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis)

Flowers of Redbud signal spring's arrival.

Flowers of Redbud signal spring’s arrival.

Yes, I know the blooms are not red. This confuses all non-Southeasterners when they hear natives talking about our spring Eastern Redbud flowers. I do not know how they got this name. I do know the light purple-pink flowers cover most branches in early spring, a few weeks before the Flowering Dogwoods reach peak bloom. During a rare cool spring, we often get lucky enough to see prolonged Eastern Redbud bloom — long enough to overlap with snowy Flowering Dogwood flowers. So lovely!

Eastern Redbud is another four-season beauty. After its pea-like flowers (a member of the legume plant family) fade, bean-like seed pods develop, maturing from green to dark brown as summer morphs into fall. Distinctive heart-shaped leaves make this an easy tree to identify. They turn a soft gold before dropping with the first cold winds of autumn. Twigs grow in a unique zigzag pattern that is especially noticeable when coated in snow. Horticulturalists have been busy with this species too. I’m especially fond of C. canadensis ‘Forest Pansy.’

Sourwood (Oxydendron arboreum)

Sourwood flowers are beloved by bees.

Sourwood flowers are beloved by bees.

In the Appalachian mountains, Sourwoods are often 50 feet tall. They seem to prosper there, and that is where beekeepers put their hives when they want to create sourwood honey. Here in the Piedmont, Sourwoods are typically smaller, usually not more than 30 feet tall. In our native forests, they often take on contorted shapes as their trunks bend toward holes in the canopy where they can receive sunlight. But they will grow straight, tall, and lovely if you simply site yours where it is sheltered from hot summer sun, but receives good morning sunlight.

Clusters of bell-like pure white flowers adorn the tips of branches in June and July, making this native a great way to extend the blooming period of trees in your landscape. Fall leaf color, which begins earlier for this native than most, is drop-dead gorgeous deep scarlet. Its distinctive deeply furrowed bark, plus its tendency to hold on to the dried seed head clusters until spring, make this native another potential winter interest focal point in your landscape. Taste a green leaf in early summer. They have a wonderful sour tang to them, which I imagine is the source of their common name.

Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia)

One of the first red-flowering natives to bloom in spring.

One of the first red-flowering natives to bloom in spring.

The three trees previously described are all happier growing on upland slopes, but this native occurs naturally in moist forests, often near floodplains. If you’ve got a low area in your yard that tends to remain moist, Red Buckeye is worth considering. By early April, this beauty begins opening its clusters of scarlet flowers, just in time for the arrival of native Ruby-throated Hummingbirds. The flowers occur on the ends of branches, so even as the decorative compound leaves unfurl, the flowers remain visible. Most years in my yard, blooming lasts about a month.  Its distinctive fruits — most of us think of them as nuts, although botanically they are considered to be capsules — hang in clusters as fall approaches. Eventually, they crack open to reveal distinctive buckeye fruits. The “nuts” are considered to be good luck charms by some, but they are poisonous. If you have little ones inclined to pick up and taste what they find, this tree is probably not your best option.

The outer husks crack open and drop the buckeyes to the ground.

The outer husks crack open and drop the buckeyes to the ground.

Ashe Magnolia (Magnolia ashei)

Ashe Magnolia flower bud and leaves

Ashe Magnolia flower bud and leaves

For gardeners who crave a bit of drama in their native landscapes, I recommend Ashe Magnolia. Sited correctly, this native beauty will flourish, and it is guaranteed to draw admiration from all visitors. This plant is native to cool, moist shady slopes of the western Piedmont and eastern mountains. Some botanists consider it to be a subspecies of Bigleaf Magnolia (M. macrophylla), because the leaf size and shape and the flowers are quite similar. But Bigleaf Magnolia is a vastly taller tree. Ashe Magnolia remains much smaller. Its growth habit is almost shrub-like, with a tendency for low-branching limbs, often a bit lop-sided.

So lovely

So lovely

But what it lacks in graceful branching structure, it more than makes up for with its fragrant, enormous flowers and equally large leaves. Those leaves give an almost tropical appearance to this tree’s corner of the landscape, and they turn a beautiful golden yellow before dropping to carpet the ground. This species also blooms when its young. Mine produced its first flowers only two years after I planted a tiny twig of a bare-rooted specimen that I purchased.

