Thursday, December 19, 2013

Musings from the Fall Garden: Californian Reflects Role as NC Gardener

By Barbara Goodman
Durham Co. Master Gardener

As our decorative chrysanthemums fade and seasonal pansy plantings begin to take hold, what brings enduring beauty to our fall landscape? Autumn leaf colors, to be sure, but these are now falling and opening up the canopy to more sun. I continue to be surprised each fall when I turn to see the bright white blooms of Camellia sasanqua ‘Setsugekka’ standing tall along my front sidewalk. It always strikes me as too cold for such a delicate beauty, but there it is! Then I glance around in the front and side yards to find buds bursting on some of my individual Camellia “finds.” Two I purchased from Duke Gardens more than 10 years ago were no more than 8” tall when I bought them. They’ve held on bravely, finally adapting to my hard clay soil and then thriving with regular application of rich organic mulch for protection. Alas, their tags are long lost, as my gardening in those early years was more about nourishing the spirit after a stressful workweek than carefully documenting my efforts.

Dwarf Camellia‘Dwarf Shi-Shi’. Photo by B. Goodman.
We added a really stellar Camellia a few years ago that has a low growing, dense habit, covered with dark rose-pink double blooms at this time of year. It is a dwarf cultivar related to the C. sasanqua ‘Shishigashira’, called ‘Dwarf Shi-Shi’ by some. It likes acidic soil, adapts to sun or shade (east facing on our wooded lot), likes moisture but we have not given them any extra water once established. We bought these in gallon size and planted in multiples, so they have filled in beautifully.

Other happy surprises as I stroll the chilly garden are the racemes atop Mahonia bealei, just beginning to show their bright yellow winter blooms. I see berries on the hollies and the Nandinas, the latter with both red (N. domestica) and cream white (N. domestica‘Alba’). And there, propped against the wooden pergola is the tough old climbing aster (Aster carolinianus) that happily tolerates my haphazard pruning efforts, rewarding me with a bevy of light lavender-pink blooms throughout each fall season.

Blooming Mahonia bealei. Photo by B. Goodman. 
Not to be forgotten are the wonderful deciduous shrubs and trees whose interesting shapes are emerging as the leaves fall. Stay tuned for a walk in the winter garden to see what surprises we find.

Gardening and the Weather

Are gardeners ever satisfied with the weather? I fear not —at least I never seem to be. I constantly view myself as a mother hen clucking over—and coddling — her chicks, which in this case consists of the plants in my garden.

With the awakening of the plants in late February and early March, I typically go into a planting frenzy. There is no need to explain to me that it is far more beneficial to do the heavy planting in the fall as I get what must be a hormonal urge to plant in the spring. Then I worry, as spring weather is fickle here. April can be very hot and very cold: I can remember when the heat hit 90° and when we had the temperature fall to 26° on April 22, far past our last frost date of April 15. Newly planted plants prefer some time to get settled in before the heat begins, and while many young perennials can handle temperatures in the 20°s, tender perennials typically will not. Nancy Goodwin once commented to me that spring can be a very cruel season—and I couldn’t agree with her more.

The summer heat takes a toll on our plants and I feel for them because there is so little respite from the heat except for possibly a refreshing rain. But we don’t typically receive refreshing rains here in the Piedmont: we either get thunderstorms that drench us for twenty minutes or we get torrents that cascade down the sewer lines. Usually we complain about not getting enough rain. Here in Chapel Hill, OWASA doubles its rates, making watering an expensive activity. However, this summer we actually received too much rain, giving me something else weather-wise to complain about. All this excess rain was especially tough, even on the roses planted in my well-draining soil.

The first half of fall tends to be my most uncomplaining part of the year when it comes to the weather. Typically we have some rain, the cooler night temperatures cause the plants—especially the roses—to relax and it’s fun working in the garden without fear of heatstroke. I planted (in a fit of dementia) twenty-two roses in September and they were happy, really happy, which in turn made me happy.

However, fall has a cloud hanging over it and it is this: when will we experience the first frost? This year it was a bit earlier than in the past and certainly a lot colder when it hit. Usually our first frost hovers in the 30°-31° area, giving our plants a chance to adapt; however this year it hit with a vengeance hitting the scale at 24° in a matter of hours. The roses had had almost seven weeks to develop their roots and were fine but my MIC citrus needs kinder, gentler treatment and had a burnt top. Now I cover it when the night temperatures fall to the mid-20°s, but I wonder what I’ll do when it becomes the size of a camellia.

November is a respite from the garden, one I badly need. Two weeks without gardening makes sense to me, but then I get an itch to garden and the weather—what else? —it refuses to cooperate. It’s cold, it’s wet, it’s dank, and it gets light later and later in the morning. I’m not a midday gardener, I’m a morning gardener. Yes, I should be flexible but I have 73 years of habit behind me. December might give me a couple of good gardening days as we can get those lovely crisp winter days with blue skies. The huge tetrapanax leaves have fallen, leaves that are too big to be raked. The chickweed is coming in with a vengeance, reminding me how many invisible seeds my soil contains. There are gardening chores to complete, and sometimes the weather will cooperate, thereby erasing what is my almost permanent grumpiness.

It is when I go out to California that I realize I am destined to complain about the weather. You see, the weather in Marin County, right outside of San Francisco, is absolutely perfect. Everyone lives outdoors. Temperatures fall in the evening so sleeping with open windows is blissful. Temperatures rise to the 80°s during the day. It is one of three places in the world that has a Mediterranean climate. However, as far as I can determine, most Californians don’t seem to garden. There are three reasons for this: Californians have a lot of public land but there is little private land so most housing plots consist of small parcels of land. Without land it is hard to garden. Then there is the matter of rain: California only gets rain in the winter so everyone has an automatic watering system. It is the only place where I have ever been that people can safely schedule outdoor weddings, knowing it won’t rain. The last reason is that lovely plants seemingly grow all by themselves in Marin. Why bother to garden when the plants do all the work?

So, I’m back looking at my acre of garden, thinking February is right around the corner. In February the plants slowly start to awaken, the temperatures rise so that it’s fun to be outside even in the morning, the sky is blue, the sun rises earlier and earlier, and I don’t have to worry about the rain—too much too little—yet. I have narrowed down my complaining about the weather: I do enjoy February and March, along with a couple of weeks in the early fall.

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