More native plants for fall color

I love autumn, and I particularly love watching it slowly unfold. And I most particularly love the colors of our native plants. Nowhere else on earth, to my knowledge, do leaves turn the brilliant scarlets and oranges our sugar maples achieve. Right now, every sugar maple seems to have one bright-colored branch, as if it’s teasing us with the beauty to come.

But even our native perennials turn gorgeous colors in fall. Following are three photos not of my garden but of a nearby garden that I designed and installed. Note the beautiful and harmonious effect of the remaining flowers with the colors of the leaves and even the seedpods. I’ve never seen milkweed seedpods turn such gorgeous colors as you’ll see in the second photo; in the third, note the contrasting reds of the penstemon and sundrops foliage.




Back to my own garden, where the delicate, silvery seeds of little bluestem grass are now a main focus:


In one perennial border, white now dominates, with little bluestem, heath aster, and white snakeroot vying for attention against a background of yellow elderberry leaves:


In another, purple asters and multicolored foliage compete with the silver grasses:


And amidst the signs of decay (which is what fall colors are), note the bright green foliage signalling lush and healthy growth next spring.


The horrors

This week’s home and gardening section of the NY Times published an excellent article on recognizing and removing invasive plants. I’m a big fan of the Times, but in general I think their garden articles lean too far toward the aren’t-the-hydrangeas-and-daylilies-pretty school of gardening rather than sustainability or gardening in harmony with nature. But this article describes the problems caused by invasive plants, and the problems involved in removing them, in a clear and practical way. If you’re unfamiliar with the problem of invasive plants, I highly recommend it as an introduction. And if you would like more information about invasives and what you can do about them, you can take a look at the website of either the New Jersey Invasives Species Strike Team or the Invasive Species Strike Force. These groups attack the problem in different ways, but both have excellent websites with extensive resources that will help you identify invasives. And both rely on volunteers to carry out this important work. Perhaps you might like to become involved.

Autumn unfolds


The edge of my mini-woodland is filled in with bountiful flowers of volunteer goldenrod (species unknown) and white snakeroot (Eupatorium rugosum). A month ago, this shady area was dominated by great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), which has now gone quietly to seed (as has the sweet joe pye weed on the right). There’s still plenty of food for pollinators and birds.


Look closely at this flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) and you’ll see lots and lots of bright-red fruit. These trees are growing in part shade, which is their preferred siting. A dogwood tree placed in full sun would be severely drought stressed now, after more than a month of low rainfall. In nature, these shallow-rooted trees always grow under the shade of canopy trees, often at the woodland edge. Dogwood berries are especially nutritious, and birds never leave them on the trees or shrubs for long. Migrating birds will stop to eat these berries within the next few days. And speaking of berries . . .


. . . back in July I showed you a picture of these cranberry bush (Viburnum trilobum) berries just as they were showing color. Compare that with the way they look now–ripe and juicy (edible to humans but very acidic). Usually birds don’t eat these berries until well into the winter, kind of as a last resort. This year they seem to be disappearing early, despite the abundance of other fruit. Maybe the cool nights have ripened them early.

I love to try to figure out the interactions of plants and animals in my garden and to watch autumn unfold.

9/19/14: In the garden this week


The nights are chilly, and many trees are showing fall color like this blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium). Each sugar and red maple seems to have one brightly colored branch, as if it’s previewing the color to come. I passed a large and brilliantly red tree today while driving; it was most likely a tupelo. Vines are showing lovely reds, oranges, and yellows as they flaunt their ripe fruit to the birds. Asters and goldenrods show no sign of slowing down.

In addition to enjoying the changing colors, here are some garden chores you might think about this weekend:

water newly installed perennials and woody plants and vegetables. The recommended amount is 1 inch per week during dry spells, and we are in a dry spell (we got a scant inch of rain earlier this week). Most established plants should not need watering, although they may be dropping their leaves a bit early. However, shallow-rooted shrubs such as members of the Ericaceae may need supplemental water: look for curled leaves.

do not prune woody plants. Many trees and shrubs have begun leaf abscission, the complicated process of shutting down for winter. Telltale signs are leaf color and leaf drop. This takes a lot of energy, so plants don’t have energy to spare for making scar tissue. The next pruning window will come when plants reach dormancy in late fall.

– tomato vines are still ripening fruit, so give them no more than 1 inch of water per week. Remember to take rainfall amounts into account when determining how much to water. Water in the morning, and water deeply. Continue to stake and tie tomato plants and to remove suckers. But get ready to harvest all the remaining fruit if the weather prediction is for frost.

plant fall crops such as lettuce, spinach, and other salad greens. Late crops of fast-growing mustards are ready to harvest. Keep sowing these.

established perennials should need no care. Leave seedheads in place–birds will eat the seeds you don’t collect.