If you want to try this native, you’ll need a shady, moist spot with rich organic soil. Pick a low spot in your yard and improve the soil by creating a tilled bed full of compost. Be sure the spot receives little to no afternoon summer sun, but does receive good morning light. If you can do this, your rewards will be spectacular flowers and leaves unlike any other native in your landscape. I unabashedly adore Ashe Magnolia.

Get planting!

Soon I’ll offer some suggestions for native shrubs you should consider adding to your landscape this fall. Until then, take a walk around your yard with an eye to where you can tuck in some well-adapted natives to enhance your landscape. Then visit the local fall plant sales that abound at the many public gardens and nurseries in our region. I am confident that you’ll never regret going native.

Native dogwoods provide fruits beloved by many species of wildlife.

Native dogwoods provide fruits beloved by many species of wildlife.

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September means bugs and plant sales

A Firefly enjoys one of the abundant yellow composite wildflowers blooming in our yard.

A Firefly enjoys one of the abundant yellow composite wildflowers blooming in our yard.

This past weekend, I was able to persuade Wonder Spouse, Ace Photographer, to join me in a walk around the yard. He took just over 200 pictures, and he’s still post-processing most of them. But he released a few finished shots to me now, so that I could show them off.

As the leaves begin to color up and tumble from the trees, the insects and spiders in our yard seem to accelerate their activities. Flowers buzz audibly as the diversity of busy pollinators gather as much pollen as they can before winter stops them cold.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the spiders seem to get especially busy now. Orb weavers in particular erect massive webs between trees big enough, I imagine, to snag small birds. Not that I’ve ever seen a bird trapped in a web, but I do wonder sometimes.

The Writing Spider I showed you before now has a name — Big Girl — BG to her friends. She has grown enormous feasting on butterflies. Their discarded wings litter the ground beneath her sizable web. Last week, I watched the tiny male move his mini-web ever closer to the object of his fancy. I think he must have succeeded in his quest, because now he’s gone, and BG is distinctly fatter — full of fertilized eggs, I imagine.

Wonder Spouse took such amazing photos of BG that I must show you all three views:

Her back side

Her back side

A side view that shows her sucking the last juicy bits from her latest victim.

A side view that shows her sucking the last juicy bits from her latest victim.

Her underside. Note the distinctive patterning of her body.

Her underside. Note the distinctive patterns on her body.

We are fortunate in the southeastern Piedmont to have a wealth of autumn-blooming wildflowers. And this year’s uncharacteristically generous rainfall is making for especially widespread and colorful displays. Our floodplain is full of the red spires of Cardinal Flowers, numerous yellow composites, goldenrods, Monkey Flowers, and Blue Mistflowers. Wonder Spouse’s shots of the Monkey Flowers are still being processed, but here are a few photos to give you an idea.

My Green-headed Coneflowers have gone nuts this year. If you’ve got room for a 4-5-foot tall wildflower in your landscape, I highly recommend this one.

Green-headed Coneflowers bloom for almost two months in my yard.

Green-headed Coneflowers bloom for almost two months in my yard.

And those Blue Mistflowers I mentioned are just getting gorgeous.

A profile shot to give you a sense of how it looks in the landscape.

A profile shot to give you a sense of how it looks in the landscape.

A top view to show its popularity with insects.

A top view to show its popularity with insects. Click on the photo to enlarge it for a better view.

As the humidity levels begin to drop and the mornings grow cool and filled with cricket song, my mind turns to fall planting season. In my region, fall is the best time to plant most perennials and all woody trees and shrubs. Our usually prolonged falls give new plants plenty of time to focus on root growth before the ground freezes — if it ever freezes at all.

Most years, our Septembers are still hot and very dry, so I’ve tended to wait until October to plant new additions. However, this year, the ground has remained blessedly moist all season, and the heat has remained astonishingly bearable — no 100-degree temperatures at all (knock wood).

Thus, I feel comfortable encouraging my Piedmont readers to go ahead and start getting serious about fall planting. Local plant nurseries will all be advertising sales soon, but there’s one sale North Carolina Piedmont gardeners should be sure to put on their calendars now: The NC Botanical Garden’s Annual Fall Plant Sale. Members get first pick from 5:00-7:00 p.m. on Friday, September 27. The general public is welcome the next day, Saturday, September 28 from 9:00 a.m. to noon.

Bring your own trays or boxes to carry home your purchases, and if you’re like me, only bring as much money as you can afford to spend. The wide array of vigorous native flowers, trees, and shrubs is more than most avid gardeners can resist.

