October's Garden GrandeurBy Donna Trieger (DTrieger)
October 14, 2013
Happily, fall is not without color and beauty, as the leaves of trees, shrubs, and perennials transition to the seasons' striking shades of red, yellow, burgundy and orange.
Some of the best autumn foliage I've ever seen was in Eastern Pennsylvania's Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. With spectacular views along the hiking trails at all elevations, one summit in particular is breathtaking. High above the dense canopy, one looks down to see a blanket of treetops, ablaze with the full spectrum of autumn colors, peaking around mid-October. It is also a major migratory route of Golden and Bald Eagles, hawks, and other birds of prey rarely seen in the backyard. Enthusiastic birders gather for up close and personal encounters with raptors and other migrating birds, and excitedly call out their sightings to each other.
Our summer gardens are all about showy blooms and greenery. Fall is when the colorful and structural elements of leaves and branches come into their own.
It's a great time of year to plant some choice shrubs and trees in your yard to bring home autumn's magical display as well as year-round attraction. Fall planting allows them to establish strong root systems as they settle in for the winter, rather than putting energy into new growth. Fallen leaves of many trees make a good mulch, too, and are a great addition to the compost pile. Shredding them with a lawn mower first helps them decompose faster.
Once bare, the form of a tree's trunk and its sculptural branches are exposed, their unadorned beauty outlined against the sky. Intriguing textures, too, are revealed in the bark of many trees.
Of the many choices that provide fall, winter, and year-round appeal, the Birch tree is a unique standout in any season. Birches can reach heights of anywhere from 40 to 100 feet, depending on the variety. Planted singly or in groups, usually of three, their bright white trunks and graceful, upward-growing, pyramidal branches glow against toothed, green summer leaves, and illuminate the darker days of fall and winter long after the leaves, which turn yellow in the fall, are gone. Dainty catkins dangle from the branches throughout the winter, and patches of bark peel like sheets of parchment paper all year long, revealing the creamy new bark underneath. You can see what a fine little canoe the bark would make, too.
Evergreens in shrub and tree forms such as cypress, cedar, fir, hemlock, juniper, and pine, to name a few, are beautiful as a backdrop for fall perennials and smaller shrubs. Some boast decorative berries or cones to help songbirds through the winter. Evergreens maintain the year-round brilliant color for which Western Oregon is known. Indeed, the town nearest me, Eugene, Oregon, is aptly nicknamed "The Emerald City."
When planted alongside the house, in groups or hedges, evergreens also provide a windbreak that can help cut down on heating costs in winter. Their boughs make for great seasonal decorating, too, and the seeds of conifers provide food for birds and squirrels.
Many lovely deciduous trees and shrubs remain stunning through winter as well, some with colorful branches and berries to show off. Winter-hardy red- and yellow-twig dogwoods and willows, as the names imply, shine brightly in the absence of their leaves. Set off against a background of deep-green grass in mild winter climates, or against colder winters' blanket of snow, they're a most welcome spot of color in an otherwise monochromatic landscape.
The Washington Hawthorn tree has an aesthetic appeal and wildlife value all year long. Clusters of white flowers in spring turn to yellow, then bright red berries, called haws, in late summer. Narrow, toothed leaves turn reddish in the fall. I have mixed feelings about this tree. With incredibly long thorns on its wide, branching limbs, it's hard to prune and mow around individual specimens, but great for making an impenetrable hedge. This fall, once they've lost their leaves, I'll prune off the lower limbs on mine to get the head room needed for mowing. Hawthorn's primary benefit is that bees love the flowers, birds flock to its berries, and some find safety from predators in its boughs.
One of my very favorite shrubs is Daphne odora, also called Winter Daphne. A number of varieties are available; some evergreen, some deciduous. Mine are of the 'Marginata' variety, with deciduous, waxy green leaves edged with creamy white. Petite clusters of pink, heavenly-scented flowers bloom in early to mid winter. I have several daphnes in large containers by my front door, where I can always enjoy their enchanting form, flowers, and fragrance. You can cut flower clusters when they are in bud to put in water inside, where they will open and fill the house with their perfume.
One example of a flowering, woody perennial is Russian Sage. All summer and into the fall, small clusters of airy, lavender flowers grow along upright, branching, powdery-gray stems and leaves. As old, tiny flower petals drop off, they carpet the ground below them in light purple. New growth comes up from the base of this little shrub, as well as from side shoots that can grow into new plants.
Once they finish flowering, cut the stalks down close to the ground.
A variety of vegetables planted now also provide fall color, as well as food. Swiss Chard Bright Lights is an especially bold, lively, and edible choice. Deep green, crinkly leaves with neon orange, red, or yellow stalks and veins light up the fall garden. Collectively known as "greens", kale, collard, spinach, and mustard greens may be used interchangeably in many recipes, for a delicious and vitamin-packed side dish.
With color and food for you and for wildlife, color for the yard and the table, October has a beauty and freshness all its own. Enjoy!
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