– if you fertilize your lawn, this is the optimum time to apply a slow-release organic fertilizer. Fertilizing is quite unnecessary, but for those who choose to do it, this is the one recommended feeding. This is also a good time to reseed the bare spots in your lawn. Lawns do not need watering, even in a dry period: the more you water, the more you have to mow! Use a mulching mower and leave the clippings on the grass.

start your autumn leaf collection: because of the drought, shrubs and trees are dropping lots of leave, so collect than and save your autumn leaves for compost. Decide where you will keep them.

consider fall planting. Many perennials and woody plants can be safely installed in fall. The weather is perfect. September is a good time to plant perennials, while woody plants can be planted until the ground freezes.

Enjoy this lovely fall weather!

Growing parsley

This is a continuation of my last post on growing basil. Like fresh basil, fresh parsley is indispensable to me. Unlike basil, good-quality parsley is available year round, but I still like to have lots of it in my garden throughout the growing season. We use it as a garnish, as a flavoring, and even as a salad green. Along with mint (which I also grow), it’s the most important herb in Middle Eastern cooking, and we do a lot of that.

Parsley is a biennial, meaning that each plant lives for two growing seasons. The first year it produces leaves and a taproot that looks like a parsnip or white carrot (which are both closely related). The second year, it grows new leaves from the taproot and then flowers and goes to seed. During that first year, the plant makes lots of tasty leaves. In the second year, the plant concentrates its energy on the flowers, so there are fewer leaves and they don’t taste as good. So although the plant is a biennial, for kitchen garden purposes, it’s best to treat it as an annual.

As with basil, I buy a flat of plants in spring. Parsley, which is winter-hardy, is available in garden centers much earlier than basil. I buy the plants as soon as I can, plant them in my vegetable plot, and start harvesting right away. At the end of the season I pull up the plants, and then I start again with new plants the following spring. If you decide to grow parsley from seed, you would start the plants in winter, set them out in spring, and continue to do the same thing every year, discarding the second-year plants unless you wanted to save one or two to collect seed. I suspect that like most tap-rooted plants, parsley plants would not do well in permanently wet soil.

Garden centers and seed companies offer both flat- and curly-leafed parsley. The flat-leaf or Italian parsley has the stronger taste and is preferred for most cooking uses (except authentic Jewish chicken soup, which demands curly parsley). Like basil and all other herbs, parsley needs full sun.

Parsley is delectable to many critters, both large and small. Therefore it’s necessary to protect the plants by growing them in a fenced vegetable garden, on an enclosed sun porch, or in a planter placed fairly high up. If you plant them in the ground without protection, they’ll be gone the next morning.

Growing basil

All herbs are easy to grow, but most taste pretty good in dried form–thyme, tarragon, rosemary, savory, oregano, marjoram are all perfectly acceptable when sprinkled from little jars. Parsley and basil taste good only fresh, so it’s worthwhile knowing how to grow them. (Come back soon for a post about growing parsley.)

Basil is extremely tender and doesn’t last more than a day after it’s picked. It’s also, to me, the most delicious and indispensable of herbs, and in summer I can never get enough of it. So here’s how I make sure I have fresh basil from late May through October.

Basil is an annual: the plants germinate, flower, and go to seed in just one growing season. It’s also a plant of warm climates, so if you want to start it from seeds, you would need to do it indoors with lights and heat. Instead, I grow it the easy way: I buy a flat of plants around mid to late May, as soon as the weather gets warm. I plant them in the ground in my plot in the community garden that I enrich with homemade compost every year. By the end of June, the plants are a foot high and showing signs of blooming, and shiny brown leaf-eating beetles are beginning to attack the leaves. That’s my signal to harvest the leaves.

I cut the plants off at the ground level, leaving only a couple of leaves on each one, and use the leaves to make a large batch of pesto. The plants regrow, and I repeatedly remove the flower shoots, because i want the plant to put its energy into making leaves, not flowers and seed. Throughout the rest of the summer, I pluck all the leaves I want for fresh tomato salads, pasta, minestrone, whatever. And I have a lovely reservoir of pesto in the freezer for winter use. By September, the plants look like this:


This plant is short and stocky; it’s certainly not beautiful, but there’s still lots of new growth to pluck and enjoy.

If I hadn’t repeatedly pinched off the flower heads, the plant would look like this:


If you’re a basil lover, which plant would you prefer to have in your garden now?