I am a firm believer that there’s always room for more special plants in a landscape. Now is the time to survey your yard for spots crying out for color or shade or scent — or all three! Go forth, survey your yard. Then acquire the new plants that will help you realize your dream landscape.

These yellow sunflower-family members have a faint sweet scent that seems to draw  a diverse array of pollinators.

Sweet dreams, avid gardeners!

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A Great Time to Go Native: Fall Plant Sale at the NC Botanical Garden

You can never go wrong with Purple Coneflowers.

Those of us living in the southeastern United States hear the refrain every year: fall is for planting. Truer words were never uttered. In our hot, humid, often droughty summers, plants do well to survive at all. Spring planting of new trees, shrubs, and perennials is a huge gamble, even if you water during droughts. Spring-planted plants just don’t have big enough root systems to withstand all that our summers often throw at them.

Swamp Milkweed is a food plant for Monarch caterpillars and a nectar source for many butterfly species, including this Spicebush Swallowtail.

However, as the cooler, usually wetter weather of autumn arrives, new plants can focus on root growth while soils are still warm but not desert dry. Native deciduous trees, shrubs, and perennials do especially well at establishing themselves when fall-planted, because they can devote all their energy to root growth after leaf fall.

Mid-summer blooms of Buttonbush lighten shady moist spots in your landscape, and provide nectar for pollinators, and seeds for wood ducks.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a better selection of native trees, shrubs, and perennials than you will find at the NC Botanical Garden’s annual Fall Plant Sale. Members get first crack at the goodies on Friday, Sept. 14 from 5:00-7:00 p.m. — and a 10% discount! If you’re not a member, you can join that evening and use your discount immediately. The public gets their chance at the plants the next day, Saturday, Sept. 15, from 9:00 a.m. to noon. Bring your own flats or boxes to use to carry your purchases home.

Umbrella Magnolia offers gorgeous flowers, dramatic leaves that turn tobacco gold in fall, and these scarlet seed cones before the leaves turn — a native showstopper!

Why go native? If you’re a reader of this blog, you’ve read my reasons more than once. To summarize:

  • Native plants are adapted to our region, so they are better able to withstand our droughts, wet spells, heat waves, and occasional ice storms.
  • Native plants are food sources for native wildlife. As urbanization continues to eradicate our region’s native forests and fields, planted natives in home landscapes, parks, etc. help to keep our native wildlife alive.
  • Native wildflowers especially are key to maintaining our native pollinators. Now that honeybees (not native) are under attack by diseases and other issues, native pollinators are becoming increasingly critical to farmers who need their crops pollinated. Nobody eats if the food crops don’t get pollinated.
  • Native plants in our landscapes remind us of where we are, affirming our sense of place. Certain trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and ferns evolved here; they belong here, as do the insects, reptiles, mammals, and birds that evolved along with their native food sources.

The berries of this native Viburnum are devoured by birds as soon as they ripen in mid-summer.

We are all in this together, whether we realize it or not. Going native is your easiest gardening choice, and it’s your wisest. This fall, please consider adding some native plants to your landscape.

And if you live anywhere near Chapel Hill, North Carolina, plan to visit the NC Botanical Garden’s Fall Plant Sale. All proceeds support this wonderful public garden, so every purchase is a win for all who love the natives of this region.

Our native deciduous azaleas are usually overlooked by deer, and offer bloom colors that the evergreen non-natives cannot match.

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New Additions

Hamamelis x intermedia 'Aurora'

First, apologies to my handful of loyal readers who have been looking for a new post from me. My excuse is the fantastic mild fall weather my part of the southeastern Piedmont has been enjoying. Any self-respecting, self-professed obsessive gardener who does not get herself working outside on days like my region has been experiencing does not merit the aforementioned description.

I haven’t even started leaf redistribution yet, because the oaks in my yard are only just now starting to discard their recently yellowed leaves. No sense in raking twice, if you ask me. But that doesn’t stop other garden clean-up chores, and when you tend five acres of green chaos, there’s always something to do.

I intended to post updates at night. But after a hard day of yard work, my middle-aged body lacks enthusiasm for any effort beyond softly moaning on the couch with a heating pad. As the saying goes, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, right?

As you know, fall is for planting in my region. Dormant plants focus on root growth, and our cooling temperatures allow new transplants to avoid heat stress. Water consumption drops, so even if rains don’t come, the water manually added doesn’t instantly disappear, allowing the roots of new plants to settle in and expand, thereby creating plants better able to withstand next summer’s heat and dry spells.

The plant in the photo above is one of my new additions. All my new arrivals were planted inside my deer-fenced north slope. After seeing the enthusiasm of plants not enclosed by wire cages, I’m having a hard time bringing myself to plant anything new outside on of our protected zones. Until I was able to remove the wire cages from the deciduous azaleas I had planted on our north slope, I didn’t realize that the presence of the cages was inhibiting the vegetative growth of the shrubs.

Although some plants will grow right through a wire cage (and get nibbled by deer), the azaleas just stopped growing  when their branches touched the edges of their wire enclosures. I know this to be true, because the first year after we enclosed them within deer fencing and freed them from their cages, every single azalea at least doubled in size.

Because I can’t predict which plants will be inhibited by wire enclosures, it seems prudent to plant all new additions within deer-fence-protected sections of my yard. So this summer, I wandered around my enclosed north slope and pondered possible spots for additions. Then I narrowed down my choices. I knew I wanted a Witchazel. I’ve always loved their late fall/early winter strappy flowers. The hard part was deciding on which cultivar to choose.

I settled on Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Aurora’ because its flowers are supposed to be extra large, showy, and fragrant — yellow with a red tinge at the bases of the flowers. The hybrid vigor of this beauty was evident as soon as I opened the box. Stocky, strong stems are well-branched, and the fall color on the still-attached leaves promised future spectacular autumn shows as the shrub nears its predicted maximum size of ten feet tall and wide. I planted it at the bottom of the hill, where it will receive the extra water it needs to flourish. I even saw a few flower buds, so I’ll be able to see the flowers for myself in a few months.

As I believe I’ve mentioned, I love exfoliating (peeling) bark on trees, and I’m always looking for new specimens with that trait to add to my collection. Cinnamon Bark Clethra (Clethra acuminata) has been on my list to acquire for some time. In fact, I tried it once about 15 years ago, but the deer got it when I foolishly removed its protective cage too soon. I gave it an ideal location on my shaded, moist slope, so I hope it will soon reach its predicted size of 8 feet tall and 5 feet wide. Its long white clusters of flowers (called racemes) will appear in July, and should add a touch of light to its shady site. I didn’t get a great shot of this new addition, but you can at least appreciate the soft yellow fall color of the leaves:

Clethra acuminata

The last new woody addition is a species of dogwood that I’ve been coveting for many years. Corneliancherry Dogwood (Cornus mas) is native to more northern regions of the eastern US, which is why I haven’t tried it before now.  But I’ve always been intrigued by it, because it produces small bright yellow flowers in late winter, and its ripe red olive-shaped fruits are reputed to be highly desirable to birds and other wildlife.  My research led me to a cultivar developed at the JC Raulston Arboretum in my home state of North Carolina. This cultivar — Spring Glow — reputedly can generate blooms without the prolonged cold period required by the species. That’s key in my part of the Piedmont, where winter temperatures rarely stay below 45 degrees for more than a few days at a time.

It took me a while to locate this cultivar at a mail-order nursery I trusted, but I succeeded, and I look forward to pops of bright yellow flowers during the winter months. This small tree should also produce striped barked that will enhance its winter appeal even further. If I can keep it happy, Cornus mas ‘Spring Glow’ should grow to a height of 25 feet, and a width of 12 feet. Here’s a shot of my newly transplanted specimen:

Corneliancherry Dogwood 'Spring Glow'

See the label to the right of the plant? For new arrivals, I add a permanent metal marker on which I write the name and cultivar on the front, and the source and planting date on the back. If the label from the nursery allows, I usually attach it to the metal label, just to make it easier to see the metal label, which can get buried during heavy leaf falls from surrounding canopy trees.

I tried keeping notebooks about plants in my yard, but I never kept them current. To avoid forgetting the names of the zillions of plants we’ve added to our five acres over the last 21 years, the permanent marker system has been the best solution for us.

Since I planted these beauties in late October, my yard has received a total of about 3.5 inches of wonderful rain. This unexpected blessing  could not have been better timed for the new arrivals. My area is still in a moderate drought, but the rains have provided a temporary respite from what could have been a very dry autumn.

Here’s hoping the rains keep finding my yard. But until they do, I’ve got plenty more work out there!

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